January 25, 2006
Garrett Scott and 'Occupation Dreamland' Take Us All To Falluja
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
The film follows Alpha Company, 2nd Platoon from the 82nd Airborne Division patrolling and securing Falluja, Iraq, in 2003 and 2004 prior to the major insurrection that cost heavy American casualties to retake the city. "Dreamland" is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
Since we can’t say enough about this film, we decided to interview one of the directors, Garrett Scott, a writer and filmmaker who was featured prominently by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the “2occupation0 new faces in film to watch" in 2002. His directorial debut, "Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story," premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. Cul de Sac"" also screened at numerous other festivals before being acquired for broadcast by the Sundance Channel in 2004, and ARTE-France in 2005. In addition to "Occupation: Dreamland," Garrett Scott is working on a documentary about city politics in San Francisco in the 1970's.
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BuzzFlash: What prompted you and your co-director Ian Olds to go to Falluja to be embedded with the 82nd Airborne to shoot a documentary about the war in Iraq?
Garrett Scott: We ended up in Falluja with the paratroopers from a string of accidents basically. We wanted to follow a squad of Army guys somewhere in Iraq, and we ended up in Falluja ultimately. You didn’t know what unit you were going to get.
It might sound sentimental, but I think we really wanted to know what these soldiers were going through, and what their lives were like. I decided I wanted to go in April of 2003 because we’d been seeing so much on television, but the news coverage was just empty. We really had no idea what any of these guys were thinking. It was a lot of rhetoric from journalists and media people, or Pentagon people and officers. I wanted to know what life was like for the men and women on the lowest end of the totem pole.
BuzzFlash: You were embedded just like any other reporter, from NBC or another outlet, correct?
Garrett Scott: That’s right. I think the only real difference was that we wanted to do a long-term project and most journalists or media companies embed for maybe two or three days, unless there’s something extraordinary happening, and then they’ll stay for the length of the story. And we were interested in staying for as long as possible with the same people. And that basically meant asking week per week if we could stay a little longer and a little longer.
Then the Army people became interested in the idea as well, because usually they only have reporters or filmmakers that are with them two or three days, and then they’re gone. So it’s a constant turnover and a lot of work. It seemed intriguing for them to have somebody cover their people and what they were doing for a longer period of time.
BuzzFlash: It is just astonishing to me the Army let you follow the soldiers around and shoot all this footage. Did the Army try to censor the film?
Garrett Scott: No. The Army guys were refreshingly open. There wasn’t a sense of paranoia, like they had things to hide. They were proud of their unit, they were proud of what they were doing, and they wanted other people to see it.
Now this openness certainly arises from the policy that was set by the Pentagon from the moment the Iraq invasion began with the embedding program. Essentially, by the time we got there, the embed process was already set. It was very, very common for media people to be embedded with Army and Marine units. So we were just the next people in line – we were completely normal in that regard.
BuzzFlash: Your film traces the growing hostility between the soldiers and the civilians in Falluja. What did it feel like while you were there? Was there a feeling in the air of an insurrection coming? Were you surprised when Falluja did in fact erupt in violence later on?
Garrett Scott: It was difficult to gauge the level of anger while we were there, and common resentment on both sides was fairly common. The way we experienced Falluja was a growing sense of anxiety. Your nerves would just wear away after awhile. After six weeks – which is not that long to be there considering how long those soldiers are there – you’re just kind of burnt out and you’re expecting something to happen all the time. Naturally, that anxiety is transferred into anger and aggression. So that’s how we experienced it. But then when we were looking at the film afterwards, you could really see tension rising. We weren’t expecting an armed insurrection coming.
BuzzFlash: Give us a timeline and some background on Falluja – when you were there shooting the documentary, when you left, and when the insurrection started?
Garrett Scott: We got there in December of 2003 and we left in February of 2004. By the time we arrived in Falluja the 82nd had been there for maybe three months. They were there for seven months in all. And they were the first unit that was there for a fairly long period of time and had set up a fairly clear policy about what they wanted to do. So we were watching them carry out these operations in a very dangerous environment.
At that point it was guaranteed that if they went into town in the daytime they would get attacked. So they were looking at ways to reduce their level of risk and the level of escalation that arose from daytime patrols, even though the whole time they were launching operations against what they thought were insurgent cells at night. That meant they would go and grab and arrest people during nighttime raids.
By the time we left in February, the Army had maybe three or four more weeks to go, and they had begun rotating out as their Marine counterparts were coming in. This was a time when tension was fairly high, but the Army was trying to compensate by reducing their presence in town.
The Marines came in with a much larger force, probably twice as many people, and the Marine units were going to be there for a year rather than seven months. And between mid-March and April, I think the Marines started putting a lot of people into town in the daytime in order to show that they were a new force in town, that they were familiar with the area, and to engage with the population in some kind of useful way.
The Army warned the Marines about exposing themselves to these daytime conditions again, and, sure enough, they were being attacked. Some firefights occurred and a bunch of people died in those first weeks – perhaps thirty civilians and a few Marines died.
And in this melee in March and April, at its sort of highest point, those private contractors drove through town. Hostilities were at a high and they were killed. The private contractors didn’t tell the Marines they were there. They didn’t have any backup. They had like six guys, which was a bad idea. You always want to go with a bunch of people in order to control the area around you. So that was a flash point. And that’s when Falluja, a troublesome place, suddenly became Falluja, the center of insurgency in Iraq.
At that point when those contractors were killed in early April, within three days, the White House decided that they were going to begin their first siege of Falluja. It lasted for four or five days. The Marines then entered Falluja and made progress into one area of town. They lost a bunch of people and killed a lot of civilians. People started panicking in the higher levels of government and they decided to halt the siege temporarily. Now this meant that basically people died for no reason, because the Marines, of course, wanted to do a complete job. And all these civilians were killed for no reason whatsoever.
At that point, the Marines tried to come up with a sort of midway plan, where they gave the town up completely to an Iraqi force. And at that point, no Army or Marine units went into Falluja at all for five or six months. There were special forces units that would go into town and continue to capture or kill people that they thought were part of the insurgency. But nobody really entered town in force for five or six months until November. That's when the final assault began, and they just swept through all of Falluja completely.
BuzzFlash: Have you traveled back to Falluja?
Garrett Scott: No, I haven’t been back since we left that February of 2004.
BuzzFlash: What was the difference between how you felt when you arrived in Falluja versus how you felt when you were leaving?
Garrett Scott: When we got there it was a combination of shock and wonder. I had been there once before in August of 2002, so I sort of knew what to expect. It’s just very depressing to be in an environment where so many people are trying to survive and it’s very difficult for them to function. They don’t have basic amenities. It was like New Orleans everywhere after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s not a stretch.
People were depressed, but we didn’t feel the same kind of danger moving around with these Army units as we did when we left. The longer we stayed you started wondering which car was going to have a bomb in it or when someone was going to take a shot at you. And that just sort of crawls up in the back of your head after awhile. I’d say, by the time we left, we were burned out. We weren’t as sensitive to the things around us when we first got there. But by the time we left, it was a relief for me. There was a sense of emotional emptiness after awhile, combined with this anxiety about personal danger. It was really, really weird.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think this film is important? What are viewers going to get from watching it?
Garrett Scott: These are such politically – what’s the word? – polarized times. People talk about the war. We have ideas about the war. We have representations about the war – little snippets of dangerous moments. But nobody really gets an idea of what the phenomenon of the war is – what it’s like, regardless of your politics or what anybody thinks about it.
It’s going on all the time, and there are 160,000 people over there. They’re from the U.S. What is their experience like? What do they do? What does this war actually look like? And what does all this boredom mean? Because 90% of it is boredom. What do these people think while they’re there? What’s it like for these young men and women who are told they’re there for one reason, and they’re getting a lot of experience that may contradict those reasons they’ve been told.
We wanted to explore these issues without deciding ahead of time what it would all mean. I think it’s important for people to see how the war is conducted on a day-to-day basis, and what that means for the people there. Why don’t we ever get to hear from the soldiers actually fighting the war? They’re in the best position to know what’s going on, but we hear nothing from them.
BuzzFlash: As one of the directors, what was the most telling moment for you in the actual film?
Garrett Scott: What was most telling to me were all of the quiet moments that precede moments of action, or these things that we associate with the conventions of a war film.
There’s a scene at the very end of the film where these soldiers are all standing around in some Iraqi family’s house after they’ve gone on this one raid. You’ve seen so many of these raids already in the film. It’s the normal thing. And these soldiers stop, take a breather, pull out a cigarette and start smoking in these people’s house while the family is outside at gunpoint. And the soldiers are looking at these blankets hanging on the walls and they start asking each other: “What do you think all these blankets are for?” They’re just taking five. They’re chilling out. And you see these soldiers wondering who are these people anyway, and how do they live?
It’s a very human moment. You could almost miss it, because all the action already happened. But it’s so telling about how little each side knows about each other, how they’ve crossed over into the heart of these people’s most intimate space. Moments like that were really interesting for me to see.
BuzzFlash: How did you win the soldiers’ trust?
Garrett Scott: I think the way we won it, or what allowed them to accept us, was that we were very sensitive to the fact that we were in their house. We were there on their terms. We weren’t there to ram something down their throats, or ask them a bunch of leading questions. We sincerely wanted to watch what they were doing in terms of observing a phenomenon, not in terms of trying to teach them how they should be, or making snap decisions about the way things should and shouldn’t be.
We just took what they were doing for granted. And so, like the Iraqis, they were very hospitable. They allowed us into this intimate space of theirs and we didn’t abuse that. We were very quiet, and we weren’t trying to influence their operations. We were simply interested in what they thought and what they did. I think anybody who senses that you are inherently interested in what they are doing is going to take that as a certain amount of respect and give you a certain amount of respect back. The longer we spent with them, and the more we showed our curiosity, the more comfortable they felt.
BuzzFlash: Have you had any contact with the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne since the making of "Occupation Dreamland"?
Garrett Scott: Yes I keep in contact with all the guys in the movie. They’re all doing well. I’m not in touch with the captain who was in charge of the company. He’s sort of a minor character, but everybody else, I’m in contact with. They all like the movie, which is fantastic. That’s my first sort of test, really. It’s important to know that they approve and actually enjoy seeing their experience, for better or for worse, whatever they were doing.
BuzzFlash: As a filmmaker, what did you take away from this experience? If you had to do it again, would you do anything differently?
Garrett Scott: I don’t think I would have done anything differently in covering this particular story. I wish I spoke Arabic, and I could have hung with the Iraqis for awhile and done a similar project and understood the nuances of the local culture and the way people speak like I do in the U.S. I would have liked to have had another crew covering the officers’ side of things. This is really a movie about enlisted men, and what it’s like to be someone with very little information who simply follows orders.
BuzzFlash: Watching your film “Occupation Dreamland” felt like looking through the tiniest peephole in a door. And somehow you were able to understand more and get more than if you’d just opened the door. “Occupation Dreamland” was not so much looking at every aspect of the war, but blocking so much out. By bringing these individual moments and people to the forefront, it allowed us to see the entire war more clearly.
Garrett Scott: I’m so grateful that you saw it that way because I think that’s really important. That’s really important aesthetically, but I think that’s really all you can do. I think it’s the way human beings experience life. A certain amount of things happens in front of us or around us. And there’s nobody to instruct us morally or ethically or what it’s about – what it’s supposed to mean or how we’re supposed to think about it. We’re just left with this unmediated experience, and then we have to make up our own judgments about what’s happening.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for your time in speaking with us.
Garrett Scott: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Senior Editor Scott Vogel.
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Order your copy of Occupation Dreamland from BuzzFlash.com.
BuzzFlash Review: http://www.buzzflash.com/reviews/06/01/rev06004.html