Promoting The War Tapes

I’ve been wanting to see Deborah Scranton’s documentary The War Tapes ever since I heard about it back in March, in large part because Scranton’s approach to the war documentary is an unusual one. Instead of aligning with a unit as an embedded reporter, Scranton gave cameras to three soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard serving in Iraq, asking them to document their experiences, which were later edited and compiled into the final film by Scranton. The War Tapes has received a number of enthusiastic reviews, including these three from indieWire and a glowing review from Nora Ephron in The Huffington Post.

The official website offers quite a bit of information about the film, including outtakes and other reviews. The War Tapes opens this weekend in New York City, and the audience size in New York will likely affect how widely the film plays, so if you’re in the NYC area, check it out. A few other dates are scheduled, including a screening in DC’s E Street Theater starting June 30 (unfortunately I’m moving to Fayetteville that week and won’t be able to attend). Also, if your city is not yet scheduled, add yourself to Scranton’s Frappr map in order to show interest (BTW, the Frappr map is a really cool idea). There are already several others in the F’ville area who’ve expressed interest, and it would be fantastic to bring the film there.


  1. Adham Said,

    May 31, 2006 @ 5:20 pm

    Promoting The War Tapes or spinning The War Tapes?

    With Haditha spilling out onto the front pages and the recent deaths of two CBS crew in Baghdad, there is something rather odd about how War Tapes is being spun as a somehow more “truthful” or “noble” than embedded reporting.

    I’ll repeat a post I made on Indiewire–this used to be called propaganda, now it is called “citizen journalism”. Citizens, yes, but soldiers too. As for Scranton, “turning down an embed” and giving the soldiers cameras is a nice human interest story, but somehow the producers skate around the fact that not one of them has stepped foot in Iraq and the footage was censored by the Army.

    In a war where dozens of Iraqis are dying every day, the last thing I want to know about is Sgt. Pink’s carpal tunnel syndrome.
    What I am thankful for are embedded reporters like Kevin Sites and the dozens of Iraqis who have gone out to record this war, uncensored.

    In the Nora Ephron post you refer to, she equates embedded journalism to “guarding cheescake” (a reference to a scene in the film). In doing so, she seems to be falling prey to the very right wing notion that journalists are hanging around “the hotels in the Green Zone”. Is she going to suggest next the second myth, which is “they don’t show the good things that we do”?

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 31, 2006 @ 9:29 pm

    Adham, I noticed your comment on indieWire, and while I share your suspicion towards any documentary that claims to be more “authentic” or “truthful” than other perspectives, I also think it’s important to cultivate as many perspectives as we can on the war, which makes The War Tapes at least worthy of some attention.

    To ask the documentary to cover events that hadn’t happened when it was being filmed is a little more than unfair. Documentaries work from a much longer perspective and with rhetorical purposes that may be different than “just” reporting. I agree that it’s vital that we be fully informed about the deaths of the people in Haditha and on the CBS news crew, but to call War Tapes “propaganda” seems more than a little unfair.

    Like you, I appreciate the good work of embeds such as Kevin Sites and the number of Iraqi journalists who have reported the war at great risk to their safety, but Scranton’s film can supplement their reporting in valuable ways (again I think it’s worth making a distinction between journalism and documentary filmmaking).

  3. Adham Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 5:17 am


    In answer to your statement that to “call it propaganda seems more than a little unfair”, what would happen if you gave cameras to three insurgents? What would the public reaction be? “Voices of Iraq”, which was a far cry from such a scenario, was leveled with all sorts of criticism namely because of the producer’s political beliefs. However, unlike “War Tapes” they did infact go to Iraq which enabled a degree of observation.

    My criticism is two-fold. On one hand we are subjected to this prevailing myth–from both sides–that the war is misreported by MSM; on the other, there is a subtle tone coming from “War Tapes” that suggests that since it was filmed by soldiers, it is genuine, truthful and real.

    As for spin, in a war that is producing record casualties among media workers, there is something troubling about praising a team of filmmakers for not going to Iraq and instead relying on combatants–which they are–to do the “reporting”.

    I’m not saying saying that a film like this needs to cover all ground, yes, it is just one perspective, but it can be argued that three years into a war that is costing thousands of Iraqi lives every year and is producing events like Haditha, that it would useful to move beyond what I see as a trend of comforting self-victimization. Which is to say we are all responsible via our actions or inaction and we must dig a little deeper to see who the true victims are.

    As heavy handed as a film like “Hearts amd Minds” was, we are in dire need of that sort of juxtaposition to put the war in context.

  4. Chuck Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 10:47 am

    I’m writing these comments before drinking my morning coffee. Forgive me if they ramble. The short version is that I generally agree with you but that Scranton’s film might still provide a valuable service in helping us to understand the terrible effects of this war.

    The question of perspective is certainly one of the issues I think about when I’ve written on the topic of the Iraq War. I have, in fact, argued that we need more films such as The Dreams of Sparrows and About Baghdad, which were made by Iraqi-born journalists. Those films, better than other documentaries, have shown the terrible effect of the war on Iraqi civilians in a way that few other films can. We need more filmmakers to tell these stories. In this context, Occupation: Dreamland is also pretty remakable in that while it is by documentarians embedded with a military unit, tehy also interview Iraqis, including several who likely joined in the battle of Falluja, but as much as anything I’ve seen it conveys that tipping point powerfully. Films that also focus on the subjective experiences of a few individuals also quite often underplay historical context, and that is a real problem in my opinion.

    I now see the importance of your point about the CBS workers a little more clearly. There is something valuable about the footage produced by journalists who are actually taking the physical risks of covering the war, and I admire people who have done that (whether “MSM” or independent journalists). I haven’t seen War Tapes yet, so unfortunately I can’t address your comments about “self-victimization,” but will consider that issue as I watch (which may not be for a while).

    I think most people do need better context for the war, and your comments about how other first-person docs, such as Voices of Iraq, are imperfect as well (although in its clumsy attempts at propaganda, I found Voices to be a fascinating film). In terms of your “Hearts and Minds” comment, I’ll be curious to see the response to Michael Winterbottom’s documentary Road to Guantanamo, which focuses on the “Tipton Three.” It’s still only another partial narrative about the war but one that seems set to challenge the “war on terror” doctrune of indefinite detention.

  5. Adham Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 6:03 pm

    Journalism or reportage isn’t only about physical risk–in this war that is part of it– but what is more important is context. You can’t direct by remote.

    What I take issue with is the way material filmed by censored combatants has been used by a team that didn’t even bother to go see the context it was filmed in.

    Again, try doing that with insurgents.

  6. Chuck Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 8:40 pm

    I haven’t seen the film, so I’ll have to reserve further judgment for now. I try to see as many documentaries about the war as I can, whether I expect to agree with the film’s argument or not, which is why I eventually saw Voices of Iraq.

    And I do think we are in agreement that most depictions of this war (at least in the US) are severly lacking in context.

  7. Adham Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 8:45 pm

    Going to rest my case on this enlightening comment from the CSM:

    “Documentary filmmakers often worry about how they might influence what happens through their presence. Because these cameras were small and wielded by soldiers themselves (many other soldiers had personal cameras with them, too), they weren’t as intrusive. For Scranton, that adds to the authenticity of what viewers see. “I really wanted to crawl inside of the experience of being a soldier on the ground,” she says.

    Where and when the men shot was up to them. “I think there is something profoundly powerful about giving … soldiers the power to press the record button,” Scranton says.

    Only one piece of video was censored by military officials, a scene shot by Sergeant Pink showing a group of dead insurgent.
    Perhaps it’s just me, but there is something extremely distrurbing about not only what she is saying, but how she is saying it. Again, perhaps I’m stupid, but somebody needs to remind people that we are talking about combatants here–they’e not button pushers, they are trigger pullers.

    Too bad Scranton didn’t “embed” herself with the Marines in Haditha.

  8. Chuck Said,

    June 1, 2006 @ 9:03 pm

    Adham, do you mind sending me the link to that article? I’d like to read the whole thing because the censoring of that material is somehat troubling (you can either hyperlink it or just copy and paste the URL into the comments).

    Thanks for raising some important questions about this film (and about representing war in general).

  9. Adham Said,

    June 2, 2006 @ 5:11 am

  10. Chuck Said,

    June 2, 2006 @ 9:20 am

    Thanks for the link. I’ll take a look at the article a little later.

  11. truth Said,

    June 2, 2006 @ 11:29 pm

    Having served with this unit in Iraq I can tell you honestly that this is a very real documentary. Of course some of the images were censored. Who is going to be able to stomach a dog eating dead insurgents. The context is real though and it brought back some horrifying memories. The film gives the audience a glimpse into the hell of war and that’s all it needs to do. If you haven’t been through war you will never truly appreciate the hell that it really is. I struggle with trying to forget and trying to remember the war every single day. All this talk about the film being censored is garbage. There were no instenses anything like
    Haditha so there was nothing to edit out except for 1 clip that would bar this movie from being shown at most theatres. Guess what though, you do get to see the still photos of the one censored clip. The soldiers in this film speak there opinion as freely as if they were recorded after discharge. In know way does this film show the view of all of the members of 3-172 infantry or the Army. It is a documentary based on three soldiers lives during combat in Iraq, nothing more. Listen, all of the comments about Halliburton and the Bush bashing made it through the NH Guard censors. Honestly I don’t know if any Iraqi film could do more justice to the fact that we didn’t want to be there anymore than they wanted us there. You don’t have to believe anything I say is the truth, but I have no reason to lie. If you are looking for answers to the big picture you won’t find it in this film. All you will see is death, carnage, soldiers trying to stay alive for there one year, and the very personal feelings of these soldiers.

  12. Chuck Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 10:24 am

    Thanks for stopping by with your take on the film. I saw the trailer last night at a screening of An Inconvenient Truth, and the film looked compelling. In terms of the “authenticity” question, I have little doubt that War Tapes relatively realistically represents the experiences of the members of 3-172 infantry. I do think the “big picture” questions are important, but to my mind that doesn’t mean that The War Tapes can’t contribute significantly to my understanding of the war and how soldiers experience it.

  13. Chuck Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 10:56 am

    Prompted by these comments (and via a link in my Site Meter stats), I’ve been reading some reviews and others comments about Haditha. I think that one of the things that bothers me about many of these reviews/articles is that they insist that people “forget that war really is hell” as Frank Schaeffer puts it in this disturbing Washington Post editorial that seems to want to defend the massacre in Haditha.

    There’s a similar sentiment in this review of The War Tapes that the film is essentially illustrating that “Wow, war IS hell, and look how tough it is on our troops and their families. I’m proud that we have men and women like that in our military, and God Bless their families.” I think that most critics believe deeply that war is hell, and that’s why we’re opposed to the war (and that’s probably why many people who are critical of the war are critical of the film).

    Just found it odd that this phrase came up at least twice during my morning coffee reads.

  14. Adham Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 12:27 pm


    You must have had a strong cup of coffee this morning.

    The whole nature of the war has changed. Three years into this, even the most hopeful of us are going to find little to cling onto to justify our actions in Iraq. Which is to say even if we were against it, I think most of us thought Iraq would be a better place. Well, it’s not.

    With that, comes the word propaganda. At this stage, for true introspection, this can’t be about the soldiers anymore. It has to be about the Iraqi people, a people who didn’t ask for this.

    If anyone knows that war is hell, it’s the Iraqis.

    We aren’t the victims. The soldiers aren’t the victims. It’s them.

  15. Chuck Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 12:48 pm

    Nicely put, Adham. Not sure I need to add anything. Actually my coffee was intolerably weak this morning. Perhpas that’s why those remarks I cited made me so grumpy.

  16. Adham Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

    Well, here’s too stronger cups of coffee.

    It’s hard not to wake up grumpy these days.

    And yes, editorialists are going to fall over themselves trying to explain how Hadithas can happen.

    The simple fact is, if we were not there, it wouldn’t happen. It’s blood on our hands. Imagine if we heard reports about a Russian occupation where similar events happened. 1994? Chechnya? Those insurgents were called freedom fighters in the American Press–the same fighters that have gone one to wage Jihad.

    I don’t have the link, but you might want to see a brief blurb by Rod Nordland in Newsweek who looks at three of the new Iraq Iraq films. He takes exception with “The War Tapes” because there is nothing exceptional about the experience. It’s the experience of a few normal Joes–relegated to do non tactical tasks. Good stories, no doubt, but not THE story. Watching guys doing escort duty in Iraq doesn’t tell us anything new. Watching Baghdad ER does. Listening to guys bitch about KBR isn’t fresh, it’s a retread. What we need to see is how the occupation has gotten to where it is today–how the resentment has grown.

    It would be instructive to read op-ed commentary from My Lai. The defense of Lt. Calley. The defense of American character.

    We, sadly, have learned nothing.

    It struck me driving down the highway the other day in NY State when I saw a black and white POW/MIA flag-the only flag besides the satrs and stripes to ever fly over the Capitol, that I refuse to let this war produce more myths. Next thing you know, we’ll have a “Deer Hunter”. The Iraq experience will be about the emotionally wounded veteran. It won’t be long before we’ll hear about vets being spat on (another well-refuted/researched) myth. We have become a nation of victims.

    It’s unfortunate that we can’t take all of our great American qualities–including the good intentions carried by our soldiers in Iraq–and apply them to positive change.

    As you can see, I had a double shot.

  17. Chuck Said,

    June 3, 2006 @ 3:36 pm

    I skimmed Nordland’s Newsweek article sometime this morning (I think one of the reviews I read cited it), but I missed the interesting take on Baghdad ER, which I’m now looking forward to seeing (I’ll hopefully have cable in about a month).

  18. Adham Said,

    June 4, 2006 @ 8:49 am

    Saw this Sunday morning, which further shows just how little we have learned. It’s a q&a with the My Lai prosecutor on Haditha.

    My favorite comment:

    Q: What do you infer from the fact that these incidents came to light through the work of journalists rather than candor from military officers?

    A: The people in the military would expect this to be vigorously reported and to learn what has happened.

    But there is absolute, unmitigated hatred among all those serving in Iraq for the press. The press has haphazardly, unprofessionally and amateurishly reported the war.

    If there’s a pile-on here the way there was with Abu Ghraib, there will be hell to pay. It’s propaganda for the other side.


    You see, it’s all the media’s fault.

    The legacy of Abu Ghraib is that the debate wasn’t about what happened, it’s that the pictures were released at all.

    So, back to the original discussion, it is problmeatic to foster a climate where we give combatants cameras and call it “truth”.

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