Filmmaker Q&A: Garrett Scott

In preparation for the article ‘The Docs of War’ (January/February 2006), I interviewed several filmmakers about their experiences making documentaries about the Iraq war. Garrett Scott and co-director Ian Olds spent six weeks living with a squad of American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne stationed at a former Baath Party resort dubbed ‘Dreamland.’ The result is Occupation: Dreamland, a monumental document of the daily, grunt’s-eye-view of modern warfare. In October, Scott took the time to answer a few questions via email. — LU

Leif Utne: What sort of preparation/training did you have to go through before embedding with the 1/505?

Garrett Scott: No training. After the occupation phase began, ’embedding’ became a much less formal process. A vast amount of journalists were in Iraq, and the Army was widely deployed with a standing policy of openness to the media. So we were just the next guys in a long line of journalists moving through that unit (if they were interested).

LU: The soldiers in the film are amazingly candid about their views on the war, and hold impressively diverse views. I was struck by how few seemed to care much about the larger cause they’re supposed to be fighting for. Most were just focused on getting out of there alive. Because of that, the film doesn’t seem to take a clear stand one way or the other on the war. Was that your intention from the beginning? Did you talk to any soldiers who are still unqualified supporters of the war?

GS: We never intended to bring our beliefs about the war into our close examination of events occurring in Iraq. The war is a phenomenon in the world now, regardless of our beliefs about it. It seemed reasonable to construct something worthy of the empirical tradition. We were always more interested in the ideas, beliefs, feelings and experiences of those directly involved in the war. Language and history led us to cover one side, which is only a contribution to the greater record. Taking a position on the war was not the goal of the project. The goal was to draw as much raw experience as possible in order to add to the record. Let’s listen to them men and watch what they do. The results can be quite powerful, not dryly journalistic or sensational, allowing people to draw their own conclusions about the reality of the war.

LU: How did your own views about the war evolve through the experience of making the film?

GS: My stance against the war has never changed. If anything the sense of futility and waste are only magnified for me.

LU: What kind of response are you getting — from critics? audiences? buyers/distributors? Are any of them having difficulty with it because it’s not easy to peg as a pro- or anti-war film?

GS: The response from critics and audiences has been overwhelmingly fantastic. We’ve had great, rewarding reviews all over the country. But from the beginning distributors have been very shy to pick up the movie. There are two reasons for this: Gunner Palace, and the war as a ‘played out’ media subject.

Gunner Palace was completed about five months before our movie was. The events in both films are about five months apart. GP had a huge theatrical release, with lots of publicity and tanked at the box office. The conventional wisdom was that if had poisoned the market place for any other documentary about soldiers. Although the movies were very different, ours was deemed a ‘non’ event.

This first point was seen as a given in a media world saturated by the war. The war was seen as a depressing subject, a drag. People want to pay their ten bucks to be entertained, to escape from the real world. Everyone had already seen Iraq on TV, this conventional wisdom goes.

We were dead in the water, until a little independent distributor, Rumur releasing stepped up to the plate and put the movie in theaters.

These are polarized times, and there is obviously a lot of anger about the war in this country. The ideologically motivated, whether on the left or the right, always accuse us of making propaganda. This happens once or twice out of every one hundred viewers. It’s always pretty obvious that both sides wanted us to make a different movie. The left accuses us of making an ’embedded movie (as though we ever claimed to do something else)’ heroicizing the US occupation, which will always work as propaganda supporting racist military expansion and imperialism. The complaint is that we should’ve made a movie about the Iraqis, and that this film should be more of a ‘framed’ condemnation.

The ideologically driven right believes we rigged the thing, that we undermine and manipulate the heroic tradition of our proud fighting men, that we are destabilizing the war in Iraq, the proud traditions of the US Armed forces, and the 82nd especially. They claim we are one sided, and would’ve liked to have seen a movie where everyone was in lockstep and had nothing but the cleanest ideas imaginable. I think this group wanted to see an idealized, action packed movie about good guys and bad guys, something resembling their training videos. We shouldn’t be allowed access to ‘how the cow gets butchered’ as one guy says in the movie.

These two sides pop up consistently, but are surprisingly rare. I remember thinking we were going to take a lot more flack from both sides at the time.

LU: Beyond your current theatrical run, what are your plans/dates for distribution — i.e. broadcast run? DVD release? What about grassroots distribution — i.e. house parties, schools, etc?

The movie will be broadcast by the Sundance Channel in late February, early March. We’ll release the DVD immediately after. It will be in stores, etc, and can be purchased from the website. A grass-roots distribution organization, Working Films, is looking into all aspects of getting the movie out into the world of community, church and educational organizations.

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