As the Iraq war lurches into its fourth year and popular opposition grows, a litany of muckraking films and documentaries have recently inundated the marketplace. Violently anti-Bush works such as The Road to Guantanamo don’t offer fresh perspectives, though — they’re content to flatter the left’s cozy assumption that supporting a movie is akin to doing something productive about this endless conflict.
Patricia Foulkrod’s new documentary, The Ground Truth, ostensibly falls into that same category, except that it’s a genuinely upsetting call to action that remains apolitical in its message. Foulkrod uses Iraq as a leaping-off point for a larger conversation about the consequences of America’s military mindset — how prospective soldiers naively romanticize the notion of combat heroism, and how the same civilians who buy patriotic decals to “support” the troops refuse to help them once their service ends.
The Ground Truth examines the lives of several soldiers who have returned from Iraq but cannot escape the memories of combat. Losing a limb is horrifying enough, but Foulkrod argues that the mental scars (and the often unsympathetic treatment from bureaucratic government agencies) prove more damaging, no matter the happy-ending news footage of valiant veterans getting off planes to kiss crying loved ones.
“Like many Americans, I hoped things would get better after you came home,” Foulkrod tells me one recent morning at a Melrose café. “The biggest mythology in American culture about war is that if you sign up for the military, you’ll be taken care of. And I think many soldiers believe that. Even as they’re watching someone they know — a brother or a father who was in Vietnam who came back messed up and never spoke about it and never got help — they think that somehow they will be different.”
Foulkrod lacks the self-righteousness that can make a well-meaning activist insufferable. Her résumé includes many passion projects: documentaries about the history of Native Americans and the children of women in prison; a teaching position at an L.A. juvenile hall; working as a director for Arianna Huffington’s gubernatorial campaign during the 2003 California recall election. The Ground Truth was inspired by a similar desire to get involved: Three years ago, convinced that the number of war wounded was being underreported, she interviewed Iraq veterans about their combat experience and their difficulties re-entering civilian life. As she continued to compile testimonials, Foulkrod thought of an old Tom Waits lyric: “He came home from the war/With a party in his head.” But while she knew a worthwhile film existed somewhere in her rolls of footage, she struggled to find a narrative arc.
“I was afraid to commit to making a film about the effects of killing,” she now admits. “I was afraid to say the word. I was afraid to ask the soldiers questions about it. But I realized it was the only film I wanted to make.”
Her hesitation is understandable. Even the military’s slick advertisements, which appeal to young people’s sense of belonging and adventure, smoothly evade any implication that wartime service will very likely involve the taking of another human life.
But while The Ground Truth highlights the disparity between the reality of war and the military fantasy, the movie’s subjects feel surprisingly little anger or betrayal about their tours of duty — only confusion. Turned away by overworked VA centers, Foulkrod’s veterans can find no healthy way to exorcise that pain in a society that doesn’t want to hear about any more atrocities, lest they further taint our noble view of a “just” war. Aside from a mawkish score, The Ground Truth is riveting, unadorned oral history, a companion piece to the Vietnam-era documentary Winter Soldier, which similarly allowed a group of servicemen to finally share their internal terror. “One of the most taboo things you can ask a soldier is, ‘Did you kill anyone?’” she says. “It’s really offensive to them. But the flipside is, many of them need to talk.”
Foulkrod insists that The Ground Truth has no agenda aside from asking viewers (regardless of their political leanings) to recognize their responsibility to veterans. Again and again during our meeting, she makes it clear that she’s tired of civilians buying ribbons and offering cursory thanks: She wants people to reach out to our troops and listen to them as she has.
“We’re very good at creating organizations and institutions to take care of people,” she says. “But we’re not very good at the one-on-one. You go to other places in the world, and if you get a flat tire, people invite you into their house and cook you dinner.”
She marvels at that for a moment.
“Here, we just call AAA.”
The Ground Truth opens Fri., Sept. 15, at the Nuart. Check back next week for Ella Taylor’s review.