Welcome to the Occupation: Michael Tucker’s Dispatches from Baghdad
I first met Michael Tucker at a RealScreen Summit, where we were both participating on a panel about producing and distributing DVDs. He had flown in from Berlin, where he lives, and when I was introduced to him, he was smoking a cigarette and standing not quite behind the potted palm tree at the opening night cocktail reception.
Since then I have come to know Michael Tucker. I have watched with trepidation as he self-financed and made two films about the invasion of Iraq. I have advised him to wear body armor, to which he responded, "I have a very nice German body armor and a helmet-it's the in thing in Baghdad right now. When we went on patrol last week it was a little more than scary—while the sector was quiet you could hear the power stations being attacked. The nice thing about visiting Baghdad is that you can leave!"
I then accused him of being an adrenaline junkie. His response: "Adrenaline junkie? Not me. It's probably the most photogenic event since the Vietnam War. What do you get when you put eight million AK-47s and 18,000 American troops in the same place? Gangsters' Paradise." And later in the editing process, as he started to send out rough cuts, he proclaimed, "Stories like this don't wait for finance. Fuck everyone. Have body armor, will travel."
I lectured him that television is a business and not an art. Tucker's response: "Ambience is everything—the context is chaos. Forget about the big story. If people could see what it is like to live in Baghdad right now, there would be fewer wars. What we never see is how normal war is. How it seeps into the everyday. That is what I am capturing. As for networks, I can't do work with or for people that I have no respect for. Maybe I will die poor. At least I will have lived, rather than having waited around for someone to tell me that my idea is salable. I am going to have a nice collection of unsaleable films someday—which will then be salable! At least my daughter will be rich."
As Tucker pursued his vision, I would receive e-mails en route to Baghdad, and from Dubai, US Air Force bases and Florida. In January 2004 I received the following: "‘How did you finance your movie?' By driving armored cars into Iraq. Yesterday the police station on the highway [from Jordan] near Ramadi was attacked. The insurgents also killed four washerwomen yesterday." And in February, as he returned to Baghdad to continue filming: "Hey, I am in Amman. Leave in 12 hours. No armored cars, just weapons. Truck bomb just killed 50." And in April: "I just came back from Tampa. The unit I was with is in heavy combat—one more killed on Monday. America gave me the perspective I need to finish this."
Even producers need a break once in a while. I could take the flak jackets, hitching rides with gun-runners and vicariously living the life of a 21st-century Henry Miller (without the pornography—at least in our correspondences, although we did touch on the similarities between porn and war), but I started to get nervous when the rejection letters started rolling in.
"Just got a reply from ARTE/ZDF: ‘We think that this film is chaotic/without structure. The use of Apocalypse Now music [Wagner] during the raid sequence is problematic. With all talk about torture in Iraq, this film will not find a buyer.'"
At the same time, Tucker was very involved in the personal lives of the men with whom he had lived over the course of six months while filming Gunner Palace: "I got that ‘rejection,' then I received an e-mail from a mother whose son died on 2/3. What a day—she just wants someone to talk to, to know what Baghdad is like, to know where her son died. I never met him. I did see the Humvee he was sitting in. A 155mm artillery shell rigged as an IED exploded as he was driving past, blew his head off his body. The Humvee still had hair all over the floor mats. I'm not sure what I could tell her. I will ignore everyone. I'm so tired of Europe."
And another time: "Remember I told you a young soldier I knew who was killed in November? His father just wrote me. Pacifist. Very intense story. I sent him a picture of his son, waving good-bye to an Iraqi man on the street. He sent me things family members remembered about Ben: ‘Ben also waved at you as you drove off until he couldn't see you anymore.' Just found the end of the film."
The e-mails were always dated from two or three in the morning, Tucker's time. I could tell his nicotine needs were increasing. How could somebody balance making a film about guys his age, who were losing their lives for a reason that they might or might not have believed in, with receiving rejection letters from commissioning editors, who were supposed to support independent producers as well as independent coverage of the war—even if that coverage didn't conform to their understanding of events?
Tucker paraphrased another rejection letter from a major cable broadcaster: "First, it seems that the subject doesn't have urgency for them. Next, I don't think it is sensational enough for them. Lastly, they don't like my approach. The first two things are beyond my control. The last point, style, is. They don't like the fact that this doesn't have a ‘standard' format, where I follow two or three or four people through life in Baghdad. What they want is Platoon, or a Time magazine story brought to life. I approached this knowing that the army is a tapestry and that war is bigger than one person. What emerged was a distinctly MASH [the movie]-like approach. There are vignettes making up a larger impression of a place and time."
When I saw the initial rough cut, I was floored. I had seen productions from the leading news agencies in the US and Europe, but nothing prepared me for the perspective that Tucker's film provided. It was real in the sense that the soldiers spoke their minds. They rapped about their experience. At one point during editing, Tucker said about his film, "I've decided that it is a musical—which isn't far from the truth...I have half the US Army rapping through Baghdad, plus some fine speed metal (with body armor)."
The soldiers accuse American viewers of willful ignorance, while hamming up to the camera. But are viewers to blame, or the broadcasters, I wondered? Soldiers in their 20s that Michael filmed were being killed because they were Americans in a foreign country. It didn't matter that they had "liberated" their host country from an "evil" dictator. They were seen as an occupying force.
And then the BBC rejected it. As Tucker related by e-mail: "Survived night of not writing BBC executive. Worse than not smoking. Did Guardian interview this morning, tried not to sound right wing, while not sounding left wing."
I think I quoted from Ecclesiastes to him at that point and congratulated him on passing up the lucrative opportunity to sell his footage to another producer who was making a film about Iraq without ever leaving American soil—unless he was to go to Canada. Or Cannes.
But this story, unlike the ongoing war in Iraq, has a happy ending. Last time I spoke to Tucker, he had made a profit through the theatrical release advance that he had negotiated. He was accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival. He was interviewed on CNN.
Yes, television is a business, but for once I am glad to see that there is recognition for somebody's vision. And I am glad that it is Tucker's vision.
Gunner Palace, which was co-directed by Petra Epperlein, will be released theatrically in February through Palm Pictures.
Elizabeth Sheldon is the director of acquisitions and co-productions at Schlessinger Media. She has also judged the Emmy Awards, the New York Festivals and the 48th Annual Golden Prague Award, and she has participated as a consultant to HotDocs and lectured about issues in the media at New York University.