The War Tapes (2006)
Starring: Sgt. Zack Bazzi, Spc. Michael Moriarity, Sgt. Stephen Pink
Directed by: Deborah Scranton
The War Tapes, winner of the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival award for Best International Documentary Feature, follows the New Hampshire National Guard throughout their deployment to Iraq in March 2004, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Director Deborah Scranton chose to capture their deployment in unique fashion, by giving the cameras to the soldiers themselves.
Seventeen soldiers were given cameras and recorded 800 hours of tape in Iraq, with Scranton filming stateside interviews of their families and providing them with direction via e-mail and instant messaging. She was originally given the option of embedding with the company, but decided that this technique could yield more honest results. She then edited the footage down to a 97 minute feature, focusing on three soldiers: Sergeant Zack Bazzi, Specialist Michael Moriarity, and Sergeant Stephen Pink.
The result is a compelling, fresh take on the war, which is the subject of countless documentaries this year. The War Tapes‘ unique perspective shows us elements of the war that I haven’t seen in the media or other docs. The soldiers reveal their frustration with American contractors like KBR/Halliburton, who charge ridiculous prices to soldiers and the army for their products and services, and seem to have a lot to benefit from the longer American soldiers engage in hostilities. It never occurred to me that contractors have set up Pizza Hut and Burger Kings in bases, but there they were.
The soldiers are all very candid about their motivations and problems, be it with Pink’s journals (which are strong enough to possibly get published, from the excerpts we’re given), Moriarity’s frustration with the army’s stunted rules of engagement, or Bazzi’s misgivings with their involvement in Iraq in the first place. The movie isn’t a political manifesto like most Iraq documentaries (you even get the sense that Bazzi, a Lebanese-American, is the only one there that didn’t vote for Bush), but it doesn’t shy away from politics altogether.
But instead of addressing the same political concerns addressed by other films and editorials, The War Tapes is about showing the experiences of the soldiers on the ground. Too often, the soldier is treated as an empty cypher in discussions about the war, while this movie gives them the agency they deserve. Frightening and intense at times, the footage also shows that the majority of their time is a series of rambling tedium, violently interrupted from time-to-time with explosions and attacks. It’s a weird sense of boredom, in that it exists under the constant threat of attack. The footage doesn’t shy away from the graphic realism of the war, but doesn’t overindulge in it either.
At its best, it shows the fog of war that can lead to tragedy in an instant. It was as informative as it was fascinating, engaging the viewers with interesting subjects, giving a fresh perspective on the American soldier (I personally felt a kinship with Bazzi, who sums up his feelings at the end of the movie stating that he loves being a soldier; unfortunately, soldiers don’t get to pick their wars). However, given its smaller scope and obvious technical concerns, The War Tapes doesn’t quite rise to the levels of greatness, but it is certainly worthy of your time and a fantastic example of the strength of the genre.