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Do Iraq documentaries get it right?—A Commentary by Jonathan Finer ’09

The following commentary was published in The Christian Science Monitor on September 28, 2007.

Do Iraq documentaries get it right? A Baghdad correspondent assesses four recent films about the war.
By Jonathan Finer ’09 

If Vietnam was the first "television war," Iraq is the first major conflict of the personal-video age. Iraqi civilians wield cellphone cameras at the scene of car bombings. Soldiers carry camcorders on patrol (and upload the images to their blogs). Even newspaper reporters such as myself shoot clips to run alongside their stories. Together, more people have shot more hours of video footage of Iraq than of any other news event in history.

But despite this wealth of raw material, until recently, most documentaries emerging from the war fell short of capturing its complexity and drama. That's changed with four films released since last year, each of which plumbs a single aspect of the US experience in Iraq. Together, they tell a comprehensive – and infuriating – narrative of the war.

"No End in Sight"

First-time filmmaker Charles Ferguson's slickly produced video essay "No End In Sight" – the most acclaimed of this group – argues that American officials bungled the post-invasion period with a string of bad decisions. A former academic and dotcom multimillionaire, Ferguson first proposed the project years ago, but was told that someone, somewhere must be making such a movie. No one was, so he did. Through compelling characters – such as a frustrated army officer, a defiant bureaucrat, and an Iraqi reporter – Ferguson weaves explications of one mistake after another into a coherent case that reckless naiveté turned an already difficult mission into a quagmire. His best examples are widely known (like the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and to bar former Baathists from government).

But rendered together on film for the first time, the argument is persuasive and devastating.

"The War Tapes"

"The War Tapes" is the film for those frustrated by what they perceive as biased reporting on Iraq (and judging by the flooded inboxes of most Iraq correspondents, there are many).

Filmmaker Deborah Scranton was invited to "embed" with the New Hampshire National Guard during a yearlong deployment. She had a better idea: give soldiers their own cameras and have them shoot the footage themselves. Scranton, meanwhile, focused on their families back home and eventually the soldiers' return.

The result is as unvarnished as a documentary gets, taking viewers beyond the firefights and explosions (though there's plenty of that) to the barrack-room banter often muted when outsiders are around. "We're not supposed to talk to the media," one soldier says, early in the film. The answer from behind the camera: "I'm not the media."

"The Ground Truth"

"The Ground Truth" is a raw and gritty window into minds and bodies broken by combat. Soldiers are initially shown from the neck up, meaning viewers only later learn that many are missing hands and feet, bear shattered spines, or suffer psychological wounds that may never heal.

The overall impression (correct, in my view) is that the challenges facing those fighting in Iraq are almost unimaginably daunting. One recounts his split-second decision to shoot an old woman ignoring shouts to stop walking toward a checkpoint, only to learn she was reaching for a white flag. The parents of another describe with searing reserve how he hung himself at home upon his return.

One shortcoming: The film, directed by Patricia Foulkrod, depicts not a single soldier who believes in the Iraq mission. Including such views would have made it seem less like a polemic.

"Iraq for Sale"

Five years ago, few Americans had heard of the large companies whose lucrative contracts in Iraq have made them household names. Robert Greenwald's "Iraq for Sale" places them in the category Lincoln once referred to as "worse than traitors in arms," namely those that profit unjustly from war. It is a tale of no-bid contracts and torture perpetrated with impunity by private interrogators.

Heavily criticized is Blackwater USA, the security firm assigned to protect American diplomats. Among the thousands of hired guns riding roughshod over Iraqi highways, they were recently singled out for the allegedly unprovoked killing of eight civilians. In interviews, relatives of four Blackwater employees killed in 2004 accuse the firm of negligent disregard for their safety. Their families have now filed suit. Left largely unsaid, surprisingly, is that far greater numbers of Iraqis have died at the hands of such contractors and rarely have any recourse at all.

Jonathan Finer is a former Baghdad correspondent currently on leave from The Washington Post.