We all have pivotal defining moments in our lives. For me, one of those was stumbling across James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Agee’s philosophy of “living journalism,” of getting close enough to hurt, of investing to the core of your being in the lives of those you are documenting, became my mantra. To get their stories, you have to give of yourself‚ confront the wall of “objectivity” and smash through it. It’s about being human first, a journalist and filmmaker second. And it is only when we are a human being first that we approach truth.
February 12, 2004, I got an offer from the New Hampshire National Guard to embed as a filmmaker. I called the public affairs officer and asked if I could give cameras to the soldiers instead? He said yes – but it would be up to me to get soldiers to volunteer to work with the project.
Less than two weeks later I was on a plane down to Fort Dix, NJ. I stepped out in front of those 180 men and told them of my vision. I was met with a hailstorm of questions.
Are you for the war?
Are you against the war?
What are your politics?
How are you going to take and twist our words?
What do you want us to film?
Why should we believe you?
At the heart of their questions was, why should we trust you with our experiences? My reply was, we would do this together. We would tell the story, their story, wherever it took us, no matter what. Ten soldiers volunteered — five soldiers, Zack Bazzi, Mike Moriarty, Steve Pink, Duncan Domey and Brandon Wilkins would end up filming the entire year. In total, twenty one soldiers filmed during their deployment.
Each was given a one chip Sony high end consumer grade camera, tripod, microphone, various lenses and piles of blank tape, as well as my email address and instant message handle. The tapes on average took two weeks to get from Iraq to New Hampshire. In the meantime, some of the soldiers uploaded quicktime files of scenes, explosions and ambushes or sent photos, we chatted on IM and in emails about what had happened, together refining how best to tell the story. The experience was a mesh of interplays of present, future, perspective and reverberating memories. We filmed events in real time. We conducted interviews 24 hours later. These interviews were followed by more interviews months after incidents. This became a mutual journey.
I believe the power of film, image and sound, lies in its ability to evoke empathy. If war negates humanity, then film‚ maybe especially film that shows war from the inside‚ can ensure that even when we fight, we hold on to and bear witness to our humanity. We found a way in this film to smash through that wall. We found the possibility of empathy in the middle of war.