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The War Tapes

Filmmaker Deborah Scranton wanted to make a film about the Iraq war. She got an offer to embed with a US unit, to “tell a warrior’s story as it unfolded.” But she had an inspiration – rather than embedding herself, she would get the soldiers to film the war themselves, to tell the story “from inside out instead of outside in.”

THe challenge was getting a company to cooperate with her. Friends in the US military gave her a choice of units to work with – she chose Charlie company of the 172nd, a national guard infantry division. But she had to first convince the unit to volunteer. She started talking to the 180 men, and fielded the first question: “What the fuck do you know about the National Guard?” She gave a nine minute answer, starting in the 1600s, and managed to convince them to tell the story with her.

Ten soldiers agreed to take cameras, and 21 soldiers ended up contributing footage. The tapes were critical, but so was constant contact with the soldiers via email, instant messages and SMS. She saved 3,211 messages in total, documenting their “mutual journey” – the contact was instant, though she usually got the footage over two weeks later. The film she makes, The War Tapes, is a unique document of the war from a soldier’s eye view, an uncensored perspective hard to get any other way.

We see a deeply uncomfortable piece of footage of a car bomb, and the account of an angry soldier, Pink, talking about the injustice of the fact that Iraqi workers on the bases couldn’t be treated in US medical facilities. She tells us that the footage was live from the humvees – the interview was a “hotwash” interview, an interview done right after the event of Pink by another soldier at Scranton’s request. The scene ends with an account from Pink’s journal, read five months after he returneed home. She talks about the importance of developing trust as a documentary filmmaker, making it clear that she’s “got their backs”.

In giving talks along with her film, Scranton tells us that she gets lots of questions, but that the soliders usually wait to the end to talk to her. One solider waited and then told her a story that began, “My gunner was throwing candy to the kids.” She knew what the story was going to be – the soliders throw candy, the kids get too close to the vehicles. He’d run over a child and hadn’t been able to tell his wife. After she hugged him and told him it would be okay, he said “I’m going to bring her to see your film. And then I’m going to tell her.”

Scranton ends by challenging us about what it means to “oppose the war but support the troops”. What does that mean? Do you volunteer at a VA hospital? Give to the charities that support returned soldiers? Listen to neighbors who’ve returned from the war?

The transitions of TED are sometimes a bit jarring. I don’t envy tech columnist and humorist David Pogue, who follows Scranton with a three-minute musical melody, featuring a reworking of “YMCA” as “You just got sued by the RIAA”. Not sure I was quite ready for it…

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