Skip to main content

Docs of War: Foreign Filmmakers Cover Conflict in Iraq without Resorting to Propaganda

By Laura Almo

Stephanie Sinclair (right), a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune. Photo from 'War Feels Like War', which appeared on PBS's P.O.V. in Julu. Photo: Uyarra Films.

"Truth is the first casualty of war," the old adage says. And in the case of the war in Iraq it is alarmingly accurate. Documentarians have stepped in to show American audiences what they may not have otherwise seen on the media. The popular successes of such 2004 docs as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed and Jehane Noujaim's Control Room demonstrate that the American public is hungry for this kind of information, and is not alone in its desire to understand the texture and nuance of simple news and sugar-coated stories presented by the mainstream media. A recent spate of documentaries by foreign filmmakers reflects an intriguing perspective on the US-led war in Iraq.

Sarah Goodman's Army of One (Arlene Ami, Erik Paulsson, prods.) is an intimate look at three US Army soldiers who enlisted after September 11, 2001. The film follows them through basic training as they experience various degrees of doubt and disillusionment in the process. Canadian-born Goodman is a dual citizen. The daughter of American parents, she grew up in Canada but was living in New York on that fateful day. Amidst the tragedy of 9/11, she heard stories of young people lining up to join the army. The long lines turned out to be media spin, but it tapped into Goodman's larger fascination with American youth culture and what she sees as the directionlessness of a generation searching for its place in the world. She contends that today's youth are not given the proper tools to become adults in a complex way.

"Youth are fed on television idols and are looking for instant solutions, or a quick fix as to what to do with their lives," Goodman maintains. She was interested in making a film about American youth before the terrorist attacks, but the topic seemed too broad. The military, post-9/11, became a way to frame the subject. She went to a recruiting center in the South Bronx and got to know several young people.

But before she could begin the film, Goodman had to get access to the military, which is vigilant about its media image. "I was irritatingly persistent, but I never got a chip on my shoulder," she says. "I was very respectful of their time and how busy they were and the importance of the work they were doing. I think generally they don't get treated that way."

Goodman went into the film opposed to the war and critical of the goals of the US military and of US foreign policy. But as a dual citizen, she says it's easier to take a step back. "I don't feel emotionally embroiled," she notes. "I know other people who are politically to the left and feel so bad about the US. It's sort of like family, and you feel ashamed." On the contrary, Goodman has been able to look at the situation as both an insider and an outsider.

Her emphasis in the film, however, is not on the military itself but how the military is serving American youth. "I think what my film shows is that it's pretty problematic," she says. Goodman explains that the military presents itself as helping to create adults, but there's a vast difference between the reality of the army and the slick ad campaigns used to draw people in. Of the three characters in Army of One, one goes AWOL during basic training, one becomes depressed, suicidal and determined to find a way out of the army, and another finds success as a squad leader-and becomes alarmingly disconnected from her own life.

Goodman's political views didn't change during the course of making Army of One, but her understanding of the military did. "I had never known anyone who had been in the army," she admits. "Maybe I was just searching to find humanity in a world that I was so judgmental of. In some ways that was the most rewarding part of the whole film."

When the war in Iraq began, Austrian filmmaker Andreas Hovarth was furious about it and was looking for a way to channel his anger. Based in Salzburg, Austria, Hovarth read that 70 to 80 percent of Americans supported the war. He was interested in who these people were, and he wanted to engage them in dialogue. The result is This Ain't No Heartland, a film in which Hovarth goes straight to rural America and talks to everyday people about their perspectives on the war in Iraq.

Hovarth has a deep affection for the American Midwest that goes back 20 years, when he spent a year abroad in Iowa during high school. He has since produced a book of his own photography about the Midwest, and he had wanted to make a film about small-town newspapers in the region but didn't feel like he had enough material for a film.

The idea for This Ain't No Heartland came to Horvath while ruminating over how to channel his anger over Iraq. He returned to the Midwest and traversed seven states―Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota talking to as many people as he could. He knocked on doors, approached people in bars, restaurants, outside their homes, on street corners and by the side of highways.

Hovarth says that while in the US, he was frustrated by the lack of real news; he relied on international news to find out what was going on. In rural America, meanwhile, Hovarth encountered an abundance of blind patriotism and automatic support for the war. "I tried to talk to people about the ethics and politics of the war but they always brought it back to the personal, to their front porch," Hovarth recalls. He attributes this to the nature of rural America : "The world away from the coasts is quiet and out of touch." While Horvath acknowledges the urban regions in the Midwest, he focused on rural America, where support for the war is very high. And he found that the more insulated and isolated people are, the more xenophobic they are.

Hovarth says the fact that he was a foreigner made little difference in getting his subjects to open up to him. Rather, it was his approach and style. While his perspective on the war hasn't changed, the anger has been re-routed. "This medium is a good way to channel those feelings," he says.

This Ain't No Heartland was also a means for Horvath to revisit his old idea about local newspapers, while wryly commenting on the news media in America ; the film's epilogue shows a news story about five Iraqi dogs that were adopted by a dog lover in Southern California. As Hovarth sees it, that's how so much of the local news is covered―reducing a topic of international import to a trivial human interest story, devoid of the real issues.

Spanish-born and UK-based filmmaker Esteban Uyarra and British associate producer Sarah Brownrigg had wanted to make a film about the "war hotel" long before the war in Iraq began. "There were lots of stories about the hotels where journalists stayed in war zones," says Uyarra. He explains that he and Brownrigg wanted to focus on how journalists tried to cope with what they were seeing and what goes on when the camera goes off.

"We were two people waiting for war," Brownrigg explains. "We were interested in covering a war that would get the world's attention." They had been researching the topic for two years, and it was a coincidence that the next significant war was in Iraq.

And this film, War Feels Like War, is much different from the one they had been researching. "The world of the war hotel had vanished," says Brownrigg. "Because of the embedded journalists, this was the first time there wasn't a society going on in the hotel." So instead of making the film they had originally planned to make, they decided to document the experience of unilateral (unembedded) journalists covering the war in Iraq.

Uyarra went to Kuwait and Brownrigg produced the film from London. In Kuwait Uyarra was credentialed as a unilateral journalist, just like those he wanted to follow. He got to know other unilateral journalists in hotel lobbies in Kuwait, and those who allowed Uyarra to film them became subjects of his film. When the unilateral journalists crossed over into Iraq, Uyarra accompanied them.

Uyarra opposed the war in Iraq, but he emphasizes that War Feels Like War is not about the rights or wrongs of the war, but rather it is a slice of the reality of the journalists covering it.

Brownrigg saw the news coverage; Uyarra saw the war. Both filmmakers observe that the news presents many facts, but with little understanding of what it feels like to be in the middle of a war zone. "People should be able to see the consequences of war," says Brownrigg, who watched news coverage around the clock during the invasion. "This war, more than others, was very one-sided, like a video game."

Uyarra likens the embedded system to CCTV (closed-caption TV) cameras in a shopping mallit shows you that something has happened, but it doesn't need to explain much more about the event. "The news coverage provides little understanding of what war is, or how a marine feels when he's killed," Uyarra observes. "A war with computers, intelligence and technology is a war without human flesh." That's where a documentary has more scope to explore feelings, he explains. "Hopefully the film becomes timeless in the sense that in five years time you can watch it and still experience what is like to enter a war zone as a journalist."

Vietnam : Ghosts of War makes a scintillating comparison between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq. Canadian filmmaker Michael Maclear was the first North American network correspondent to report from North Vietnam during the war. In 1980 he made Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War, a 13-hour series for Canadian television. When the Iraq War broke out, Maclear saw striking similarities between it and the Vietnam War, and he felt compelled to return to Vietnamand make a personal film that embodied his reflections on the "arrogance and ignorance" that informed both wars.

Maclear structures the film around the 50th anniversary of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, when the French lost to the Vietnamese. Throughout the film Maclear draws parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. "The American people never got the full facts in Vietnam, and I could see that was being repeated in Iraq," he notes. In Vietnam there was no full disclosure to the American public, there were horrific war atrocities and the Americans were fighting an enemy they knew little about.

Maclear looks at Vietnam then and now, between the war-torn country from which he reported some 30 years ago and the tranquillity of a rebuilt nation today. "Vietnam is one of the least troubled countries on earth," he maintains. "It was a civil war; it was senseless. It was the wrong war, and the wrong place. You feel how unnecessary the war really was."

It is chilling to consider what we may be looking back on 30 years from now. These films, however, are a testimony of the times and a confirmation that the world is watching and real stories are being told.

Army of One has earned honors on the festival circuit and is currently seeking distribution.

This Ain't No Heartland screened as part of IDA's InFACTTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase and had a limited theatrical run in New York City.

War Feels Like War aired on BBC Four's Storyville strand in March and on PBS' POV in July.

Vietnam : Ghosts of War aired on Canada 's History Television in March.


Laura Almo was a screener in the World Documentary category for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. She has also taught Real Stories, Sundance Institute's Youth Documentary Workshop at Spy Hop Productions.