Movie Review: The War Tapes

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
"The War Tapes," this year’s winner for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, is one of several docs that have emerged from Iraq during the American occupation. I have seen more than ten docs out of Iraq. Put together, they offer a small glimpse of what is going on there. "The War Tapes" is the only one that is filmed by American troops. It is fairly edited and not meant to be a polemic, but to represent the combat experience.
Helmed by Director Deborah Scranton, "The War Tapes" boasts a venerable team, including Producer Robert May ("The Fog of War"), Producer/Editor Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), and Executive Producer, Chuck Lacy. Scranton was asked to embed with the New Hampshire Army National Guard, but instead, requested to imbed several video cameras with the troops. She gave one-chip Sony digital video cameras to members of the New Hampshire Army National Guard in 2004, before they were deployed to Iraq, and asked them to film their experiences. The documentary is comprised of footage from three guardsmen, family interviews, post-deployment interviews with the guardsmen, and additional footage from other troops.

Watching the Iraq Occupation documentary films is important but not the most pleasant experience. But, I figure that the troops are risking their lives and their mental health, having to watch their friends get slaughtered, and having to kill innocent civilians, so the least I can do as an American citizen and voter, is educate myself by spending a few hours watching a film about it. With all of these films there are always scenes you can’t shake from your mind, evocative visuals or words that can make you feel desperate for the human loss, destruction, and waste. An affecting comment in "The War Tapes" is that civilians lose if there is a choice between their lives and an American life.

And that leads back to the question of what it must be like to face death every day. The consistent theme among all of the Iraq Occupation docs is that the troops feel that no one can understand what they are going through. And, like the other documentaries such as "Occupation Dreamland" and "Gunner Palace," "The War Tapes" portrays the chaos and lack of clarity about the mission.

Another prominent theme in "The War Tapes" is the exorbitant financial cost of the invasion. The guardsmen repeatedly talk about Vice President Cheney’s connection to the war profits. They complain that the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root earns obscene fees for their services ($28.00 per plate; troops often take two because the plates are flimsy, making the cost $56.00 for a breakfast), and rates the highest protection, at the cost of safety for the guardsmen.
In this character-driven documentary, the three videographers tell their stories through their footage. Sgt. Zack Bazzi, a complex and contradictory personality, reads The Nation, and considers himself political; he loves being a soldier, but notes that soldiers can’t choose their wars. He has more trouble objectifying the Iraqis because he is a Lebanese immigrant who can understand Arabic. His mother is incredulous that she escaped the Lebanese civil war to keep Zack safe when he was eight years old, and now he intentionally goes into a war.

People say they’re evil and they hate our way of life and they don’t see that we are trying to liberate them. Well, if Canada invaded tomorrow and they said, you know; ‘We’re here to liberate you guys from Bush because we think Bush is bad for you....’ There’s gonna definitely be some people who take to those mountains and do some serious guerilla fighting. The insurgents got their principles and we got ours. You gotta respect that...

On a practical level when I’m on the road, it’s my guys versus them. The hell with the immorality of it, I want one thing and one thing only-- combat.

In the final scenes of "The War Tapes," we see the powerful toll of the war after the men return home, where they begin yet another journey of healing from what they saw in Iraq.

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield.
Air date: 6/28/06
More Information:
The War Tapes
Director: Deborah Scranton; Producer: Robert May; Producer/Editor: Steve James, Executive Producer: Chuck Lacy; 2006 Winner for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.