By doing what a documentary film can often do best — intently focusing on a group of ordinary-seeming yet complex people under extraordinary pressure — Occupation: Dreamland provides audiences with a rarely-seen view of the American soldiers who are actually on the ground in Iraq. The film’s apparent weakness — a humdrum, everyday, this-is-just-a-job quality that can be somewhat lulling — is actually its greatest strength, because it “shows the nature of combat. It’s not sustained firefights, it’s eight hours of boredom — and then a mortar comes in,” said Ian Olds, Occupation: Dreamland’s co-director and editor.
The film provides a sustained, intimate view of a group of soldiers from the 82 nd Airborne unit on duty in Fallujah, Iraq for approximately six weeks beginning in January 2004. We see them patrolling the city, which had been a resort area for high-level Baath party members during Saddam Hussein’s regime; going on night raids into the houses of suspected insurgents; doing weekly “community outreach” with Iraqis who are alternately bemused, amused, hostile or cowed by the soldiers; and just sitting around, waiting, bullshitting and passing the time. The soldiers also talk, to the camera and each other, about their own political views, how they got into the Army, and how they understand their mission in Iraq. It’s profane, honest and unvarnished, and reveals these men as complex, often conflicted individuals making the best of an impossible situation.
Getting these soldiers to let down their walls to Olds and his co-director, Garrett Scott (who, sadly, passed away from natural causes just recently at the age of 37 — see note at the end of this article) was a result of these filmmakers’ methods as well as all documentary makers’ best friends — persistence and a certain amount of luck.
Olds and Joseph Wood, one of the soldiers profiled in the film who is now out of the Army and a student at Parsons School of Design, spoke at a February screening of Occupation: Dreamland at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The screening was hosted by SVA’s film department chairman Reeves Lehmann, himself a combat veteran of Vietnam. Following is a selection of some of their comments, edited by Grin without a Cat’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair:
REEVES LEHMANN: The film provides a realistic look at the soldier’s life, and it’s a neutral voice — if that’s possible to have — that allows the audience to make its own decisions.
IAN OLDS: After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, my question was, what the fuck is going on? The world seemed like a different place for me after the invasion, much more so than after 9/11. It’s not that the film is apolitical, but we’re hoping to reflect honestly what it was like. But I don’t claim to have objectivity.
RL: What was the origin or motivation for this film?
IO: For something like this, where you don’t know what the shape of the film will be beforehand, it’s difficult to get backing, and you can’t get ‘pre-approval’ before going over to Iraq. [So we outfitted ourselves and went over as journalists.] It’s weird to shop online for body armor.
The embedding of journalists took on a new form after the invasion, and [the result] was a lot of simplistic, jingoistic reporting. But the good part was that pretty much anyone with journalist credentials could go in.
Garrett’s and my idea was to stay with as small a group [of soldiers] as possible. It was all very informal — we were in there and we would stay one more week, and then another week, until the film was done. Also, it became easier for the battalion to keep us, the two people they knew, versus cycling in new journalists every couple of weeks.
RL: Soldiers are often very protective of each other — it must have been difficult with the cameras invading their privacy.
IO: We knew that sustained access was the only way to get intimacy. If the soldiers weren’t ready to talk, we’d just watch TV with them. And we played on our own lack of professionalism. Other journalists came in and their first question would be ‘How does it feel to kill someone?’ But we were with the soldiers when a roadside bomb went off, and no one can keep their walls up after that.
JOSEPH WOOD: I had been in Afghanistan prior to being in Iraq, and we had gotten briefings about talking to the media — basically to watch what we say to them. And after a while we really didn’t want to talk to the [stereotypical] war correspondent with the multi-pocket vests. [Talking to Ian and Garrett] was a great opportunity to voice what I’d been talking about with my roommates already. Also, I was on my way out — I only had three months to go.
RL: You and Garrett showed a lot of bravery.
IO: That was also my naiveté. I just focused on my job, which was shooting a film. If the soldiers had freaked out, I would feel freaked. And there wasn’t much direct fire. There were roadside bombs, mortars, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). When these things go off you can palpably feel the concussion. Actually, I’m not sure I would have done the project if I had known what it was like.
RL: At what point did you know that you had a film [based on what you had been shooting]?
IO: We were thinking about Frederick Wiseman films, which study institutions but don’t have clear character ‘arcs’. We knew we had the bomb going off, and things that we knew could build, so we had a sense that we had a film.
Soldiers and Stereotypes
[The panelists discussed audience reactions to the film at various screenings.]
JW: In many of the Q&As, you’re dealing with people’s conceptions of the soldiers as totally gung-ho storm troopers. Like after the bomb explosion, when they talk about how they should have shot [an Iraqi] who got away — but the point is that they didn’t shoot him. There’s a lot of discipline there.
RL: Has the experience you’ve been through in the Army affected your work?
JW: It’s been a big thing. I originally went to Parsons for fashion design, and for many reasons it wasn’t working well. It’s difficult enough coming to New York City — and I didn’t even have any PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as many of these guys do. When I was over there at 21 years old and it was so real, it’s crazy how real it is — and [the contrast is that] here everyone is living peacefully and no one cares.
RL: Does that bother you?
JW: Yes. And the difference is really strong in the fashion industry. [It’s one of the reasons I] switched to fine arts — I want to help people understand through my artwork.
At first when I came out of the Army, I wanted to leave it behind. I needed some time to distance myself. Also, I didn’t want to be the crazy Army guy in school. I had never been a military-type person — I didn’t want to carry lots of knives and kill flies with them.
RL: What did the guys in the unit think of the film?
IO: All of them have seen it and liked it — including the guys on both sides of the political fence. The higher up they are in the command chain, the less they like it. But for the guys in it, it shows the complexity of their lives, so they like it.
It’s providing context for the things you see on the news, the sustained looking to provide context. It’s also a look at an institution versus a clear, specific ‘story arc.’
A Matter of Trust
RL: Did you think about using a narrator for the finished film?
IO: We told the guys that we wouldn’t use a narrator. In the editing process it would have been helpful [to tie things together] — but that was a matter of trust, that this was a film that was in their own words.
RL: What are your future plans for the film?
IO: We’re trying to get it to high schools, but there are two problems — it’s too political, and the language. It’s going to be available on Netflix beginning in March. We’re also looking at getting access to veterans’ groups, to establish a dialogue.
RL: Do you hope the film inspires activism?
IO: We had a simple goal — to show how the cow gets butchered. You know the expression, ‘Everyone wants to eat steak, but no one wants to know how the cow gets butchered.’ The film shows the nature of combat — that it’s not sustained firefights, it’s eight hours of boredom and then a mortar comes in. This particular unit lost only one man in six months’ time. That’s just how it happened, we never pulled any punches in terms of not showing things.
RL: If you just show what war is, it’s an anti-war statement.
IO: That’s a clear expression of my feelings. Also, if you’re interested in power, American power, this is where it’s manifesting.
RL: The film shows a real truth about this type of war, as in Vietnam, that the soldiers don’t know who the enemy is — they might be selling you bread during the day and trying to shoot you at night. And the soldiers are walking into someone’s home with a gun — of course the people are fearful, and of course the soldiers have to assume that [the Iraqis] won’t be truthful.
IO: This [going into suspected insurgents’ homes] is the most common tactic there — and the soldiers knew that this was feeding the insurgency. They knew this tactic was working against them. Even those soldiers supporting the ideology of the war found that they were doing the same mission at the beginning of their [deployment] as at the end of it.
RL: You can feel the intelligence of the soldiers — and it shows that there’s often no relationship between education and intelligence.
JW: These guys are very uneducated — like Forbes [one of the soldiers in the film who only got through the 9 th grade] — this was a brilliant guy. It shows that you don’t need an education to know what’s really going on.
IO: We assumed that these would be complex guys, and so we asked them adult questions. These guys are complex people with whole worlds inside.
Remembering Garrett Scott
By Carol Smaldino
Just a complex after note — a note of grief and remembrance for Garrett Scott, the co-director of Occupation: Dreamland, who died of a heart attack at age 37 in Santa Monica, Calif., just two days before the Independent Spirit Award went to the film (it was the “Truer Than Fiction” prize, a money award of $25,000 for a worthy under-seen film).
My own passion for the film was immediate when I saw it at its New York screening. I felt it was a potentially transforming movie — for all ages, and for red and blue state people. I met Garrett once and we began a steady e-mail correspondence, sharing big and small efforts, joking, “hitting it off,” until as in the film a figurative random bullet took him out.
I miss him, though one could say “it was only e-mail.” It seemed bigger. His loss will leave a gap in many lives. The intimacy he had with Ian and later with Joseph must have been constant, gritty and deep.
The urgency of getting this film out is a bit more lonely for me now. But it is there and much more than before, company is needed and company is requested.
(Carol Smaldino shares more thoughts about Occupation: Dreamland)