Nominated for an Acdemy Award for best short documentary, Incident in New Bagdad will this week see its European premiere at the LIDF festival in London. DocGeeks talked to filmmaker James Spione about this raw and especially provocative documentary which looks into one of the most notorious incidents of the Iraq War.
What inspired you to make Incident in New Baghdad?
The release by WikiLeaks of a classified video recording, which showed a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Iraqi journalists and a number of other civilians, provided the jolt of inspiration to make this film. I believe this footage is one of the most significant historical documents to come out of the whole war, because the unedited version shows in real time just exactly how modern wars of occupation work: the difficulty U.S. forces face in distinguishing the “enemy” from non-combatants, the extreme hazards faced by civilians in just walking down the street of their own city. And of course, the cruel, barbaric spectacle of the whole event, the relentless targeting and destruction of those trying to help the wounded, was just impossible to ignore. Never has the inhumanity of warfare, its utter mercilessness, been so completely unmasked.
But almost as disturbing to me was the treatment of this video by the mainstream media, especially here in the U.S., as just another political football to have the same tired, staged “debates” where talking heads spout predictable opinions. The TV coverage often seemed more about the video itself—was it wrong to release it? Who is this mysterious Julian Assange?—than the tragic event it depicted.
So I turned to the web to try and find out more, and that’s where I came upon an online interview with Ethan McCord. Here was a soldier who said he was on the scene, who helped rescue two children caught in the crossfire, yet he was completely absent from our TV screens here. Why? Because he had also turned vehemently against the war. And the vision of a soldier speaking out against the mission is simply not allowed into the mainstream discourse in America. So no matter what Mr. McCord had to say about witnessing this event, you would not be seeing him on CNN or ABC.
How did you convince Ethan McCord to talk so candidly to you on camera?
Documentary filmmaking is always a delicate process of building trust with your subject. For me, it’s a very personal relationship, and the key to it I think is really listening carefully. If you listen well you are going to ask good follow up questions, and if you do that your subject is going to realize that you are taking them seriously. I always shoot interviews with a really small crew and make the whole process as relaxed and intimate as possible. In Ethan’s case, I had a couple of extended telephone conversations with him before filming began, but the first time I met him in person was when I travelled to Wichita to shoot his interview. Fortunately, I was able to spend a few days there, shooting Broll of Ethan with his kids, and I saved the interview for the last day, so that we could get to know each other a little bit more.
What were the challenges you faced when making this film?
The biggest challenge for me in making this film centered around the use of Ethan’s photographs of the war, particularly of the scene of the helicopter attack. I feel strongly that my job as a filmmaker, that every artist’s job really, is to look at the thing that most people do not want to see. And in this country, we do not like to look at the ugly truth of our wars. So I knew I had to use some of these images, their depiction of the truth about war was just too important to ignore. Yet it weighed on me. I understood that these were not just bodies, every one of these people had families somewhere. So I undertook their use with a great sense of responsibility and used only those images I thought were absolutely necessary to make audiences aware of what had happened, and how Mr. McCord experienced it.
Did you feel the US government, or parts thereof, made your life difficult due to the making of this film?
I have had absolutely no official reaction at all from the U.S. government about this movie. However, the decision to make a film focusing on only one man’s experience definitely sparked a heated reaction among some Iraq War veterans that served with Ethan, who seem to feel that the film is somehow misrepresenting what happened that day. I have explained many times that Incident in New Baghdad is not presenting a definitive account, and that I still intend to develop a larger film with more perspectives. But a lot of this reaction goes back to well before the film was even begun—as soon as Ethan began speaking out publicly and challenging the wisdom and morality of our wars, he was vehemently attacked and ridiculed as a traitor. Some of this rage out there has even translated into physical threats against Ethan and his family. It is sad but not surprising really—when as a country we so often use violence as a means to an end, we should not be shocked when those we train to do so bring that attitude home.
How has making the film changed your own perception of concepts such as the truth, government spin – of war in general?
Well, there are many ways we decieve ourselves about the reality of war. There is just so much propaganda, our ways of thinking and speaking about war have been so codified and internalized into our national consciousness here in the U.S., especially in the hyper-militarized mindset post-9-11. Antiseptic words like “collateral damage” imply somehow that civilian deaths are some sort of abberation of armed conflict–when in fact the deaths of innocents, thousands of them, is an unavoidable reality central to the prosecution of any war. So embedded into our very language there is a consistent level of denial and disassociation from the horror that war inflicts on the world. And my film is just one small attempt to pierce that veil, to give people a glimpse into the depths of behavior that we sink to when we engage in the systematized, organized killing of other human beings.
Do you feel platforms such as Wikileaks are an improvement to our society?
I think WikiLeaks and similar websites are attempting to address that sense of disconnect I was talking about in my last answer. There is a definite trend in many democratic societies right now, certainly including the United States, toward greater government secrecy, and citizens are often disconnected from the reality of official policy. At the same time, the traditional role of the mainstream media to act as an effective check on power seems to be failing. So in this environment, these new web-based organizations are rising up as an attempt to exercise a new kind of check on government excess. And you can see how concerned governments are by their extreme reaction to WikiLeaks–in the Information Age, controlling the message is key to everything. And sites like WikiLeaks are definitely challenging that control. But only time and history will judge whether things ultimately improve because of these platforms.
What can we look out for from you in the future?
I am currently developing a feature documentary about the United States’ escalating retaliation against whistleblowers. In the last ten years there has been a marked trend toward increasingly draconian responses to anyone who dares challenge national security policy, even when–in fact, one might note, especially when–there are issues of waste, fraud, even illegality being revealed by the whistleblowers. Instead, the U.S. government nearly always chooses to punish the messenger of such information.
The most famous case right now is that of Bradley Manning (who is accused of releasing the helicopter video footage used in Incident in New Baghdad), but there have been a number of other people at the NSA, CIA and State Department, who have come forward with issues of legitimate concern to the American people–torture of prisoners, warrantless wiretapping of millions of citizens to name two examples–only to find themselves under sustained attack. The Obama Administration has even started prosecuting such cases criminally, invoking the Espionage Act more times than all other presidencies combined.
It is a very worrisome trend when a democracy attempts to stifle meaningful dissent. My intent is to tell the stories of a number of these whistleblowers in one film, so that audiences can see in detail the government’s increasingly harsh attempts to silence its critics.
Incident in New Bagdad will see its European premiere (together with Wanted) at the LIDF festival at the Roundhouse tomorrow (Monday 28 May). More information can be found on the LIDF website.