Troops Bring the Action Home in 'War Tapes'
Friday, June 30, 2006
Spec. Mike Moriarty and Sgt. Zack Bazzi might be called accidental cameramen. They shot much of "The War Tapes," a documentary that's a cross between an embedded journalist's dispatch, the military's official line and a classic war movie. Moriarty and Bazzi are two of the five soldiers recruited by director Deborah Scranton to document their tour in Iraq from March 2004 to February 2005. (See review on Page 32.)
The idea of using servicemen to shoot a documentary was something Scranton proposed in January 2004. She had been invited to embed as a filmmaker with a New Hampshire National Guard unit heading to Iraq, but she had another idea. Thanks to such technological advances as small digital cameras, the soldiers themselves could report on the war from the front lines. Public Affairs Officer Maj. Greg Heilshorn said yes, but on one condition: The videographers had to be, like the Army, all-volunteer.
A few weeks later, Scranton flew to Fort Dix, N.J., to broach the idea with the soldiers of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment. Moriarty recalls the scene: "We had a formation, and this woman was standing in front of us. At first I thought she was a little crazy." After Scranton outlined her plan to distribute cameras and hold a training session, one of Moriarty's superiors pulled him aside. "My platoon officer told me to go in there [to the training], get a camera and ask every question I could think of." At one point, he says, "I asked her, 'What do you even know about the National Guard?' " To his surprise, "she rattled off the history of the Guard." Moriarty says what finally swayed him was watching Scranton's "Stories From Silence: Witness to War," her 2003 documentary about New Hampshire veterans of World War II. To him, it was a respectful tribute to those soldiers, and he felt he could trust her.
Bazzi, who emigrated to America from Lebanon as a child, wasn't at all skeptical. "At the time it was a much simpler decision than it seems now," he says. He jokes that he asked himself, "Do I want a really cool camera to take with me or not?" The five soldiers usually filmed from inside their Humvees when they went on their missions. Always heavy with the possibility of attack from an unseen enemy, these trips "outside the wire" were usually to escort supply trucks belonging to the contractor KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary.
Both Moriarty and Bazzi are quick to admit that the camera often became an afterthought. "We had a dangerous mission to perform," Moriarty says. "The camera was in no way, shape or form allowed to interfere with what I did."
Bazzi concurs: "Ultimately, filming was always secondary and always optional. It was a matter of screwing the camera on the mount on the dashboard and just turning it on like I turn on the AC in my Humvee. If there was any chance of the camera interfering with my job, it would get turned off." Moriarty says he alone shot 225 80-minute tapes, all of which had to be approved by his chain of command. It took a year for Scranton and her stateside team to cut the film to 97 minutes.
Moriarty says he is happy with the final product but says, "It would have been great if it had been 10 hours long." He spent many off-hours with his camera exploring Camp Anaconda, the Army base in the Sunni Triangle, which is known as Mortaritaville because of its near-daily mortar attacks from insurgents. The hardest scene to shoot, he says, was at the vehicle graveyard, the dumping ground for trucks and Humvees destroyed by grenades, car bombs or IEDs. "It took me almost the whole deployment to work up to going there," he says.
Bazzi says that he's surprised by "the incredible reaction [the film] has received and the emotions it sparks in people."
"I feel like part of me has been too close to appreciate the size of the forest. Maybe I was naive myself. I didn't fully appreciate what this was going to turn into" -- a sentiment that applies as much to "The War Tapes" as the war itself.