when the dust clears

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Archive for the ‘Video’ Category

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

Update from the Producer/Directors of Make the Ground Talk

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A few Saturdays ago, we led an audience at William and Mary’s Lemon Project Symposium on an audiovisual tour of the research we’ve done for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Our show started where we began our actual journey: Camp Peary, the military base that seventy years ago swallowed Magruder, the town where Brian’s father and his parents were born, and where the grave of his great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, still lies.

One of the most important things we’ve learned during our months of reading, talking, and filming—other than that Mat was a Union Army vet who had been a slave—is that many other historic black Tidewater communities were uprooted and displaced, usually by Uncle Sam, in the 20th century. Land was seized both by the government through eminent domain and by “market forces,” often large institutions that applied the tremendous economic and political power they wielded in pre–Civil Rights America.

We shared with folks at W&M—many Palmers as well as academics and others who have guided us this far—a realization we had a few months into our work. To do justice to the small story, that of Magruder and Brian’s family, we needed to tackle the much larger one: the series of evictions that erased a constellation of communities connected by family, church, and other fundamental bonds.

After the talk—we think it went well—we spent another week in Virginia, using Hampton as our base once again, to explore new places and meet people with stories about communities like Magruder, Uniontown, and Acretown. Najla Kurani told us how her grandparents, white folks who moved to Magruder from Indiana (by way of Panama!), found their property, coaxed food out of the poor soil, and then lost it to the Navy when everyone else did. With his wife, Louise, Brian’s cousin Horace Smith led us through Bible study, our first, and vividly described life in Grove, the place where many black Magruderites like the Palmers resettled. The club at Grove’s Log Cabin Beach on the James River was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs across the South where black entertainers—Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, and many others—performed for black folks, who were banned from white clubs. The club’s DJ had a slogan, which Rev. Horace bellowed for us at his kitchen table: “Everybody’s gabbin’ about Log Cabin!”

But the archives were calling us, too. Family historians, women like Brian’s late Aunt Ethelyn and late cousin Jean who laid the foundation for our work, have said that the Palmers originated in Amelia County. Knowledge passed verbally from forbears tells us this. But there’s also some documentary evidence: A marriage register from York County lists Brian’s great-grandfather Mat’s parents, Winnie and Lewis, and his place of birth, Amelia. Other documents, though—actual affidavits attached to Mat’s Union Army pension application—point to Goochland County (which we visited in November). So we headed west to the Amelia County Clerk’s office to hunt for answers.

We’d been told this was the red (as in Romney, not Lenin, red) part of the state, so we’d braced ourselves for a tepid reception in both Amelia and neighboring Nottoway County, where we stayed. While hardly Kumbaya country, the small town of Blackstone is almost exactly half African American, half white. Cars in the Grey Swan Inn’s gravel lot sported Obama-Biden bumper stickers. Turns out these cars belonged to our lovely innkeepers, Jim and Christine Hasbrouck. (Even better, Jim roasts his own coffee. Need we say more?)

Amelia has a slightly different feel. Perhaps it’s the monument to the “Confederate Dead” smack in the middle of town, in front of the courthouse. At the antiques shop across the street, we came face to face with a man-size Sambo-esque statue to which someone—perhaps the shoppe’s frosty owner—has affixed a handwritten note in “dialect” talkin’ ’bout “massa.” The rotund figure is merely the largest in a collection of Jim Crow–era curios.

That said, our guide to the clerk’s archives, Juanita Booker, was African American, as were Leroy and Sylvia Hatcher, the proprietors of our lunch spot, Hatcher’s Dining and Catering—which is separated from Mammy Land by a tiny parking lot. We haven’t gotten used to these juxtapositions.

At the clerk’s office, we dug into ancient deed books, marriage registers, and volumes of wills in search of Mat Palmer’s parents. Since slaves were property and recorded as such in documents, we searched the names of potential owners, beginning with the Hobsons, the Goochland family that owned Mat. Dig, dig, dig. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Harrumph. Then, a familiar name: Maben, a family with multiple connections to the Hobsons. Erin found the names “Winney” and “Lewis No. 2”—one of three Lewises— and “child William,” in the will of one David Maben. We levitated and beamed for a few seconds, despite the shock of seeing these names listed among feather beds and farm animals. These may or may not be our Winnie—Winney?—and Lewis, but we’ve found one more thread to follow on our journey.

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk's office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Our next tasks: create a reel with segments of our strongest interviews and other video imagery, and—wait for it—our first fund-raising push. We’ll be setting up on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Stay tuned.

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

Making the ground talk

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Snowden, Goochland VA, November, 2012

Snowden, Goochland VA, November 2012

The backyard of Snowden, a pre–Civil War brick plantation home in Goochland County, Virginia, is the James River Valley. The yellow-brown fields, bare except for remnants of cornhusks and stalks, dip and rise into a stand of trees where a few cows nibble whatever cows nibble in late November. The landscape is beautiful but austere. I know it’ll look very different in the spring, reassuringly green, but still I marvel that men like my great-grandfather Mathew Palmer were able to coax pounds of tobacco and bushels of corn, wheat, and oats from this folding, sloping terrain. But I’m not a farmer, like Mat, his children, and my father, when he was a very young man.

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

It’s quiet, and I’m alone for the moment. My wife, Erin, explores the grounds, tended only by a flock of mildly curious sheep. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine Mat and this place as it was in 1860. He would have been just shy of 20 years old, if the scant records kept of his life are accurate. I have a tough time visualizing. Scenes from the melodramatic 1970s miniseries Roots muddy my efforts.

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Almost a year after first standing at my great-grandfather’s grave, I have gathered only a few fragments of his life. But they are telling, a promising beginning.

Finding a single photograph of Mat took months—plus luck, and the kindness and generosity of distant relatives. They assured me a portrait of Mathew hung on the wall of their church, directly across from the pastor’s office. I asked how I might go about getting permission to see it. Permission? Just come to church on Sunday, they said.

The photo itself appears to be a copy of a copy of a copy—it’s grainy and a mushy gray—circa 1910, which would put him in his late 60s. But I see the man. Long, gaunt face. High cheekbones. I read his expression as something between grim and determined. In him I see my grandfather Lewis, of whom there are several crystal clear photos. And I see my dad just before he died last year, when the fat of relative prosperity had disappeared from his face. All of these men were extraordinary ordinary people, men who faced discrimination and poverty stoically, at least in public, bore their burdens, and moved forward.

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

It’s easier to visualize what life might have been like for my great-grandfather’s likely owner, who lived at Snowden. The white, slave-owning gentry, of which Alexander Maben Hobson was a member, gathered their own stories and fashioned them into “history”; their comings, goings, and doings were deemed important enough to record.

Erin and I also happen to be staying at a marvelously appointed bed and breakfast, Clover Forest Plantation, the former home of Hobson’s in-laws, the Pembertons. The families were as close as their plantations, which are next door to each other. This morning, we breakfasted with the Pemberton family patriarch, Thomas, a Revolutionary War veteran. The captain surveys the green landscape from horseback in the portrait above the fireplace. If Pemberton, a planter with 55 enslaved people in 1810, could look down from his perch, he’d spy an interracial couple eating omelets and just-fried beignets on heirloom china in what used to be his bedroom.

Maben Hobson served during the Civil War with the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Company muster rolls, “regimental returns,” and a host of other documents I got from Richmond’s  Museum of the Confederacy show that he was absent from duty because of illness about as much as he was present. Whatever ailed him, killed him. “He lay ill for six weeks, and then died a struggling painful death without uttering one word to give us hope that he made peace with God!” his sister-in-law Annie wrote in her wartime diary.

“God grant that I may not stand again by such deathbed,” she wrote in December 1863, two months after Hobson passed. “He was raving in delirium all the time, his death throes were like a woman’s in travail, his deep sephulcral voice—articulation and modulation almost gone—sound in my ears now.”

Frame grab from Mat Palmer's Union pension application

Frame grab from Mat Palmer’s Union pension application

Mat Palmer also served during the Civil War. This is where his trail begins. Somehow—I’m trying to determine this now—he traveled from Goochland to Richmond, where he enlisted in 1865 with the United States Colored Troops, the Union Army’s 180,000-strong African American arm. After the war, he married a woman from Gloucester County named Julia, about whom we know next to nothing, because black women mattered even less than black men to those compiling records.

They settled near the banks of the York River, not far from Williamsburg, carved a farm from the swampy land, and raised 12 children, including Lewis, my grandfather. Julia died in 1910, Mat in 1927, outliving Hobson by a good 64 years. They deeded their property to their children—and a decade and a half later, the government took it away.

Using eminent domain under the Second War Powers Act, the Navy condemned and seized my family’s property—and that of hundreds of other families, black and white—to expand a training base for “Seabees,” navy construction battalions, during World War II. Compensation was meager, and for blacks, many of whom lived at the subsistence level, not nearly enough to establish themselves elsewhere. My father, Eddie, recalled the eviction vividly. “They ordered some families in Magruder to leave their homes and they gave them 60 days or so to prepare to leave, abandon their property completely because it’s going to be bulldozed,” my dad told me. “The Seabees were marching in the back of our home, our homes, before we left, before they settled with my father. My father refused to leave until he was paid his money. When he saw a check, that’s when we moved,” my dad recalled. That was Lewis Palmer—tough, dogged, unafraid—whose settlement with the government, more than $1,700, was several times what many black families received.

If he had any innocence at age 14, and I suspect he did, much of it was stomped out of him after the dislocation and relocation. He died last year still embittered about the land seizure and how it decimated his—our—family’s fortunes.

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin's/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin’s/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Mat’s grave is in a cemetery within the confines of Camp Peary, a Defense Department and CIA facility. What happens on base is classified, so visitors must always be escorted. I needed permission from the base commander to visit, which was granted.

I visited his grave in early 2012. I was so overwhelmed that Erin had to do much of my thinking for me. She framed the enormity of the paradox: Mat Palmer had been property before winning the right to own property. Land was the measure of citizenship, even the circumscribed and dangerously provisional form lived by black folk.

Mat is a piece of a past I did not know I had, an unrecognized piece of me that I’m working to reclaim.

U.S. Navy Psyops — In American Theaters Now!

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Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP.Department of Defense Joint Publication 1-02

In January, the United States Navy celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sea-Air-Land commandos — the now legendary SEALs. A month later, Act of Valor hit 3000 movie theaters across the country. It earned more than $24 million in its first weekend, blasting it to the top of box-office charts.

On the surface, AOV appears to be familiar merchandise, a big (though lowish-budget), dumb action flick marinated in testosterone and an American-might-is-right ethos. Everything in that description fits, except the “dumb” part.

After a sorry attempt to introduce and humanize the main characters, all SEALs — they cannot act, and so become indistinguishable from one another — AOV gets down to its cinematic business: serving up hot and riveting combat spectacle. Helmet cams send us into freefall with the special operators on a high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachute jump. We then glide up a Costa Rican river with coolheaded Naval Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCCs from here on out) in heavily armed boats to extract a SEAL element that’s taking withering bad-guy fire after rescuing a kidnapped CIA agent.

The boat’s GAU 17/M134D Gatling gun whirs like a monstrous mechanical bumblebee as it spits out 3000+ rounds a minute from its six barrels. The rounds perforate the thin steel sides of the thugs’ vehicles with pitter-patter pings. A pickup truck becomes a colander with wheels. (Presumably the rounds make a different sound when hitting people, but there’s too much noise in the sound mix to hear that, if it’s there at all.)

The action feels real because it is real — or at least kind of real. Active-duty SEALs and SWCCs play the lead roles and conduct these jaw-dropping operations — that’s AOV’s sole, yet boffo selling point. The ops are all the more convincing because the SEALs planned and executed them as actual training exercises. Live-fire exercises. (In real life, SEALs refer to themselves as “quiet professionals.” The Navy admits that the men who appear in AOV had to be compelled to step into the limelight by their commanders.)

Action filmmakers often collaborate with the Pentagon to get their hands on weapons of war — not just guns, but tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. To keep their precious privileges, directors carve out bits of dialogue and plot the military finds objectionable, off-message, or just plain despicable, even if they’re true. A scene in World War II movie Windtalkers where a U.S. marine wrenches gold teeth from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier? Cut. There is a very long list of such films: Top Gun, Clear and Present Danger, Independence Day, G.I. Jane, and so on. (See David L. Robb’s book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.)

Sometimes these relationships sour, particularly if the screenplay heads in a direction military policymakers don’t like and stays there. That happened with Hurt Locker. (Films that are critical from the jump and stay that way such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now get no military love and must scrounge up hardware in places equipped by the U.S. like Thailand and the Philippines.)

AOV blows way past any sort of traditional military-civilian partnership. In fact, it harkens back to World War II when Frank Capra directed the Why We Fight series of propaganda films for the War Department, movies like Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike as well as the remarkably progressive The Negro Soldier. (Watch it online!) Unlike the civilian filmmakers who give us AOV, however, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, Capra was a U.S. Army officer. It was his duty to create propaganda to serve the war effort.

AOV may be making money hand over fist — $58 million in the U.S. as of March 14 — but it is much, much more than a commercial product. It is the fruit of long-term naval strategy, brilliant operational planning, and flawless tactical employment.

Together with the Navy’s information office, Naval Special Warfare Command created the concept for AOV. The public affairs folks at NSW describe the genesis of the movie with martial clarity. “With an urgent requirement for more SEALs, NSW decided to take an innovative approach to its recruiting efforts,” reads an article in Ethos, NSW Command’s unclassified magazine. “One of those innovations was to grant access to a filmmaker who could credibly provide a compelling and accurate window into the Teams.”

NSW solicited proposals from three production companies to make AOV and settled on Bandito Brothers, the company run by McCoy and Waugh, which makes extreme sports videos. (Collider.com has a good interview with the filmmakers, who tell us, among other things, that the film was completed before SEAL Team 6 paid a nighttime visit to Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and killed him.)

“It was initially started as a recruiting film, so that we could help recruit minorities into teams,” Admiral Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said a few weeks ago. This explains why the SEAL element we see on screen is so uncommonly brown and black. The actual SEAL force — and all U.S. special ops components — is overwhelmingly white.

NSW reviewed all the 1700 hours of footage for operational security reasons — high-ranking navy commanders have struggled to reassure critics within the military community that no classified special forces tactics, techniques, or procedures are revealed in the movie. They also stress that no taxpayer money was spent on AOV.

There’s more: NSW secured from the directors an agreement “to provide NSW with the entire catalogue of raw footage to repurpose for the Navy’s own use following the release of the movie,” according to the Ethos article. Not bad for zero money down.

AOV might not be a gripping tale, but it’s damn sure a ripping ride. I marveled at the technical complexity of the combat sequences — 15 cameras for one scene! I nodded in recognition as the “actors” delivered their lines like well-meaning robots because I’ve heard earnest young lieutenant-types deliver their talking points in the same dutiful tone. And after one scene, I cried. For real.

But I also hung my head in disbelief as the chaotic plot unloaded, and I cringed at the awful stereotypes. Kurt Johnstad, AOV’s screenwriter — and the guy who gave the world 300, a bloody romp set in ancient Persia — manages to squeeze in a phalanx of walking clichés. We get a psychotic Muslim terrorist, a nearly amoral Ukrainian Jewish smuggler (he’s the film’s only multidimensional character), and scheming Mexican narcos. Since diversity seems to be the order of the day, Johnstad could have thrown in a Simon Mann-like Brit mercenary. Or a venal non-Jewish arms dealer — Viktor Bout, a Russian now awaiting sentencing in a New York City prison for conspiring to kill American citizens and officials, comes to mind. Or perhaps a corrupt U.S. congressman based on the real-life Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was convicted of taking bribes from not one, not two, but three defense contractors. And to be fair, I can’t leave out my African brothers: Johnstad could also have crammed in a demented and homicidal Ugandan warlord like Joseph Kony.

The problem with AOV runs deeper than its many layers of lameness and naval provenance. While the physical terrain the SEALs navigate and dominate in AOV is visually rich, the figurative terrain of the film is flat, dull, empty. There are no political, legal, humanitarian, or ethical dilemmas. There’s no sense of history, place, culture, nothing to give the film any resonance or cohesion, just fiery displays of tactical excellence and depictions of individual heroism. This is not an accident.

More than just a shiny digital fishing lure cast in front of enlistment-age boys, AOV functions as both justification for and promotion of a dangerous policy, the frequent dispatching of clandestine warriors to do the dirty, secret, and often extralegal work of the administration. This very old practice was updated and popularized by Dick Cheney (and George Bush) and has been dramatically expanded by President Barack Obama.

Examined in this light, the movie’s flaws become virtues. Troublesome moral, political, historical crap is cleared away, leaving nothing that would allow the viewer to generate just a little empathy for anyone other than the American heroes — say, perhaps, a civilian trapped in the crossfire or on the despoiled battlefield. Without such vital, real-world context, the SEALs become superhuman cartoon warriors, “our nation’s avenging angels,” as Vice President Joe Biden called all special ops forces in 2011. This is dangerous hagiography. Guardians protect democracy. Avengers, especially ones for whom the administration claims divine sanction, imperil it.

Roughly 60,000 US Special Forces personnel operate in 80-odd countries — these are the ones revealed publicly — on a $10 billion budget. “Special forces assist teams” are now working in five South Asian countries — Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India — the head of U.S. Pacific Command announced a few days ago. That’s on top of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who knew? This item made the news in the U.K. and South Asia — a friend in Bangladesh sent me a link — but not here.

Now would be a perfect time for us to consider how successive American presidents, particularly the current one, use our secret troops as global policemen — and extralegal assassins. AOV is anything but a catalyst for such a discussion. It’s a giant ideological pillow that both comforts Americans and smothers our critical thinking. It a USA-first children’s story — explosive, cathartic, and reassuring — executive produced by naval commanders. The message: Why think? The avenging angels will take care of us.

And now we come to the crying…

— Spoiler Alert —

In the movie’s penultimate scene, Lieutenant Rorke, a stalwart and courageous SEAL who is barely distinguishable from the film’s other stalwart and courageous main character, leaps onto a grenade tossed at his team by one of the Mexican drug henchmen. Rorke is blown off the floor to waist height. A pool of blood flows from beneath him and spreads slowly across the floor. Cut to an extreme close-up of his open eyes. His lids droop, and then open again, this time dead and staring. At his funeral, team members honor the LT; his equally stalwart wife suffers silently. This is when I teared up.

My first day in Iraq in 2004, I watched a marine bleed out, just as the fictional lieutenant did. I knew other marines who were later killed in action. I count wounded marines among my friends. Perhaps this is why the scene hit me so hard. But my personal history aside, this sequence is by far the movie’s most nuanced and moving. It works unlike anything else in AOV aside from the bang-bang.

What I would call a skillful penetration of my intellectual defenses and a straight-up manipulation of my emotions, Navy brass would call a successful psyop. This is precisely why Act of Valor is so frightening.


Iraqi Army barracks tour and Omar & Bravo Part 2

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This video is an assemblage of three clips from 2006 that we couldn’t fit into the doc.

The first two are segments of a tour Iraqi Army soldiers gave me of their quarters at 1/2 Charlie Company’s Firm Base 1.

Number three is a second scene from 1/2 Bravo’s encounter with the Anbari college student Omar. In this one, they discuss (American) popular music.

The grunts, IAs, and Omar are clearly consciousness of me and my camera. They perform, as many (all?) of us do when there’s a lens trained on us. This camera consciousness made me uncomfortable as I screened the videotape the first half dozen times, but I realized that such performances were as meaningful as the candid moments — or moments in which folks appeared to be unaware of the video camera but could very well have been calculating and acting.

The IAs direct their mordant jokes and complaints at me and through me to the presumed American audience. Omar and the boys of Bravo are ostensibly communicating among themselves, but they too are calibrating their statements for the “reporter guy” and the people in the U.S. who will see the video. There’s a heap of subtext the men dance around, under, and on top of — the issue of race springs to mind. This verbal shimmying and jiving is funny, ironic, absurd, poignant, and telling.

Agree? Disagree? Weigh in with a comment below!

AND: This will be my final prodding. Voting for Best of Doc 2011 ends in two days. Please cast your final digi-ballots for Full Disclosure!

1/2 Charlie Co. & Chicken Lady

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This sequence, edited by Rachel Shuman and Adam Bolt, was built from footage I shot on one of the first patrols I videotaped. Of all the scenes we had to cut, I was saddest to lose this one. It captures, from a boots-in-the-mud perspective, the perpetual miscommunication between our troops and Iraqi civilians and the general absurdity of the mission.

First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment was nearing the end of its 2004-05 deployment to northern Babil province. Iraq’s first national election since Saddam Hussein’s toppling was two weeks away. Anti-US forces, particularly Sunni militant groups like Hizb al Awda and Ansar al Sunna, had promised violence. “This ain’t the fucking Republicans and Democrats,” Col. Ron Johnson, commander of 1/2’s parent unit, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, remarked in his characteristically colorful style about the growing Sunni-Shia conflict during a briefing for me and two other journalists.

Days after 1/2 left Babil—and before the unit had even shipped out from Kuwait—a car bomb rocked Musayyib Hospital. Eighteen people were killed. The patrol base Bravo Company set up for the election had been next door, in the Musayyib Police Station.

Less than six months later, a suicide-bomb blast in Musayyib (also rendered as Mussayab or Mussaib) killed more than a 100 people, all Iraqi.

“I knew the spot, an intersection in the city’s center,” I wrote in a 2005 blog post. “I had walked or driven through it a dozen times with grunts… There’s a beautiful mosque right at the crossroads.” The bomb had been planted in a fuel tanker nearby. “The blast ignited the fuel inside the truck, turning what might have been a sadly typical tragedy into mass slaughter.

“In November 2005, bombers attacked the same mosque, killing 20 and wounding 64.”

And so on through the years: December 18, 2011: “A sticky bomb attached to a car exploded when the driver entered a bus terminal…”

I can’t say with any assurance what life is like in Musayyib now. Just as it was in 2005, finding stories about the city (in English) that aren’t about violence and death is very difficult.

Danielle Howle’s Unadorned Heart

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Almost 20 years ago, I was living in DC, working as a staff photographer for US News and World Report and spending entirely too much time at the Clinton White House and on Newt Gingrich’s Capitol Hill. On a whim—and a desperate need to get out of my District of Corruption rut—I veered away from my usual watering holes to hear some live music by Ani DiFranco, a performer I’d heard some buzz about. I knew little about her, only that her style might challenge my taste for world music, noisy stuff (from X and, I must admit, Pantera), and (intelligent) hiphop. I knew absolutely nothing about the opening act, a young lady called Danielle Howle.

A waifish, unglamorous, unaccessorized Howle stepped into the tiny pool of light in the dark space, started strumming her guitar, and sang. Her voice was powerful, soulful, and countrified in an honest, not affected way. Howle’s songs were rich—but not sweet—and even old-fashioned, in spirit, though not in style. Howle could sound hurt in a song, but never victimized; there’s wound-licking, but no supplication or defeat. She was rock, C&W, folk, gospel, and it all sounded organic.

Howle told funny, sometimes self-deprecating stories between songs. The audience laughed. I laughed. But mostly I smiled, throughout the set, and as I walked home—no disrespect to Ani, but I left before she and her band hit their stride—less beered-up than usual and so much happier. Howle was a rarity—musically gifted, humorous and humble, plus ground-truth, open-your-heart-to-strangers real.

She played a few gigs in NYC, at CMJ and in East Village clubs. Howle was dead last on a lineup of young indy singers at the Fez, a performance space under the long-gone Time Café on Lafayette Street. It was a Sunday night. The show was running annoyingly late. I watched the crowd. More than a few people glanced at their watches, polished off their drinks, and started toward the door. Howle took the stage, opened her mouth. Music came out; they stopped in their tracks. I knew this would happen.

I met Howle a few times, even asked her to write some songs for my documentary. That didn’t work out because her music was too good—and by “good” I mean the opposite of evil, bleak, hopeless, which is how Iraq made me feel, how coming home to political posturing and saber-rattling made me feel, how turning on my computer and reading about dead and wounded made me feel. At the time, I believed that such goodness and soulfulness had no place in my film. I didn’t have a whole lot of space in me for it.

We lost touch, but she’s still making music, laughing, and being poetically nuts. She’s nurturing up-and-comers, living and making music sustainably (look here to see what I mean). I just watched a video of Howle singing about the Lake Murray Dam while strolling along a highway and playing her guitar. A couple of speed-walking ladies taking care of some cardio business dip into the roadway to make a wide loop around her. A motorcycle, most likely a Harley, rumbles and farts in the background. And Danielle sings. It’s all of a piece, and she’s the heart of it.

Listen and watch when you have a few moments.

Written by bxpnyc

2011/12/10 at 11:07

London film fest wrap

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I’m breathing many sighs of relief after my screening last night at the Frontline Club here in London. Judging from the facial expressions of the viewers I peeked at during the film—eyes wide open, hands covering eyes—people were engaged. The Q&A, which included the director and protagonist of the documentary that preceded mine, was one of the best in my yearlong film festival saga.

I am not a fan of double bills. Often the pairing is random or pretty damn close. My biggest fear, of course, is, What if the other film is better? But there are many others: What if my doc is scheduled to screen second and the first one sucks? I’ll lose half the audience. What if, what if, what if….

Last night, I had a bellyful of fear bubbling away because Full Disclosure was up second on such a bill. Screening first was Beneath the Sky, a 38-minute doc about war videographer Sulejman Mulaomerovic, directed by Bosnian filmmaker Ismet Lisica. Watching it, I realized that the pairing was inspired.

Lisica built the film around gritty, graphic footage Mulaomerovic shot during the Bosnian war. It’s more a collage than a straight narrative. Interviews with people Mulaomerovic encountered during the war provide milestones throughout the journey on which Lisica takes us. Mulaomerovic submits to a couple of awkward interviews. He shifts from foot to foot, stares at the ground—Mulaomerovic makes it clear he belongs behind the camera. Lisica also introduces us to surgeons who performed countless operations on wounded civilians, journalists who worked with Mulaomerovic, a lawyer who became a soldier who then became a lawyer again after the war, and so many others. But the doc devotes most of its time to the ordinary citizens under fire Mulaomerovic lived with. Soldiers, fighters, generals, snipers—this is not their movie.

Mulaomerovic was in the audience and participated in the Q&A. For a journalist who has seen and lived so much carnage—one doctor in the film talks about stuffing Mulaomerovic’s entrails back into his gut after he got torn up by shrapnel—he is stunningly warm, funny, and quite huggy. When he speaks, he speaks of humanity, of the survivors, their struggles and their attempts to knit their lives back together after the killing stopped.

Full Disclosure is primarily about marines. The nature of embedding limited my contact with ordinary people, but it allowed me to accomplish what I set out to: document what US troops were doing in my name. What I witnessed was, as I have said before, a tragic improvisation enacted on a daily basis. Heavily armed young marines, untrained and unprepared for an amorphous mission, wandered across an alien landscape and through an abused population hunting for invisible enemies. I tried to represent these young men as individuals. I liked many of the men, respected many of them, but what mattered in the context of the occupation—and Full Disclosure—is their life-changing, life-taking power over Iraqi civilians. They were instruments of American policy, and that is what I show.

The focus of our docs is different, but I think the spirit of the filmmakers and the BTS protagonist Mulaomerovic is similar. In response to a question about bravery, Mulaomerovic avoided fluffing himself up and spoke, at length —his translator called him beautifully verbose—about the importance of witnessing. It is the daily process of climbing a hill that never ends. The point isn’t to reach the top but to record everything on the way. He needed to show, to gather essential images—so essential that they’re being used in the Hague trials of alleged war criminals, Lisica told the audience.

I volunteered some of my own motivations for going to Iraq: a sense of responsibility as a citizen and journalist and, I admitted, a secret vanity. During my career as a journalist I had absorbed the message that real reporters cover wars. I hadn’t. But the first death I witnessed amplified the former feeling and erased the latter. Rage filled the gap, rage at the everyday senselessness and casual brutality of the occupation, and a virulent anger at the policymakers who unleash the disease of war—of choice, not defense— yet remain insulated from it. They inoculate themselves with the rhetoric of national security, national interest, nation-building, WMDs, or whatever floats on a given day and send others to die. Although I had a faint, vain hope that I could influence the debate about the occupation—silly after a certain point because there wasn’t one—simply making a record for history of what I witnessed kept me moving.

Ever the photographer, Sulejman—no longer Mulaomerovic to me—rounded me, his producers, festival director Patrick Hazard, who skillfully piloted the Q&A, and anyone who didn’t escape his grasp and posed us in various combinations. Then everyone retired to the bar.

I dashed out of the club to catch a train and passed Sulejman downstairs. He hugged me one last time, then invited me and my partner to Sarajevo.

London International Doc Fest.1

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The London International Documentary Festival enters its eighth day. I enter my third.

After a mixup with dates, Full Disclosure screens tonight with Beneath the Sky at the Frontline Club, a center for international journalists just north of Hyde Park.

Soho, May 19, 2011

LIDF is more a collection of screenings sprinkled across this sprawling city than a conventional festival with a single hub—a filmmaker’s lounge or main screening venue—around which everything spins. For that reason, it feels as if there’s no there here—until one arrives at an event.

Last night, Elisa Mantin screened In the Shadows of Death, a doc about Roberto Saviano, the crusading Italian reporter who exposed the workings and lucrative business affairs of the Camorra, the Naples’s mob. A heavy-hitting panel discussion followed—two UK and one Italian journo who specialize in organized crime plus an Italian criminologist at Oxford. The moderator invited filmmaker Mantin up about a third of the way through. All of the panelists knew or have met Saviano, who now lives in a bubble of bodyguards and safehouses because of Camorra death threats. This is not a Salman Rushdie situation where his fatwa can be negotiated away, they say. The Camorra never forgets, so Saviano will be a target forever, unless something miraculous happens.

In the Shadows of Death screening, Courthouse Hotel, London, May 19, 2011

In the Shadows of Death director Elisa Mantin and Oxford criminology professor Federico Varese

The night before, Eva Weber and Marc Isaacs spoke and showed clips from their rather provocative docs. Isaacs presented bits of City of Men and The Lift, for which he stood in one elevator for hours at a time and interviewed the people who got on. His work is uncomfortably direct; his approach to people clinical. In the same affectless voice, Isaacs poses an apparently random (though probably not in actuality) series of questions, from the utterly mundane to the existential.

Weber showed sections of The Solitary Life of Cranes, which is about heavy crane operators, not birds, and Steel Homes, which features video of people rummaging through items in storage lockers with audio from conversations with the locker renters. Cranes, which is brilliantly shot from these enormous mechanical structures that tower over London, has a wonderfully meditative quality. Like Isaacs, we hear subjects reflecting on issues small and the great. There’s no issue, concern, or point driving the doc. Weber also showed chunks of The Intimacy of Strangers, which is constructed from surreptitiously recorded cell phone conversations. Voices don’t necessarily connect to the person we see on screen, a device Weber says she uses in most of her docs.

More to follow after tonight.

Written by bxpnyc

2011/05/20 at 08:50