PBS Frontline: 'Bad Voodoo's War'

Deborah Scranton
Wednesday, April 2, 2008; 11:00 AM

Frontline director Deborah Scranton was online Wednesday, April 2 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her film "Bad Voodoo's War," which consists of footage shot by a California-based National Guard platoon during their deployment to Iraq.

" Bad Voodoo's War" will air Tuesday, April 1 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Scranton started her career in journalism freelancing for ESPN, CBS Sports, ABC Sports, MTV Networks, USA Networks and the Outdoor Life Network. In 2006 she made her feature film directorial debut with "The War Tapes," which won Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and Best International Documentary at the BritDoc Festival.


Warwick, R.I.: Hi Deborah. I just watched the Frontline show tonight. All I can say right now is "amazing" and "unbelievable." Thank you for bringing this story to us. Is there a way to e-mail these soldiers directly? I have an idea about making their world a bit brighter over there. I was greatly moved by this presentation tonight. Why don't the news channels focus on these stories? Well I guess you and I know the answer to that, don't we! I look forward to hearing from you.

Deborah Scranton: Hi -- thank you very much! Some of the soldiers can be contacted through this link. My e-mail is located at the bottom of this page.


Ashland, Ore.: Do you know, other than the security concerns mentioned, whether there were guidelines or censorship imposed on the men sending the tapes? Thank you and the men for the excellent show.

Deborah Scranton: The men were obviously very aware of operational security at all times. None of us would ever want to show anything that would put the soldiers who were filming (or any other American soldiers) in harm's way. There was no censorship imposed on the men. The military has been incredibly supportive of the soldiers telling their story and has not censored anything in any way.


Cincinnati: When will Bad Voodoo be coming home from this tour? How are they doing as of today?

Deborah Scranton: The guys from Bad Voodoo will be home sometime in May or June of this year. Everyone was fine as of yesterday! Thanks for asking.


Spangdahlem Airbase, Germany: Hey Deborah! This Jean LaBarre, aka "Rev," and I just wanted to say that I watched the video online this morning and it was very well put together. Thank you for doing specials like this, because it seems like in today's world people only see the bad side of the military; specials like this one really help out the persona of the ones on the frontlines everyday. And if you talk to Toby, tell him I said "what's up" and I'm prayin' for him and his crew every day. Thanks, and God bless.

Deborah Scranton: Hey Rev! So great to hear from you --- the soldier of the most beautiful prayer ever heard!

For all of the rest of you on this chat, you'll remember Rev as the young man who made the beautiful prayer in our film (and then proceeded to get blown up in that night IED) scene.

And I know Toby would say "what's up!?" right back at you and "8 Ball."


Junction City, Kan.: Deborah, I watched the an episode for the first time last night; it was great. I am requesting a CD copy of "Bad Voodoo's War" to use as a tool for my soldiers. We are preparing for this same mission in an upcoming Iraq deployment, and I would like for my new soldiers to see what real world will be like. Thanks for any help you can give me in this area.

Deborah Scranton: Dear Sir (or Sgt.): Thank you so much. The film is streaming now at the Frontline Web site, so you could watch it with your guys that way, or order a DVD. Which unit are you with if you don't mind me asking?


Harrisburg, Pa.: How did you get into documentary film directing? Are you related to the Scrantons of Pennsylvania (for whom the city Scranton was named)?

Deborah Scranton: I've always been obsessed by what I would call 'warrior stories' -- those that involve a journey, facing and overcoming obstacles, and a coming home or reaching of a deeper understanding. I got my start doing profiles and covering major sporting events like the Olympics, Tour de France, World Cup Ski Racing then transitioned into making films. "Bad Voodoo's War"is my third, "the War Tapes" was my second and "Stories From Silence, Witness to War was my first.

And yes I am related, although my Scranton's were from the Warwick line, and both my Revolutionary War ancestors fought for the state of New Hampshire.


Vallejo, Calif.: I just want to say thank you to Deborah. My husband is Spc. Jonathan Serbellon and I have struggled with understanding what he does as a Bad Voodoo soldier. I was hesitant to watch the program because I protected myself from seeing their day-to-day, but I felt the program really opened my eyes a little bit more. I know I can speak on behalf of his mom as well when I say thank you for allowing us into their world and showing the country how wonderfully brave these men are.

Deborah Scranton: Hi!!!! So nice to meet you, Jonathan spoke a lot about you and his mom, grandmom and great-grand mom!!! I'm glad the film felt true to you. And I hope you've seen Jonathan's bio on the Web site.

He is such a thoughtful, sensitive man. And I hope you take a chance to visit the comment sections on the Web site and read what so many people have written as far as having a newfound understanding, empathy and connection to the men of Bad Voodoo and soldiers like them.


Boston: One of the best frontlines ever. Sometimes just letting the soldiers tell their own stories is the most powerful way to convey what the experience over there is really like.

Deborah Scranton: Thank you. I couldn't agree with you more! For me truth resides in contrasting ground level narratives -- and amplifying the voices of the people truly involved. Nothing like "boots on the ground" perspectives to open eyes and hearts.


Newtown Square, Pa.: Thank you for the sincerity and honesty that you brought to this show. You really did try to keep an even keel, and it shows in the comments I've seen around the Web. Here's hoping for many more.

Deborah Scranton: Thank you, we are hoping for that too.

Write our Web site and tell Frontline you want more www.pbs.org/frontline/badvoodoo

Your voice is very important in getting these types of stories made!


Sumter, S.C.: I saw the show last night, and it was amazing to see how our troops really are living. I hope that you and everybody else involved reach the global success you all deserve!

Deborah Scranton: Thanks, success for us would be to amplify these guys' story (and others') as far and wide as possible. If you'd encourage people to watch and comment at Frontline's Web site we would appreciate it.

Actually, we'd like nothing more than if enough people were to write in and crash their server :-)

That would help send the message that Americans want to hear the soldiers' story first-hand.


Bloomington, Ind.: Another question for you, Deborah. Why did you choose National Guard soldiers as your focus rather than members of other service branches?

Deborah Scranton: They chose me... I've been virtual friends with milblogger J.P. Borda (one of the Bad Voodoo soldiers) since the release of my earlier film "The War Tapes." A year after that was theatrically released, J.P. sent me an e-mail saying that his unit had been called up and wondered if I'd be willing to work with them to tell their story...

J.P.'s amazing blog is milblogging.com if any of you want to check it out. I highly recommend it.


Washington: Deborah, I saw the program last night and really thought it was a wonderful piece of work. I thought it was thoughtful, nonjudgmental, and added some much needed humanity to the dialogue on the war in Iraq. How are the guys doing over there? Will another film be forthcoming updating their progress?

Deborah Scranton: Thank you very much.

We will be following the guys of Bad Voodoo until they come home and adding video updates as well as blog posts from the guys and me at Frontline's Web site.


Alexandria, Va.: Congratulations on your film -- it is a powerful piece of work, and very well done. Question -- why was no appearance or mention made of the platoon leader (typically a first lieutenant)? Did you offer a camera to him? Did he decline? If so, why? Thank you.

Deborah Scranton: We wanted to tell an noncommissioned officer story (no offense to all the wonderful amazing, inspiring officers out there!). We didn't offer the first lieutenant a camera, and he didn't ask for one.


New York: For years I have been trying to follow the Iraq war through the eyes of the men and women there. I was reading Jason Just Another Solider blog and e-mailing with him and sending DVDs to him. It gave me a real understanding of the war beyond the news and misguided opinion of the politicians here. Thank you for this view of the war and the insight into these men and women.

I wish there was an easy answer to understanding this war and our path as a country. Just yesterday I was listening to Terry Gross interview the Nobel Prize winner economist about the trillion dollar war and how Iraq is only one part of the war. Coming home with or without injuries is a whole other war for them. Do these warriors have any vision or insight for us about the war?

Deborah Scranton: Jason Christopher Hartley is an amazing writer (and a friend of mine). His blog/book "Just Another Soldier" is one of several ground level narratives that continue to be an inspiration to me as a filmmaker.


Salem, Ind.: Thanks to you, the men of Bad Voodoo and all the other men and women serving overseas. This program was an excellent glimpse to what life in the military consists of. The times on patrol where time comes to a standstill because the adrenaline is flowing so hard, but then is gone in an instant afterwards. The monotonous boredom during downtime even though that third eye is always awake. This really is an emotional rollercoaster for these guys. Stay safe, guys, and come home to open arms. We're all thinking of you.

Deborah Scranton: Thank you for taking the time to write in. For more content on the guys please check out (and write in and share your thoughts) on the Frontline Web site.


George, Iowa: It seems obvious to me that these "no-bid" contractors, KBR and Halliburton don't serve any kind of real purpose other than to hurt our troops and plunder our tax dollars. I hope footage of the many of these companies' constant shortcomings/intentional blunders are being compiled and that some organization is building a case for redress of the "legal" plunder caused by these rogue companies and their shareholders and all involved in the White House. You know to whom I'm referring ... it's treasonous...

Deborah Scranton: I hope that by amplifying soldiers' voices, I am helping to inform you. Policymakers are elected by voters.


Elizabethtown, N.C.: I watched your program last night and I really was engrossed in it. I don't have the words to describe the intense feelings and compassion and worry I felt for those soldiers. The American public truly does not know what they go through there. The realistic documentary truly lets you know not only what happens there, but the stress and seriousness of our troops. I don't want to miss any continuing coverage. Do you have the airtime schedule?

Deborah Scranton: Thank you for sharing your reactions and feelings about the film.

Check your local PBS station listings and tune in to the Web site, which has the show streaming online and will have updates added regularly until the men of Bad Voodoo come home.

And while you're there write in! The guys will all be reading the comments section from Iraq -- and while they appreciate personal emails, the action of publishing something in the comments section for everyone to see is a powerful tool for getting these films made.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Deborah. My husband and I watched your documentary last night on Frontline. Neither one of us has had a family member in Iraq, but we both felt like we knew these guys by the end. He was so moved that he said he didn't know if he wanted to find out any more about these guys because he was afraid he'd discover that some of them died. I think everyone should see this. We all hear or read news about the war in Iraq and have our opinions about it, but none of us ever really will know what it's like to be over there. You came very close to putting us in the vehicles with those guys. My opinion: They all should have come home a long time ago. We need to have more stories like this. Thank you.

Deborah Scranton: There is nothing more gratifying than introducing soldiers to families and people who know none. Now you do! We are all in this together. Thank you for caring!


Reston, Va.: Hey, Deborah ... superb work, exceptionally understanding of and sympathetic to Toby and the soldiers involved. Beautifully done! What's your next project?

Deborah Scranton: Thank you so much. I had an an amazing team, including of course the Soldiers with Cameras like Toby, Jason, J.P., Jonathan, Ben, Bryan, Jake and Richard (and others who filled in) -- and also my ever-by-my-side Associate Producer Katherine Robinson, Co-Producer/DP PH O'Brien and Co-Producer/Editor Seth Bomse.

We have a few new projects in the pipeline -- we'll announce them on my Filmmaker's MySpace page.


Kensington, Md.: Deborah, I can't thank you and the men of Bad Voodoo enough for sharing their story. For the first time ever, I am moved to contribute to PBS. Tell your bosses that!

Deborah Scranton: You tell them! They might not believe me... :-) Thank you!


Manhattan, N.Y.: I wondered while watching the program last night how local commanders reacted to the filming. While I was glad to hear of the military's cooperation, I wonder if this successful airing will bring White House or Pentagon retaliation. As the 2008 election campaign drones on, your show starkly challenges both the Democrat hedge-your-bets approach and McCain's dogged insistence that these men are doomed to serve more deployments.

Deborah Scranton: We've had a lot of positive responses which started coming in immediately last night (no negative ones so far), from commanders on various levels who didn't participate in the production of the film. I don't anticipate any retaliation on any front from the Pentagon and as for the White House and the election your guess is as good as mine. The point of the show is to amplify the soldiers' voices and get all of us more connected to the reality of this war and those who are fighting it in our name.


Groton, Mass.: Do the video tapes go through military censorship? What is the vetting process for the tapes before Deborah receives them?

Deborah Scranton: No, the tapes did not go through any censorship. A security review was done before the broadcast of the show to make sure we weren't jeopardizing anyone's safety.


Baltimore: While I always have opposed this war, this documentary brought a new dimension to my anger. I missed the first ten minutes so I apologize if you addressed this in the film: "Mission-wise" how representative is this platoon of the forces out there overall? Because if the mission of thousands of our armed forces is to convoy materials back and forth across the country for private contractors,(cynically referred to by the unit as "the lettuce and tomato run"), while basically waiting for the moment that they get picked off by an IED, I fail to see why they can't come back home immediately.

It seems that the media repeatedly has sounded a talking point -- namely "we can't send them back home because their work is too critical to stabilizing the country." What am I missing then when I see footage suggesting that the Iraqi Army is planting IEDs on bridges? It seems to me that my tax dollars are being used to turn a group of incredibly brave, intelligent soldiers into disposable couriers.

Deborah Scranton: By amplifying the soldiers' voices, I'm trying to bring their perspective and experience into our national consciousness, dialogue and awareness. If that raises questions for you and others, I hope you all get connected and involved and demand better answers.


Princeton, N.J.: The frustration with the high risks related to the seeming lack of purpose of their missions is overwhelmingly apparent with J.P., Toby and the other Joes. I also felt their anxiety about time lost at home. How important has the reporting/interaction with you been to help these guys stay connected and to better maintain their sanity?

Deborah Scranton: Toby has specifically expressed that having the outlet of the camera and someone listening on the other end has helped him. We all want to feel connected, and there is a big problem with the troops feeling anonymous to many here at home.


Volcano, Hawaii: I was struck by the soldiers' frankness in discussing the value of their mission, their feelings about the Iraqi armed forces, and the political aspects of the engagement. You suspect things from reading news articles, but to hear it directly from them was a powerful experience. It made me realize how infrequently we have heard from the men and women on the ground speak openly in an unstructured setting, and how important that is. My thanks go to them.

Related to this, have you received any comments about the documentary from upper levels of the military? Did it have to be reviewed before it was released? Were you able to include everything you wanted? If not, what was excluded? Finally, did KBR ever give a reason for not showing up? My thanks again, to you and the soldiers in the Bad Voodoo Platoon. It sounds too easy for me to say "be safe," but really, be safe and come home.

Deborah Scranton: Thank you for so eloquently describing your thoughts. Soldiers are as frank as the rest of us and willing to share -- if you are really listening and let them know you are listening.

I've already answered some of your questions about reviewing footage, etc. I was able to include everything that I wanted, nothing was excluded or censored.

The men never found out why KBR didn't show up, Toby told me it happens quite often -- that the guys are left out there hanging ... (which makes me rabid with rage)


San Clemente, Calif.: I really enjoyed your film. Frontline has done a fine job of keeping the Iraq war front and center at a time when most people are trying to tune out. That is unfair for our soldiers and their families. I have been involved with booksforsoldiers.com for many years now and have come to know a great many soldiers and Marines. I met Colby Buzzell on that site -- he wanted Jack Kerouac books. Beatnik soldiers, who would have guessed?

Deborah Scranton: As far as people tuning out, I see it all around me. What we are talking about here is endurance ... if the guys can endure those convoy security missions, surely we should be able to endure reading our newspapers, blogs and watching films that tell their stories and inform us. And also bearing witness to those who are dying and being wounded.

Colby is an amazingly rich complex person, and brilliant writer. His blog turned book, "My War" is another one of my inspirations.

An interesting coincidence is that, on his first tour to Iraq Toby served in the same Stryker brigade with Colby.


Saint James, Fla.: Deborah: "Bad Voodoo's War" is marvelous journalism! Thanks for an inside look at what makes our military brotherhood so strong and effective. What a waste to put such highly trained specialists out there running interference as bomb bait for private truck convoys operated by the very companies that are profiting from this stupid extension of a needless war. You're guys are great! You made us love them like members of their families and we are proud to know them. May they all come home safe soon

Deborah Scranton: Thank you, they are members of all of our families. We are so glad you feel that way. One of the prime goals of our filmmaking work is making connection where so often there is a disconnect. We hope that America will start to view soldiers and Marines (and their families) as a "we" -- not an "us" and "them." War needs to get a lot more personal for all of us to progress towards something better. If you see these guys as sons, then we see that as a step in the right direction. Thank you for opening your hearts.


Rockville, Md.: Have you seen the film "Fighting for Life"? My wife works at the medical school and I used to. We like it.

Deborah Scranton: No, I haven't had a chance to yet -- thanks for the suggestion.


Alexandria, Va.: I thought last night's show was amazing and a real tribute to real men fighting this war, but the thing that struck me the most was the IED explosion near the Iraqi police barracks. The previous night I had watched a National Geographic Channel show called "Inside the Green Berets." On that show, a nighttime convoy was under an ambush threat when the Afghan army truck "accidentally" turned its lights on, illuminating an American vehicle which promptly took an RPG and killed two Americans. We are truly in bed with traitorous snakes.

Deborah Scranton: One of the difficulties of fighting a counterinsurgency is not knowing who is friend or foe -- and the fact that the status can change day by day.


Bloomington, Ind.: Ms. Scranton, I was delighted to see that you've replicated "The War Tapes" in short form on this week's Frontline. I teach "The War Tapes" in a class titled The Responsibility of War at Indiana University; the students -- all 18- or 19-year-old freshmen -- invariably react with surprise to the rawness of the content. (They think "Black Hawk Down" is the real thing prior to seeing "The War Tapes.") So I wanted first to say that I'm so pleased to see you continuing the work of allowing soldiers to tell their stories. I'll show this semester's class the Frontline episode when it arrives in the mail.

Next, I have a few questions for you. First, I recall reading in an interview you gave about "The War Tapes" that you selected the most cinematic moments from those 800 hours of film to create the final product. What motivated your selection of moments from Bad Voodoo's deployment for this episode? (And, I suppose, to what degree did Frontline producers influence content selection?)

Second, "The War Tapes" follows New Hampshire Guardsmen, and as I understand your home is in New Hampshire; the connection appears to be obvious. Why did you select Bad Voodoo, a Guard platoon from California? Finally, as I'm sure you're aware, Frontline's version of "Operation Homecoming" developed into a feature-length documentary; are there any plans to do the same with Bad Voodoo?

Thank you for the work that you do to get these soldiers' stories out to the public. I remain impressed by the way you foregrounded the soldiers in "The War Tapes" -- only the soldiers speak. The film continues to be an invaluable educational tool for me, both personally and as an educator. I am happy now to add this Frontline episode to the tool belt.

Deborah Scranton: Thank you, I think it's the world of "Black Hawk Down" as well. I'm so pleased that you are bringing this type of work into your classes!

As far as editing decisions go, Frontline's producers couldn't have been more supportive of the soldiers' voices. David Pfanning, Mike Sullivan and Lou Wiley are some of the bravest producers in television. It has been an honor and joy to work with them (and their team) on this film.

Deciding what to include or not to include in the final film, I take my cues from the natural flow of their footage. There is no preconceived notion of what the story will be. I promised them we would tell the story through their eyes wherever it takes us. And we were lucky enough to have a truly amazing, verite style editor Seth Bomse who crafted the film beautifully.


Deborah Scranton: Thank you all for your questions, it has been wonderful to have a dialogue with you all. I look forward to hearing from you again and continue the conversations we've started here on the Frontline "Bad Voodoo's War" Web site.

Please come find us and say hello. The Web site will be updated with new video, photos, blog posts until the guys come home. Join us. Remember the soldiers.


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