‘The War Tapes’ Offers First-Person Look at Operation Iraqi Freedom
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 18, 2007 When a soldier returns from war, is he the same person he was before deploying?
No, he’s not, said Robert May, producer of “The War Tapes,” a documentary that shows Operation Iraqi Freedom through the eyes of several New Hampshire National Guardsmen who were supplied with digital video cameras and an endless supply of tape.
“You hear about the people who die, you hear about the people injured,” May said. “What about the majority of the people who come home?”
“The War Tapes,” which made its theatrical debut last year and won the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival award for best documentary, will air tomorrow on the Military Channel, A Discovery Channel affiliate.
When “The War Tapes” director, Deborah Scranton, offered the cameras to Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry Regiment training at Fort Dix, N.J., in 2004, 21 of the guardsmen agreed to film the ensuing year of their lives, May explained during an interview with American Forces Press Service.
Troops were eager to use the new gadgets as a diversion during their daily routine, he said, and after deploying to Iraq, they adopted the technology as a second set of eyes, mounting cameras on gun turrets, inside dashboards and on their Kevlar helmets and vests.
Based at Logistics Support Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, the guardsmen recorded their lives under constant threat of ambush and deadly improvised explosive device attacks. According to the film’s Web site, the unit traveled 1.4 million miles during their tour, and lived through more than 1,200 combat operations and 250 direct enemy engagements – nearly one a day.
“Inevitably, if you let the camera run, you’re going to come upon things that are going to be compelling and also provide the fodder necessary to understand what they’ve gone through,” May said. “We suggested they hook up their cameras and let ‘em roll all through their shift, as opposed to trying to catch certain things on tape.”
After the year-long deployment, 1,000 hours of raw footage was distilled into a 97-minute film narrated primarily by three guardsmen – Sgt. Zack Bazzi, Sgt. Steve Pink and Spc. Mike Moriarty.
During the film, Bazzi, an Arabic-speaking Lebanese-American, was a university student; he loves politics, traveling, and being a soldier. He is now serving in Operation Enduring Freedom with the New Hampshire National Guard in Afghanistan.
Pink is a carpenter with a sharp sense of humor, whose candid and insightful journal entries and letters home add color to “The War Tapes.” He is now writing a book about his experience in Iraq.
Moriarty, a resolute patriot and father of two, rejoined the army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and has since fulfilled his obligation to the National Guard.
“We focused on these three guys because they had the most complete arc to their story,” May said.
While serving in Iraq, each guardsman left a significant woman at home – a mother, a girlfriend, and a wife, respectively – whose private lives were captured intimately on film, then juxtaposed with the first-person frontline experiences of the three narrators.
“When we see a casualty, or hear about an injury, or when people come home, we just think about the soldier themselves, but no one is placed on the earth by themselves. They have families,” May said. “How does the deployment affect the families – the mothers, the children, the spouses?”
May said that once family members overcame their timidity and initial worries about having their lives displayed publicly, the “real emotion” emerged.
“For me, the thing about great documentaries is knowing that you’re peering into some place you don’t think you should peer into,” he said. “I think that’s evident on the film. There’s a lot of unintended emotion that comes out.”
Broadcast news can report war statistics, but it has a limited ability to create an emotional connection between the warfighter and the news consumer, or to show what May calls the “untold cost of war.” “But by following a couple of guys that you get to know through an entire year-long deployment, you get to know a lot more about the cost of war than you ever thought possible before,” he said.
After “The War Tapes” was screened before an audience that included members of New Hampshire’s National Guard, a major general told May that the documentary should be required viewing for anyone who has been to war.
“All the training can’t really prepare people for what they will feel and see,” May recalled the general telling him after the film. And often, soldiers are unprepared to discuss what they felt and saw after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“One officer had a son who had recently come back from Iraq and just couldn’t talk about the experience,” May said. “By showing this film to family members, the soldier that was there had something to more talk about. Family members asked, ‘Was that what it was like?’”
Watching “The War Tapes” with his family helped the soldier speak out about his experience in Iraq, using the documentary as a basis for comparing and contrasting his own war narrative, May said.
The film can stimulate dialogue between families affected by war, and is sometimes a mechanism soldiers use to cope with the effects of combat, May said. “They can say, ‘Watch this movie, then you can get an idea of what we saw, and then ask us questions,’” he said.
In making “The War Tapes,” May said the directors and producers followed one golden rule: show what it’s like to walk a mile in soldiers’ boots.
“When the soldiers saw it once they got back we asked, ‘Did we tell the story you set out to tell?’” he said. “They all agreed that that’s the unfiltered story.”