In 2004, as the insurgency was spreading across Iraq, Deborah Scranton got an offer to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard. The documentary filmmaker made an inspired counter-offer: “I called up the public affairs officer and asked if I could give cameras to the soldiers instead.” The Guard agreed to the proposal but said she would have to recruit her own participants.
Scranton hopped on a flight to meet the soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was met with skepticism. They quizzed Scranton about her politics and motivations. She promised that she would work with them to tell their story. Of 180 soldiers, ten volunteered, and five were selected and equipped with Sony miniDV cameras. Deployed with Charlie Company 3rd of the 172nd infantry at LSA Anaconda in the dangerous Sunni triangle, three of the five soldiers would eventually produce the bulk of The War Tapes, a rare war movie filmed by soldiers. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was named best documentary feature. It is currently playing in New York and will be seen on screens around the country in coming weeks.
With cameras mounted on gun turrets and dashboards, and even rigged helmet mounts for POV shots, the soldiers record the battles and the downtime in between, as Scranton recorded the drama of family life back home. They recorded more than 1,000 hours of tapes, which were edited with precision down to ninety-seven minutes by Steve James, director of the groundbreaking basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. The result is astounding: A film shot by US soldiers in Iraq and sanctioned by the military may turn out to be the most powerful statement yet against the Iraq War.
From the opening sequence, the audience is confronted with a visceral experience of battle unlike any reporting from Iraq to date. The frame in these scenes resembles something like a first-person video game–the weapon extended before us as we flinch from the sound of enemy fire and feel the vibrations of the rapid-fire weapons. But it is clear that this is no game.
The War Tapes offers a different view. Televised reports from Iraq by mainstream media–a firefight or the mop-up of an insurgent bombing–enter the scene from the outside. Often the footage has little to do with the accompanying narrative by an anchor in the studio or by a reporter on the scene. They provide the basic facts–estimates of the number of killed or injured and speculation from the usual suspects on who might be responsible–but little about the battle itself and its impact on those fighting it. Often televised scenes from Iraq have nothing to do with the topic under discussion, reducing human tragedy to B-roll for cable commentators grinding political axes.
The War Tapes radically changes the frame, drawing the audience inside the firefights, bringing them close to the car bombings and IED explosions. We are insulated voyeurs no longer–and the truth is sometimes hard to take. When a soldier describes letting a dog eat the flesh of a dead Iraqi insurgent, there is nothing to feel but revulsion, unredeemed by his explanation that he is trained to kill, not to empathize. Balancing that, when a fast-moving Humvee strikes and kills an innocent Iraqi woman, a soldier envisions his mother on the street among the crumbled cookies, and there is nothing to feel but sorrow–for her and for him.