One of the best pieces of visual reportage to have emerged from the war
in Iraq, the documentary Occupation: Dreamland achieves a remarkable degree
of intimacy with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Falluja in early
2004, as the city trembles on the brink of explosion. “I think the soldiers felt
they could have a different relationship with us because they knew the film wouldn’t
be broadcast right away,” says Ian Olds, who co-directed the movie with Garrett
Scott. “We just weren’t in their faces as much as the journalists who would have
to press them for stories immediately. We heard people asking them questions like,
‘How does it feel to kill people?’”
Given the military’s tight-lipped relationship with the press, the soldiers’ candor in Dreamland can be startling. “I think the guys who were about to get out, who had done their time and were fed up, didn’t have much to fear,” Scott says. “The people who were less willing to speak were either invested in a military career or had several years to go. Of course, there were plenty of people who were all for what they were doing. You had a range of ideological identification, but also just the kind of alienation you can feel with any job. There were also plenty of people who had great doubts about what they were doing and weren’t going to tell us that, because you’re never alone there.”

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Despite its implicit anti-war stance, Dreamland presents a sympathetic portrait of young, often confused soldiers who struggle to carry out futile or self-contradictory orders while the city grows palpably more hostile to their presence — as can be sensed in their brief, edgy street-corner meetings with locals (“Be careful of Falluja,” one man warns). “Everyone knew it was absurd, including the Iraqis,” Scott says. “Can you imagine, an officer locks eyes on you, he’s heavily armed, and you have to talk to him? But there were some interesting interactions, because [the locals] would gather around and want to hear what they were saying. It would turn into this venting process.”Scott and Olds left Falluja with the 82nd Airborne not long before the city plunged into chaos. “Falluja wasn’t on the map back in the States while we were there, but everyone in Iraq knew about the potential for violence,” Olds says. “By a couple of weeks after we got back, it was a key point on all the maps on TV. You can see moments in the film more clearly in context of what happened later.”
The filmmakers previously collaborated on Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story
(directed by Scott and edited by Olds), a bleak tale of the boom and bust of defense-industry-dependent
Claremont, California, punctuated with chilling footage of army vet Shawn Nelson
speeding a stolen tank through residential streets. Olds says, “People ask, ‘Do
you have to have a tank in every movie?’” Scott provides the answer: “It isn’t
me, it’s U.S. foreign policy. I just got swept up in it.” For Dreamland,
Scott and Olds felt some initial ambivalence about their embedded status, especially
during the night raids on residential Iraqi homes to uncover suspected insurgents.
“We went in there with the fearful idea that we couldn’t overcome the position
we were in. It often felt like we were just doing an episode of Cops,”
Scott says.
“From the Iraqis’ position, all we did was add insult to injury,” he continues. “It’s the worst possible thing, to take the men out of the house, scare everybody, turn their house over, march over everything with your boots, totally destroy all the rules of hospitality, trespass like nobody’s business, and then, on top of all that, go into this most private inner sanctum with two video cameras recording it all. These women are looking at me, and I’m thinking, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m doing right now.’ It’s never going to make any difference to them if what we end up doing is somehow for a better purpose. We talked about this — if you see something horrible and you don’t agree with it, do you just stop? Or do you keep going?”Dreamland is rolling out in theaters across the country, and recently screened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne. “Once the first screening was over and after a few tense moments,” Olds reports, “a soldier who was in Falluja stood up and said, ‘Thank you. You captured all the tension and frustration we were feeling exactly, and I just hope everybody will have a chance to see this.’ Then one after another, other soldiers began to stand up and talk about how great it was that this kind of record existed. At the other end of the spectrum, at the New York screenings anti-war activists have been telling us how crucial it is to see the war in this unmediated form.” Such positive responses are in turn crucial to the filmmakers. “There’s a real danger of misapprehension,” Scott says, “because the movie is trying to demystify these indistinguishable figures in body armor. There’s an amazing world inside each of them.”

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