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The War Tapes

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The War Tapes takes an unflinching look at Operation Iraqi Freedom through the eyes of three American soldiers who fought on the front lines. By walking in their boots, this real-life diary shares an intimate journey of camaraderie and brutality, empathy and fear, life and death. Candid and non-partisan, the film documents the loss of humanity that comes with war and the triumph of humanity that rises above the carnage. Because of the positive view of the military that was portrayed in Stories From Silence, Witness to War, a film about World War II veterans living in her small town, director Deborah Scranton received a phone call from Major Greg Heilhorn, the public affairs officer of the New Hampshire National Guard, with an offer to embed as a filmmaker with any of their units being deployed to Iraq. Scranton remembers, “I went to sleep that night, obviously excited. I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of giving the soldiers the cameras and working with them over the internet. I was intrigued about trying to crawl inside their experience, to know what war looked like, felt like and smelled like.”The military commanders agreed that Scranton could get access, but she had to get soldiers to volunteer. She picked Charlie Company 3rd of the 172nd Infantry Regiment because it was the only infantry company in the state and it was to be based at LSA Anaconda where there was internet service. Within 10 days she was filming training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Scranton told the 180-man unit her vision, “to work with them to tell the story through their eyes.” Ten soldiers stepped forward to take the one-chip Sony mini-DV cameras. Of those 10, five—Zack Bazzi, Mike Moriarity, Steve Pink, Duncan Domey and Brandon Wilkins—filmed the entire year. In total, 21 soldiers generated 800 hours of tape with the bulk of the footage coming from Specialist Moriarity (221 hours).Before, during and after the deployment, the filmmakers also shot an additional 200 hours of interviews with the soldiers and their families back home. Working from their base in the violent Sunni Triangle, the soldiers captured events that ordinary journalists could not cover. Scranton communicated with the soldiers via instant messaging, getting notice of ambushes or other poignant footage almost right away. “The internet allowed the soldiers to stay in touch. It wasn’t that they got cameras and were off filming. We were able to talk about their days,” says Scranton. “I think there is something really profound about the soldiers themselves pressing record.” The soldiers captured their experiences with cameras mounted on gun turrets, dashboards and even attached to their Kevlar helmets and vests. Often there were multiple viewpoints from different cameras taping the same incidents. “For the April uprising there is a variety of soldiers’ footage that is intercut because they were all out that day,” explains Scranton.The recorded tapes were shipped from Iraq—which took about two weeks—to Major Heilhorn in New Hampshire, who had them hand-delivered to Scranton. Only one tape—video that Pink shot of dead insurgents after a firefight—was kept by the commander in Iraq. Despite the provocative nature of the only censored sequence, the filmmakers used stills and Pink’s commentary of the event in the film because they wanted to honor Pink’s desire to show the horrors of war.In October 2004, producer and editor Steve James (Hoop Dreams) was enticed onto the project by the nature of the film. Once he looked at the footage, the quantity and quality of tapes hooked him. Nevertheless, the monstrous amount of material required a team of 12 loggers. The notes were posted on the internet for the filmmakers to access. The loggers, associate editor/post supervisor Aaron Wickenden and co-producer Adam Singer also alerted James and second editor Leslie Simmons to exceptional footage. During the yearlong editing process, they worked from their home studios on two Avid Xpress Pro Mac-based systems.James liked the way Scranton worked, “Deborah was looking for people to wrestle with the material as opposed to working from a paper cut.” Periodically she came to Chicago to view cuts, but usually she worked from New Hampshire. Edits were posted on secure servers or DVDs were sent out to team members in different cities and states. “I think it’s the way of the future. You get to assemble a dream team regardless of geographic location,” says Scranton. The structure of the film came about organically. In the early stages of editing James says, “We were casting the net considerably wider than how the final film came out.” The team was juggling footage from a number of soldiers at different stages of their deployment, but certain stories came out the strongest. Scranton and May recognized that Moriarity and Bazzi had sent back interesting footage. Pink with his “gallows humor” also emerged from the footage as one of the funniest and most engaging of the servicemen. Sgt. Bazzi shared his first impressions of the film. “Steve and Deborah screened it for me in a hotel room. I remember saying, ‘Cool!’ I appreciated the honesty of it. The fact that it was not filtered. It was raw. It wasn’t a PR job. And it was not anti-military or anti-war. It was down the middle and that to me was brilliant.”The film has already resonated with audiences. It won Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Scranton reveals, “People have appreciated us being a fly-on-the-wall and hearing the soldiers debate about what is going on and what it all means. That is an insight that many Americans don’t have the opportunity to see and hear. They don’t know a soldier. I think our film gives people the opportunity to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.”

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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