Scenes from "The War Tapes": Deborah Scranton on

The director of the award-winning documentary The War Tapes, Deborah Scranton makes films that help people tell their own stories. She talks about making The War Tapes, her 2006 doc that put videocameras in the hands of Charlie Company, a unit of the National Guard stationed in Iraq, for one year. Their raw footage and diaries tell a powerful, unsettling story. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 17:49.)

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Transcript: Deborah Scranton, TED2007

Deborah Scranton: Scenes from “The War Tapes”

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Three years ago, I got a phone call, based on an earlier film I had made, with an offer to embed the New Hampshire National Guard. My idea — and literally, I woke up in the middle of the night, and we’ve all have those moments — you know, you go to sleep — you know, I was excited, with this phone call, I was thinking I just finished making another film about World War Two vets, and I realized I’d gotten to know their stories, and I realized this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to tell a warrior’s story as it unfolded. So I went to bed that night pretty excited, you know, not sure of all the details, but — excited. It wasn’t at 4 in the morning, but — it was closer to midnight. Woke straight up, wide awake as could be, and I had this idea — what if in effect I could virtually embed? And create a permeable relationship with the soldiers? To tell the story from the inside out, versus the outside in?

So I called back Major Heilshorn, who’s the public affairs officer of the New Hampshire National Guard, and he knew me, so I was like, Greg? He’s like, “Yes, Deborah?” Told him my idea, and you know, he is one of the bravest men in the world and — as is General Blair, who in the end gave me permission to try this experiment.

Within ten days I was down at Fort Dix. He gave me my pick of units. I picked one unit — Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd, they’re mountain infantry, for two reasons: One, they’re infantry, number two, they were gonna be based at LSA Anaconda, so I knew they would have internet access. The caveat for my access was I had to get the soldiers to volunteer. This was a big thing, that I think when Major H told me, I wasn’t really totally gathering what that would mean.

So what that meant was, when I went down to Fort Dix, I had to hop out in front of 180 guys, and tell them of my vision. You can imagine the hailstorm of questions I got. The opening one was “What the fuck do you know about the National Guard?” I started with the 1607 Massachusetts Bay Colony Pequod Indian Wars, gave them about a 9 minute response, and there we went.

So, I’d like to show the clip of the film. It’s our trailer, because I know — you know, obviously you guys are busy, you — many of you may not have had a chance to see it, so I wanna show the trailer, and then I’m gonna take apart one scene in detail. If we could roll…

(Trailer begins)
(note: not entirely sure about the attribution of the dialogue below)

(text: “Three National Guardsmen — Sgt. Stephen Pink, Spc. Michael Moriarty, Sgt. Zack Bazzi — Filmed Their Own Tour Of Duty”)

(Pink:) This is Sergeant Stephen Pink.

(Moriarty:) Specialist Michael Moriarty.

(Bazzi:) Do I really want to go? Probably not.

(soldier:) We’re not supposed to talk to the media.

(Pink?:) I’m not the media, dammit!

(text: “For One Year In Iraq’)

(Moriarty?:) The day is here. Life will change.

(quotes from various soldiers on a plane:)
…The real deal, man!
You ready?
Bring it on!
Ready? (shakes head)
Iraq, here we come!

(cut to convoy, travelling)
(Bazzi?:) Every soldier eventually wants to go to combat. It’s a natural instinct.

(Pink?:) If you let fear get to you, then you’re not going to be doing your job.

(night shot followed by attack footage)
(Moriarty:) Every single time you go out there, there’s attacks. It’s unbelievable.

(inside Humvee)
(Bazzi?:) Hey pastor, your ass crack is right in my face.

(tank convoy rolling past attack scenes)
(soldier, amidst much shouting and chaos:) Are we on fire?

(Moriarty:) Keep going, brother. You wanna play?

(text: “‘Remarkable. Very moving. Very real.’ — Mark Bowden, Author ‘Black Hawk Down'”)

(Moriarty’s wife:) It’s really hard for him to not have his dad.

(text: “They served a year”)

(Moriarty:)It’s a little kid, in the middle of a war zone.

(“They Filmed The Action”)

(unintelligible shouting, combat scene)

(Pink’s girlfriend:)In the beginning, he’s like “Write something dirty!”

(“They Didn’t Know What To Expect”)

(news footage of Bush) “The world’s newest democracy.”
(cut to burning tanker)

(“But They Got It All On Tape”)

(Moriarty:) They’re shooting at me.

(cut to tank barrel, written on side is “Size does matter”)

(Pink:) You don’t put 150,000 troops in there and say we’re there to create democracy.

(soldier, outside Burger King on the base:) We’ve got a drive through window at Burger King now.

(Pink:) We’re here to create money.

(Moriarty:) I support George Bush, we’re not there for the oil.

(“From the Producers of the Academy Award (R) Winning THE FOG OF WAR”)

(Jon Baril:) Worst thing in my life.

(Pink(?), passing destruction:) (garbled), don’t look at it bud.

(Moriarty’s wife:) He’s not the same person any more.

(Moriarty walking:) I will not go back.

(“‘A film of rare honesty and power.’ — Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning War Correspondent”)

(scenes of soldiers mixing with Iraqi kids)
(Kevin Shangraw:) The Iraqi people are who we are there to help — and we just killed one.

(shouting, battle chaos)

(cut to music)
(“the war tapes”)

(John Baril:) It’ll be a better country in 20 years, ’cause we were there….
I hope.

(back to Scranton)
Thank you. One of the things I’d like to talk to you about is having a conversation about something that is difficult to talk about, and I’d like to relate an experience I had here at TED. I don’t know how many of you might imagine it, but there’s actually a TED-ster who recently got back from Iraq. Paul? C’mon, stand up. This is Paul Anthony — he served — (applause) -with the Marines, and I wanna tell you a little brief story. When we were — we were one of the lucky ones to get in the class with the Sony cameras and the Vista software. Right? And we started talking, people will see my tag, and they’ll see The War Tapes, and then we’ll start talking about war.

We got in a conversation, and — some of the people in the class — and it went on and on. I mean, we were there for an hour, talking. And it really highlighted something I would like to ask you guys to think about and hopefully to help with, which is — I think a lot of us are very afraid to have conversations about war, and about politics, and really — because maybe we’re gonna disagree. Maybe it’s gonna get uncomfortable. How do we open it up, to really be able to have a conversation? And, you know, Paul, was talking, and he then turned to Constace(?) and said, you know, I wouldn’t have this conversation if she weren’t here, because I know she has my back.

And I wanna say, what I was gonna — I was nervous — ’cause I’m used to doing Q & A’s, I really related to what James was saying yesterday, ’cause I’m behind the camera. You know, I can answer questions about my movie, but for me to come up and talk for 18 minutes is a really long time. So I wanted to say that — Paul, I’m happy you’re here, because I know you have my back.

This film was not about the internet, but it could not have been made without it. The guys — tapes on average took two weeks to get from Iraq to me, in the meantime, the soldiers — we would email and IM — I didn’t save all of them, because I didn’t realize at the beginning that it would be something that I would want to keep track of. But there were 3,211 emails and IMs and text messages that I was able to save. The reason I quantify that is because we really embarked on this as a mutual journey, to really get inside of it. So I wanted to show you a clip, and then I was gonna tell you a little bit of how it got put together — if we could roll the clip.

(Pink:) Today is sport (garbled)
(radio: “onward christian soldiers”)
(shot of soldier in Humvee flipping off camera)
…we like to give these insurgents a fair chance. So what we do, we ride with the windows down. ‘Cause, you know, we obviously have the advantage.
(shot of Pink riding in armored Humvee)
I’m just kidding. We don’t fucking ride with the goddam windows down. It’s not true. Very unsafe.
(inside Humvee…. suddenly explosions ring out) Whoa.
(unidentified voice:) Right there.
(Pink:) All right, let’s get over to that site. Be advised, we’re leaving (Taji?). Now we believe that the blast was right outside the gate of Taji, we’re heading to that location now.
(Humvee approaches gate)
(voice:) That’s a fucking car bomb!
(voice:) Motherfuckers!
(shouting, radio, garbled dialogue)
(multiple voices:) Get your vest on!… hey, get over the fucking… yeah, yeah… before… …get to the gate!
(Pink:) …16, or A14 (?)Element, we need you at the gate of Taji right now, over.
(man running beside Humvee:) I’ll walk you through it.
(many voices, scenes of carnage)
(Pink:) Stay low… head over to the right … get your bag, get your bag!!
(screams, more unintelligible shouting)
(Pink, voiceover:) It was a mess (?)(garbled) …20 dead, at least 20 or 30 wounded, Iraqis.
(burning cars, dead body)
(camera cuts to Pink being interviewed) It just looked like… you know, someone had — had thrown a quarter through a guy, and it was just like — there was no blood coming from the shrapnel wounds, everything was cauterized, and it was just like there was a void going — going through the body.
(cut back to scene of bombing, Pink narrating as he films where the body lay)
This is the scene north — they just removed a burnt body, or half a body, from here — I don’t think there was anything left from his abdominal down. This is blood. And uh… you know… you walk, you hear the pieces of skin and…that’s it. All that’s left.
(another Pink voiceover, reading from journal, while film shows aftermath of bombing)
I remember giving three IV’s, bandaging several wounded, soldiers sitting in the corner of a sandbag wall, shaking and screaming. Medics who were terrified and couldn’t perform. I later heard that Iraqi casualties were not to be treated in Taji. They can work on the post for pennies, but can’t die there. They’ve got to die outside. If one of those incompetent medical officers told me to stop treatment, I would’ve slit his throat right there.

2100 hours, and it’s just our squad going through today’s events in our heads, whether we want to or not.

(cut to CNN news footage: “At this hour: Twin Suicide Car Bombings Kill 8 Iraqis at Coalition Base”)

(newscaster:) More violence in Iraq. Twin suicide car bombings killed 8 Iraqis and wounded dozens more in a coalition base north of Baghdad… (trails off under voiceover of Pink, again reading from journal, film cuts to Pink flipping pages in journal, then to photo of him and girlfriend)
We made the news. I feel exploited and proud at the same time. I have lost all faith in the media, a hapless joke that I would much rather laugh at than become a party. I should really thank God for saving my lucky ass. I’ll do that, then I’m gonna jerk off, because these pages smell like Lindz, and there won’t be any time for jerking off tomorrow. Another mission at zero 600.

Now — (applause) thanks. When I said earlier, to try and tell a story from the inside out, versus the outside in, part of what Chris said so eloquently in his introduction is this melding — it’s a new way of trying to make a documentary. When I met the guys, and 10 of them agreed to take cameras — in total, 21 ended up filming. Five soldiers filmed the entire time — there’s three featured in the film.

The way I learned about Taji was Steve Pink sent me an email, and in it attached a photo of that burned body, out at the car. And the tone from the email was, you know, it had been a very bad day, obviously. And I saw in my IM window that Mike Moriarty was at the base, so I said — I pinged Mike and I said, Mike, can you please go get that interview with Pink? Because the thing that very often is missing is, in the military, what they call ‘hot wash,’ is that immediate interview after something immediately happens, you know, and if you let time go by, kind of softens and smoothes the edges. And for me, that — I really wanted that.

So, in that — in order to get the intimacy, to share that experience with you — the guys — the two most popular mounts — there was a camera on the turret — of the — the gun turret, and then on the dashboard of the Humvee. Most of the Humvees ended up — we ended up mounting two cameras in them. So you get to experience that in real time, right? The interview that you see is the one that Mike went and did within 24 hours of that episode happening.

Steve Pink reading his journal happened five months after he came home. I knew about that journal, but it was very very private. And, you know, you earn someone’s trust, especially in doc filmmaking, through your relationship. So it wasn’t until five months after he was home that he would read that journal.

Now, the news footage I put in there to try to show — you know, I think mainstream media tries to do the best they can in the format that they have. But the thing that I know you all have heard a lot of times — American soldiers saying — you know, why don’t they talk about the good stuff that we do? OK, this is a perfect example. Pink’s squad and another squad spent their entire day outside the wire. They didn’t have to go outside the wire. There were not Americans hurt out there. They spent their entire day outside the wire trying to save Iraqi lives — the Iraqis who work on the post. So when you may hear soldiers complaining, that’s what they’re talking about. You know? And I think it’s such an amazing gift that they would share this, you know, as a way of bridging.

And when I talk about that polarity — I get at so many different Q & A’s, and people are really opinionated, but it seems like people don’t want to hear so much. Or listen. Or try to have an exchange. And I’m as fiery as the next person, but I really think — you know, different speakers have talked about their concern for the world, and my concern is that we have to have these conversations. And we have to be able to go into scary places where we may — you know, we think we know. But we just have to leave that little bit of openness to know. You know, there’s such a disconnect. And for me, it’s trying to bridge that disconnect.

I’ll share one story I get — I’m often asked, you know, for me, what have been some of the special moments from having worked on this film. And at screenings, inevitably, you know — as I’m sure all of you obviously do speaking stuff, usually you have people who hang around and want to ask you more questions, and usually it’s — the first questions are oh, what kind of cameras did you use, or you know, these things. But there’s always a few guys — almost always — who are the last ones. And I’ve learned over time that those are always the soldiers. And they wait until pretty much everybody’s gone. And for me, one of the most profound stories someone shared with me, that then became my story, was — for those of you who haven’t seen the film, there — and it’s not a spoiler, it’s very common there are a lot of civilian accidents where people get in front of Humvees and they get killed. In this film, there is a scene where an Iraqi woman is killed. A soldier came up to me and stood, you know, really, pretty close — a foot away from me — ‘s a big guy. And he looked at me, and I smiled, and then I saw the tears start welling up in his eyes. And he wasn’t gonna blink. And he said, my gunner was throwing candy — and I knew what he was gonna say. The gunner was throwing candy — they used to throw candy to t
he kids. Kids got too close, very often. And he said, I killed a child. And I’m a father. I have children. I haven’t been able to tell my wife, I’m afraid she’s gonna think I’m a monster. I hugged him, of course, and I said it’s gonna be OK. And he said, I’m gonna bring her to see your film. And then I’m gonna tell her.

So, when I talk about a disconnect, it’s not only for maybe those people who don’t know a soldier. Which there obviously are — you know, these days, it’s not like World War Two where there was a war front, and a home front, and everybody seemed involved. You can go for days here and not feel like there’s a war going on. And often I’ll hear people say, you know, who maybe know that I did this film and they say, oh, you know, I’m against the war but I support the soldiers. And I’ve started to ask them well, that’s nice, what are you doing? Are you volunteering at a VA? You go and see anybody? Do you, if you find out your neighbor’s been, do you, you know, spend some time, not necessarily ask questions, but see if they want to talk? Do you give money to any of the charities that — you know obviously like Dean Kamen’s working on that amazing thing — but there’s charities where you can sponsor computers for wounded soldiers.

I think — I challenge us to say — to operationalize those terms when we say we support someone, you know? Are you a friend to them? Do you really care? And I would just say it’s my hope, and I would ask you guys, to please, you know, reach out a hand, and really do give them a hug.

Thank you.

[Transcription by Robert Thomas Carter]