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A Conversation with James Spione, Director of 'Incident in New Baghdad'

By KJ Relth

Editor's Note: Incident in New Baghdad airs May 27 on The Documentary Channel. What follows is an interview we conducted with director James Spione in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards.  

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination. You can see Incident in New Baghdad at DocuDay LA on Saturday, February 25 at the Writers Guild of America Theater, with filmmaker James Spione in person.

Synopsis: In this raw, provocative documentary from independent filmmaker James Spione, one of the most notorious incidents of the Iraq War--the July 2007 slayings of two Reuters journalists and a number of other civilians by U.S. attack helicopters--is recounted in the powerful testimony of an American infantryman whose life was profoundly changed by his experiences on the scene.

U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord bore witness to the devastating carnage, found and rescued the two children caught in the crossfire, and soon turned against the war that he had enthusiastically joined only months before. Denied psychological treatment in Iraq for his PTSD, McCord returned home, struggling for years with anger, confusion, and guilt over the war. When WikiLeaks released the stunning cockpit video of the incident in April 2010, McCord was finally spurred into action, and began traveling the country, speaking out for the rights of PTSD sufferers and against the American wars in the Middle East.

Ethan McCord and daughter Mikayla in a Wichita, Kansas playground, in a scene from the film, Incident in New Baghdad.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

James Spione: Documentary work was something of a career change for me. I had directed a number of fiction shorts—Prelude, a Student Academy Award® winner, then Garden (Sundance ’95) and The Playroom. I also produced John G. Young’s first independent feature Parallel Sons. But in trying to get together my own feature to direct, I unfortunately got mired in years of development hell and was becoming increasingly frustrated with the whole process. So I started looking around for a project closer to home that I could just start myself, without the need for funding, stars, etc.

Just around that time I went to a family reunion up at my extended family’s homestead in central New York State, and there was much talk among my relatives about the future of our dairy farm there. My mother grew up on this farm, it had been in the family for five generations, but no one in the sixth generation wanted to carry on with it. After 150 years, that tradition was going to end. And that was the genesis of my first documentary, American Farm.

IDA: What inspired you to make Incident?

JS: It was the release by WikiLeaks of that stunning cockpit video recording of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Iraqi journalists and a number of other civilians, some armed, most unarmed. I believe this piece of video 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 our modern wars 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 been so completely unmasked.

But almost as disturbing to me was the treatment of this video by the U.S. mainstream mass media 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 found 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. 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 our mainstream discourse. So no matter what Mr. McCord had to say about witnessing this event, you would not be seeing him on CNN or ABC.

Ethan McCord on security detail on a nearby rooftop, shortly after rescuing two wounded children on the scene. He asked to talk to mental health support the night of the incident but was ridiculed and threatened by his immediate superior officer. Incident in New Baghdad

IDA: How did your vision change over the course of the filmmaking process?

JS: I have always envisioned making a feature-length doc that would look at this event as a sort of microcosm of war—how one act of violence ripples out through many lives, Iraqi and American, in so many destructive ways. Ethan’s was to be the first interview and I had begun contacting others in his battalion who were on the ground that day for background research. However, as I began to put together Ethan’s material I realized that his story is so compelling, the transformation of his character from gung–ho warrior to anti–war activist so complete, that it could stand on its own as a short film. And so I put together Incident in New Baghdad as a short about one man’s personal experience inside the insanity of war, and how that permanently changed him. I am hoping now that this short film has been recognized in such a visible way, that I will be able to get the support I need to complete the feature version.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making the film? How did you overcome them?

JS: The biggest challenges for me in making this film centered around the use of Ethan’s photographs of the war, particularly of the scene of this U.S. helicopter attack. As soon as I saw these images I realized that, as horrifying as that helicopter footage was, it paled in comparison to the nightmare on the ground. 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. Recently, the film has been criticized by some reviewers as somehow exploiting a tragedy. But 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.

This decision to make a film focusing on one man’s experience has also sparked quite a heated reaction among some Iraq War veterans, 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 make 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.

IDA: As you’ve screened this film, how have audiences reacted? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reaction?

JS: Well for one thing, I certainly did not expect the film to quite strike the nerve that it did. It premiered at Tribeca and won the doc short category, which sort of blindsided me. I guess you work for so long in a kind of cocoon when you are editing something and can become quite removed from the effect your work is going to have on a first-time viewer.

I have also been very pleased at the discussions the film has started about a range of topics, not just about the war itself but also about how information is disseminated in America, about the issues of transparency and accountability, and especially about the psychic damage that many veterans carry home with them. The suicide rate among our Middle East war vets is alarmingly high—well beyond the casualty rate overseas. Yet there is no sense of national urgency about this—like the wars themselves, the suffering of our veterans remains invisible to most of us, a burden borne by a tiny percentage of the American population. The rest of us go shopping.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JS: Well, of course there are the giants like the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman, whose films have inspired thousands of documentarians. I recently saw Wiseman's Titicut Follies, which is still, after more than 40 years, a deeply disturbing experience in the way it takes you inside the hidden world of an asylum. The film asks a profound question without ever stating it explicitly: who is more insane, the inmates or the society that puts them away?

I love the layered complexity of Errol Morris’s work; I think The Fog of War is an absolutely masterful character study—and the fog in the title extends to the subject himself, who is constantly seeking to reinvent himself on camera in a fascinating and maddening way. Character is central to me in my own work, how people tell their stories, how they look at their lives, how they struggle for awareness and meaning. At bottom, Incident in New Baghdad is a film about empathy, about one intense and pivotal moment when a soldier picks up a bloodied child and asks himself, "Am I a killer, or am I a father?" And in that heartbeat, he must decide, and he decides to maintain his humanity. Exploring those moments of human crisis, the emotional dilemmas that we face where our split-second decisions tell us who we are—that to me is what documentary film is all about.


Incident in New Baghdad is screening at DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater and at DocuDay NY at the Paley Center for Media as part of IDA's program of 2012 Oscar®-nominated films.

Learn more about Incident in New Baghdad at the film's website.