Fallujah is a place now known among Americans for its role as a center of the Iraqi resistance and for the violence that’s occurred there over the past year, but when filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds spent some weeks there in early 2004, documenting the efforts of a single unit of the 82nd Airborne Division as the men undertook security and policing duties, the city was not yet notorious for its connection with the insurgency. As Scott explained during a recent Dallas interview in conjunction with the opening of “Occupation: Dreamland” at the Angelika Film Center, “Word hadn’t really gotten out here in the U.S. about it yet. It was a dangerous city, but it wasn’t the sort of high-risk redoubt that it’s now understood as. The reason we were there was complete chance, really. We were in Baghdad in late December, 2003. We were there to show what the operations were like and what was happening in the war, and what the guys [in the ranks] thought about it as a phenomenon. I had originally intended to go with some guys from the Florida National Guard. But they started getting out [of the combat zone] all of a sudden. A friend of mine was going out to Fallujah to cover an operation they were having there, and we went with him, covered the operation and then went and just asked if we could stay and do a long-term project. These guys were staying at a sort of resort that Saddam Hussein’s sons had built about two years before–two large lakes with these resort bungalows surrounding them. There must have been fifteen or twenty of them in a long row in the particular part of the camp they were in. We stayed in a room with three other guys.”
Scott and Olds then filmed the soldiers as they went on their rounds but also recorded their interaction back at the base and interviewed them as well. “Some guys were forthcoming right away,” Scott said. “Other guys were most comfortable later on. But I think people lightened up after the first week. That was a function of both sides asking questions of each other, feeling one another out. It was a combination of that–them getting to trust us–and [the fact that] the more experiences you go through together, we’d all be talking about them. That really brings people together. We went on every nighttime raid they went on, except if there were Special Forces people with them. That was one of the ground rules.”
Those night raids, shot with special lenses, were especially daunting, since they involved filming people as their homes were literally invaded by the soldiers. “That was really difficult,” Scott said. “We didn’t have any animosity toward the Iraqis. We’d been invited into peoples’ homes before we linked up with the military–it’s an immensely generous culture, and opening your home up to strangers is very important. So we knew what would be happening when [the raids] went into peoples’ homes. That was hard. And after awhile we talked about whether we should keep doing it. For the people in those houses, it didn’t matter what our goals were–we were just adding insult to injury because we were taking video of them being humiliated. That will never be remedied for them. But regardless, it was happening whether we were there or not, whether we liked it or not, however we felt about it. So we felt it was worth continuing to do.”
Another hard-hitting part of the film concerned the re-enlistment sessions the soldiers were exposed to as they neared the end of their tours–diatribes which some will feel go over the line in painting a grim picture of what might face them if they return to civilian life. “Once their last year comes up and they haven’t decided to re-enlist, these things become mandatory,” Scott said. “They probably get five or six of them in the course of a year. It’s totally horrible, because they’re playing on the perfectly human anxieties that we all have–‘What’s going to happen in the future, how am I going to find myself? I have no idea, and it’s frightening.’ A lot of these guys have grown up without a lot of money, living pretty hard lives, and they know what it’s like to be in danger of going to prison, being in an environment that’s not particularly healthy. For a lot of these guys, that might be right back where they’re going. So there are legitimate fears on their part.” And the Army, it appears, tries to take advantage of them.
Reaction to “Occupation: Dreamland,” Scott said, varied across the political spectrum. “I think for people on the far right who really have an ideological investment in the war, [a film] has to be right rather than empirically understanding what’s happening there. There just don’t want to hear it, forget it, this is anti-American or something. And then you get people on the left who say this is just propaganda for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It’s definitely those with pre-set notions. But the whole idea of the movie was to get away from second-guessing and actually see what the soldiers do.”
And the soldiers who were part of the unit, Scott says, applaud the finished film. “They all love it,” he said, “because these are their friends and their relationships and what they did in a way that reflects what their visions are. They were always saying, ‘At least somebody’s going to see what we do out here, because nobody knows.’ They don’t believe in the news–those are just little snippets. They think nobody really has any idea of what they’re going through. And that was just immensely important to them, because they don’t have a voice.”
Rumur Releasing is slowly distributing “Occupation: Dreamland” in major cities throughout the United States.