Seattle documentary filmmaker Nassim Assefi brought over a Netflix dvd of The War Tapes a couple nights ago. Watching this film so quickly after watching Iraq in Fragments was an interesting juxtaposition. This is a very different take on the Iraq war: the world as seen through cameras given to National Guard soldiers deployed to Iraq by filmmaker Deborah Scranton and her team, which included Hoop Dreams director Steve James, who was producer/editor on this film.
I’m guessing the editor had the toughest job on this film, as the bulk of the film was cobbled together from footage that was sent home to the filmmakers by the soliders. I guess that’s what some people would call innovative filmmaking. This film certainly tells a fully developed story that probably couldn’t have been told any other way. But compared with the work that James Longly produced at the same time in the same place, I’m tempted to call it inferior filmmaking. The difference, of course, is that James was there, actually making the film himself, while the War Tapes filmmakers were at home, reviewing footage produced by soldiers. It’s a very different approach, with very different results.
The filmmakers do actually make a bit of film themselves, though, beginning with the soldiers themselves before they are deployed to Iraq, and also following them after their return long enough to find out that they have (surprise surprise) been changed by their experiences.
The point of view of this film seems to be “soldiers are people, too.” Or maybe, “soldiers are victims of this war as much as anyone else.” But I found the soldiers to be pretty unsavory characters who made bizarre choices in life. After the inevitable horrors they encounter (seeing an Iraqi girl run over by a convoy they were protecting, killing iraqis and generally being afraid for their lives the whole time they were there) they come home and half of them end up quickly diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. But my feeling after watching this film is that these guys were not victims of Bush’s war machine as much as they were willing accomplices.
From a filmmaking perspective, this film proves that it’s absolutely possible to make a compelling, highly engaging film using the work of amateurs, provided you’ve got a dedicated team of talented filmmakers managing the process from beginning to end. This film is sort of a natural extension of the basic idea behind Born Into Brothels – giving cameras to kids. No doubt we’ll see more of this kind of filmmaking as good quality, inexpensive video cameras become as ubiquitous as cellphones.