NEW YORK — A woman stands in a makeshift graveyard in Iraq, wailing over her dead son. A soldier sitting in a Humvee complains about his armor. In New York, a homeless black veteran goes from one government bureaucracy to another. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, a 23-year-old man moves back in with his parents after being blinded in combat.
After three years of war in Iraq and countless television news briefings delivered from the rooftops of hotels, four documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival this week deliver front-row views of the occupation. They were made by young filmmakers with thin journalism résumés and paltry sums of money, but seen together, they paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the war as told through the people who are living it.
“I feel like the priority of KBR making money outweighs the priority of safety,” says one member of the National Guard in “The War Tapes,” discussing the subsidiary of military contractor Halliburton (which was headed by Dick Cheney until shortly before he became vice president).
Shot in Iraq between March 2004 and February 2005, the film follows three soldiers from New Hampshire in Baghdad and Fallujah, Iraq, then spends 10 months at home with them as they battle post-traumatic stress disorder and severe carpal tunnel syndrome. Ultimately, the film is about how the soldiers slowly turn on the war they are fighting. “I love being a soldier,” says another. “The only bad thing is you can’t pick your war.” The footage was captured by the soldiers themselves on $25,000 worth of cameras that were provided to them by Deborah Scranton, a fledgling documentary filmmaker from Goshen, N.H.
“I directed over instant message,” she said by phone on Monday. “The soldiers did an amazing job with the cameras. They mounted them on the dashboards of their Humvees, on their gun turrets, even on their helmets.” Still, it was not cheap to make — about $1 million, which came from silent investors.
“The Blood of My Brother” is the story of a young Iraqi man and his mother as they try to rebuild their lives after his brother is gunned down outside a mosque in Baghdad. It is on some level a cautionary tale about how normal Iraqi citizens, friendly to the U.S. before the war, have responded to the occupation. The film was directed by Andrew Berends, a self-described “white, basically blond guy” from New York who stuck out like a sore thumb during his six months in Iraq, but nevertheless managed to gain access to everything from religious rallies to battles in which he stands by Iraqi insurgents as they shoot at American helicopters.
Dan Lohaus, who directed “When I Came Home,” didn’t even expect his movie to be about Iraq. The filmmaker — who started a recycling program in Boston that employs only homeless people — had been planning a film on homeless Vietnam War veterans when he began to hear stories about young black veterans who’d gone into the military to get out of the projects and came back to America unable to even get back into them. Its main subject is Herold Noel, a 26-year-old who spent eight months in combat in the 3-7 Cavalry. He fought in the initial invasion and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Noel would look at his wife and see the faces of Iraqi women. He began drinking. He lost his job. Then he just got angry.
Lohaus has concrete political objectives for the film. “I’d like to see someone come out of Washington, D.C., with a bill that offers housing subsidies for veterans who need it,” he says.
Finally, there is “Home Front,” directed by Richard Hankin, the 41-year-old editor and co-producer of “Capturing the Friedmans.” It is a harrowing documentary about what happens to the injured, as seen through the experience of one soldier: Army Ranger Jeremy Feldbusch, who was hit by a piece of shrapnel that sliced into his head above his right eye, leaving him totally blind and suffering from impulse control, mood swings and seizures. “There are many things I miss,” he says in the film. “Seeing beautiful women. Being able to drive.”