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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Film sees war through soldiers' eyes
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

Award-winning documentary The War Tapes sees Iraq through soldiers' eyes - by having them do the filming.

As the US military convoy rolls out of Ft Anaconda, Iraq, it passes a sign reading: "Lock and load".

Spc Michael Moriarty (Photo courtesy of The War Tapes)
Specialist Michael Moriarty: A soldier filming in Iraq
The order is an instruction to the soldiers to have their weapons ready to fire - but as one infantry company went into action in 2004, a handful of its troops had a second piece of equipment locked and loaded as well: video cameras.

The men had volunteered to film their year in Iraq for a remarkable documentary.

Its opening moments warn the viewer immediately that this is no Hollywood look at combat, as the soldiers of the New Hampshire National Guard come under attack and the camera jerks wildly.

Sombre Middle Eastern music overlays the panting of the troops, the sharp crack of gunfire and the tinkling of shell casings hitting the ground.

And then a flat, almost expressionless voice says: "I want to kill."

"I may already have killed one or some of these bastards," it continues matter-of-factly.

No illusions

Premiering in a week when America struggles with the notion that its marines may have massacred civilians in Iraq, the film neither romanticises nor demonises its three main characters: Specialist Michael Moriarty, Sgt Steven Pink and Sgt Zack Bazzi.

The soldiers in the film have families and fears, senses of humour and a capacity for anger.

At least one, Spc Moriarty, describes himself as deeply patriotic - but the men are not wide-eyed innocents about their mission in Iraq.

View of tank through binoculars (Photo courtesy of The War Tapes)
The film shows exactly what the troops themselves see
They proclaim cynically that the war is about making money for Kellog Brown & Root (KBR), the military contractor which is a subsidiary of a company once run by Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Or they say it is about oil - adding that, since the United States needs oil, that is as it should be.

Despite the soldiers' grousing about the reasons for the war, the film itself neither supports nor condemns it.

That is as director Deborah Scranton wanted it to be - and as the men involved insisted.

She had been offered the chance to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard, but came back with another proposal instead.

"I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: 'What if I gave the soldiers cameras?'"

Question of trust

She added: "I said I wanted to tell their story through their eyes, not through my eyes. I wanted to get inside what war means."

Ten men agreed to take cameras, and spent the next year filming, communicating with Scranton constantly via email and instant messaging to let her know what was happening and to take directions from her.

Deborah Scranton (Photo courtesy of The War Tapes)
Scranton insists on the need to see soldiers as people
They shipped 800 hours of tape back to her in New Hampshire, where she filmed an additional 200 hours of material with their families.

She cut the material down into a 90-minute documentary which opens in New York on Friday - after having won the prize for best documentary at the city's Tribeca film festival in May.

Ken Burns - perhaps America's most famous director of documentaries - was on the jury that gave the nod to The War Tapes.

"There was a power to what Deborah accomplished that was mesmerising," he said.

"Politics isn't ignored - the film isn't afraid of politics, but it's able to transcend the politics. In the aftershock of the film, people will try to come to terms with their own feelings and their own politics."

He described her ability to direct the film via instant messaging as "a remarkable accomplishment".

'Honest reflection'

Sgt Zack Bazzi, a former Army soldier who enlisted in the National Guard when his regular service ended, said he gave little thought to the project while it was going on, just mounting his camera on his vehicle each morning and then ignoring it while on his mission.

When he saw the results on screen at Tribeca he was amazed, he said.

"You could generalise from that 90 minutes to our entire year - the mundane boredom of driving around, then all hell breaks loose, then it's calm again.

Sgt Zack Bazzi (Photo courtesy of The War Tapes)
Sgt Bazzi was stunned to see what the documentary captured

"That 90 minutes is an honest reflection of our year in Iraq."

And as the US investigates the possibility that its troops massacred innocent Iraqi civilians, he said The War Tapes shows the country what soldiers go through.

"It reinforces the ambiguity and the complexity and the fog that US forces have to endure. That's not excusing or justifying the actions" the marines are alleged to have engaged in, he said.

But it "puts into relief the psychological underpinnings".

"These things do happen and when they do happen they must be punished."

Scranton said it was important not to demonise soldiers.

"People see soldiers as armed ciphers - a guy in a uniform with a gun."

That is not how she sees them.

"I live near these guys. I stand in a grocery line with these guys. This is not an abstract story to me. This is my neighbour."

She added: "We are a country at war. As a society, we need to know what war means."

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