||Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ documentary about American soldiers on duty in Iraq will inevitably be lumped together with Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s “Gunner Palace,” which beat it to the draw by six months or so. But though the two pictures have a good deal in common--showing GIs policing the country in the post-war or occupation period--they’re sufficiently distinctive so that both warrant viewing. And the topic, of course, is important enough to demand repeated treatment.
“Occupation: Dreamland” follows members of a unit in the 82nd Airborne Division during their stint in Fallujah in early 2004. (The timeframe predates the arrival of the Marines in the city, the murder of several civilian contractors by ambush there, and the uprising that led to a major assault on the place. These matters are noted briefly in end titles.) Scott and Olds’ film observes the men interacting with one another--often expressing very different views in the process--and allows them to voice their opinions directly to the camera, often explaining why they joined up in the first place. The filmmakers also accompany the soldiers as they make their policing rounds, both during the day and at night, when the use of special lenses allows us to see the terrified, hostile eyes of those whose houses they invade in search of weapons or insurgents. There are also occasional excerpts showing the less confrontational contact of the troops with locals, who often express anger at the lack of services and security and the treatment they receive (especially when women are involved). And in an episode likely to draw gasps from most viewers, we see army recruiters trying to persuade guys coming to the end of the tours to re-enlist--through harangues that, by emphasizing the ways in which combat has psychologically affected them and their generally meager prospects back home, in effect tell them that continuing in the service provides their only hope for a future.
Those on either extreme of the political spectrum will doubtlessly complain that the picture is biased in the opposite direction. If so, it will be a sign of their own lack of objectivity. “Occupation: Dreamland”--the title comes from a half-destroyed resort outside the city that the troops use as a base--is sober and reflective rather than polemical. (Indeed, it goes in less for pizzazz than “Gunner Palace” did.) For a piece not made under the most hospitable of circumstances, the film, shot on high-definition video, captures the gritty feel of the locale nicely, and the sound is fine, too.
As the controversy over continued involvement in Iraq continues, it’s important that Americans have access to the real experiences of soldiers stationed there (as opposed, for example, to the staged “town meeting” with specially selected GIs--complete with pre-screened questions--that President Bush conducted the very week this film opened in Dallas.) “Occupation: Dreamland” serves a useful public service; more important, it’s an engrossing film in its own right.