when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Big Sky Finale

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Around 30 people showed up for my Valentine’s Day screening at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Size matters to some degree, so I was a bit disappointed by the small turnout, but Full Disclosure isn’t exactly in keeping with the warm and snuggly V Day vibe. Still, it was thrilling to have my festival debut. My stomach flipped and squirmed until the doc started rolling. Then I settled into the show.

Full Disclosure was paired with a 21-minute animated piece called Cohen on the Bridge about the 1976 Israeli raid on the Uganda’s Entebbe airport to rescue the passengers of a hijacked Air France aircraft. The subjects were related—men, guns, fighting, killing—but the messages were diametrically opposed. Cohen, conceived of and directed by Andrew Wainrib, is a paean to the commandos behind a young state’s audacious rescue mission. It is a story that focuses heavily on Israeli heroism and tactical excellence without delving into the moral and political complexities of the situation—and the consequences of killing.

Full Disclosure also dwells in the tactical, the day-to-day interactions between U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians during the most violent periods of the occupation. But it digs into the cumulative and toxic effects of combat and war, not a single exceptional mission. And as much as Full Disclosure is my interpretation of events—it is edited, after all—it remains true to the facts and the essence of events I witnessed. The violence is rendered straight, in all its ugliness and ambiguity.

One friend who works with the armed forces, though not in the service himself, suggested I add “positive” moments to make the documentary appeal more to military audiences. In the overall context of this war, the number of upbeat and substantive interactions between Iraqi civilians and U.S. combat troops (which is who I spent most of my time with) was tiny. And handing out pencils to kids during a patrol or funding a well that gets destroyed by anti-U.S. forces just doesn’t count; such superficial hearts-and-minds activities have no lasting impact. This is, of course, my view, but it is supported by the sad facts on the ground—documented not only by Iraqi and UN agencies but by America’s own Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction—about the quality of life for Iraqis, the state of the economy, and the political environment.

The comparison between the films is absolutely unfair—mine is a personal and painful critique of “preemptive war”; Wainrib’s is a celebration of one military operation—but the pairing makes it inevitable.

During the Q&A, a young man named Ryan, who told me later that he had served in the military, asked me how I made particular “tactical decisions” in my videotaping. Specifically, he wanted to know why I chose to run into the gunfire rather than away from it during the sniper attack on Charlie Company featured in the documentary. I had journeyed to Iraq to be a witness to events, I told him. I couldn’t play that role behind a concrete barrier. I also had to admit that I was driven by a certain situational machismo—if these Marines could do it, I could too.

The Q&A was cut short because we started late and there was another film right after us, a doc about Norwegian death metalheads—not exactly snuggly Valentine’s Day fare either. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat deflated by the turnout for my screening. The Wilma Theater had been jammed for the opening night film, raising my expectations to rather unrealistic heights. But as we were wrapping up, the Big Sky programmer who championed Full Disclosure and led the Q&A told the audience that it rose above the other Iraq-related documentaries he had seen.

That didn’t stop me from second-guessing myself into a deep funk on the plane from New York back to Bangladesh. (The pee-soaked bathrooms on both Virgin Atlantic and Biman airlines didn’t help my mood.) What if I’d networked relentlessly, promoted harder? But I’ve gained a bit more perspective on events in Montana since returning to Dhaka. The fact that this was my first festival feels like an important milestone. And the programmer’s parting words have stayed with me, quieting my self-doubt. For now at least.



Written by bxpnyc

2010/02/20 at 11:19

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