Focusing on a Losing Battle

Charles Ferguson, at home in New York, turned to film after earning a fortune in Silicon Valley.
Charles Ferguson, at home in New York, turned to film after earning a fortune in Silicon Valley. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Charles H. Ferguson is a policy wonk. By his own admission, "kind of a geek." His last book, published by Brookings Institution Press in 2004, was titled "The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma."

Did we mention that he used to come to Washington regularly to testify to congressional subcommittees about semiconductor trade policy?

Yet here he sits now, an MIT PhD with a buzz-worthy film on his résumé. He is the writer, director and producer of "No End in Sight," a documentary that took him to the blood-drenched streets of Baghdad, where he shot footage for his first-ever movie.

It catalogues like no other film to date the array of failures in planning and early decision-making in Iraq. In awarding "No End in Sight" a special prize at Sundance this year, the jury called it a "timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decisions that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq."

The film opens in Washington and New York on Friday before rolling out to other cities. "Even well-informed [audiences] will find their jaws dropping," Variety predicted in its review.

Did we mention that Ferguson, 52, never even owned a video camera before he decided a couple of years ago to become a moviemaker?

There have been plenty of Iraq-related documentaries, among them overheated screeds ("Fahrenheit 9/11") and policy dissections, and films angled on the U.S. troopsand the Iraqis themselves ("Iraq in Fragments" and "My Country, My Country" both received Oscar nominations). Ferguson's credentials as a former Brookings Institution fellow and lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations could have translated to utter boredom on the big screen. And "No End" might have failed as a dilettante's vanity project -- Ferguson put up $2 million from his own pockets to make it.

"I don't have to worry about working for a living," he allows over lunch in Washington, while promoting his movie at last month's Silverdocs film festival.

Did we mention that Ferguson developed a revolutionary Web page application that his start-up company sold to Microsoft in 1996 for $133 million?

The deal left him "comfortable" and awash in Microsoft shares. He now divides his time between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a home in the Bay Area, able to pursue what he calls a lifelong obsession with cinema.

Lean, tan and self-assured, he has the demeanor of a man unaccustomed to failure. Despite the warnings of several acquaintances in the journalism and film worlds that Iraq was too complicated, dangerous and expensive a subject for a first-timer, he drew a bead on a narrow target. In early 2004, Ferguson, who holds a doctorate in political science, was intrigued by some obvious questions -- how did things go wrong in Iraq and who was to blame? He expected that somebody else with documentary expertise would beat him to the topic. He says he deliberated for a year before he realized "no one else was" and finally told himself, "Screw it, I'm going to make this movie."

Finding the Talent

The road to chaos and insurgency in Iraq has been well trod in several books -- notably George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate," Tom Ricks's "Fiasco" and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." But Ferguson is fond of saying that few Americans read nonfiction books. Then again, they rarely flock to the cineplex to watch documentaries either. But, as the director told a Silverdocs audience after screening his film: "If it does reasonably well, several million will have seen it over the next few years."

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