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October 1, 2005

Occupation: Dreamland

During one memorable sequence in Ian Olds and Garrett Scott's grunt's-eye documentary, Occupation: Dreamland (IMDB), one of the soldiers glances at the camera and asks if the camera crew will be going with them on the mission. The moment reminds us that the lightweight documentary camera has become a crucial participant in the ongoing production of the war in Iraq, and throughout the film, Olds and Scott's camera not only captures the soldiers in conflict but it also becomes a magnet for both soldiers and Iraqi citizens to reflect, to complain, and to air grievances. These candid comments--from both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians--gave Occupation: Dreamland a startling, raw power that I felt even more deeply as I reflected that over a year later, conditions in Iraq seem to have changed very little.

Occupation: Dreamland followed the sodliers of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division over the course of several weeks early in 2004 in Falluja, just as the city was beginning to destabilize (the New York Times review offers a helpful chronology), and we can see the relationship between soldiers and civilians deteriorating over the course of the film. In particular, the Iraqis complain bitterly about the soldiers having taken a local woman into custody. In other sequences a soldier candidly admits that he doesn't blame the locals for their response to the soldiers, noting that "I'm sure it scares the shit out of these people." Such comments are intercut with shots of street patrols and night raids, many of which were shot with infrared lighting to add to the "surreal" effect. At the same time, we get a sense of thetedium that the soldiers often confront, with one soldier confiding, "I kind of enjoy getting shot at." At least, he notes, it gets the blood pumping. Washington Post reviewer Stephen Hunter views this sense of tedium (or "boredom," as he puts it) as a weakness, but as with Gunner Palace, I find that the tedium, the lack of any clear narrative progression, actually reflects and implicitly comments on the "lousy narrative" of the war itself, to use Thomas Doherty's descriptive phrase about Vietnam films (Village Voice reviewer Joshua Land also notes that bordeom is "primary mode" of the film).

The film has inevitably drawn comparison to Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace (my review), which came out several months earlier but documents a similar moment in the war. As The Nation film critic, Stuart Klawans notes, Gunner Palace comes across as the "more entertaining" film, at least to the degree that soldiers are willing to play to the camera using freestyle raps. The surreal experience of living in Uday Hussein's pleasure palace also gives the film an absurd edge. Occupation: Dreamland's soldiers tend to be more somber and subdued, and the differences in the style of the interviews make the films nice companion pieces. More crucially, Tucker's voice-over in Gunner Palace codes the film as a subjective experience, a journey of sorts, while Occupation: Dreamland eschews voice-over and a clear framing narrative. Instead, we get six weeks in the life of one squad. This lack of context frustrated Klawans, who faulted the film for being too stingy with these details. I tentatively agree with Klawans (the wartime cliche about truth being the first casualty of war faintly echoes), but the film's effectiveness, in my reading, grows out of the fact that it isn't overly pedantic.

Instead, the film allows the soldiers to offer their own critiques. Few of the soldiers defend the Bush or Rumsfeld line on the war, while others explicitly question their mission in Falluja (one soldier notes drily at one point that "we're not securing Falluja; we're securing ourselves"). In more subtle ways, the film also investigates questions of masculinity and social class as they inform the military. Many soldiers mention that they joined because they had "nothing better to do" or because they needed the money for college. In several sequences, one soldier flexes his Rambo-esque muscles in front of a mirror (and of course the camera itself), while Playboy-style pinups appear in the background in other shots in the barracks. The film doesn't work through these questions in quite enough detail, but Dreamland was even more strikingly masculine than Gunner Palace. It would be easy here to fall into Stephen Hunter's condescending "anthropological" reading of the film (he digresses for an entire paragraph on the soldiers' use of dip), and I think the film carefully avoids that kind of treatment of the soldiers.

But what makes Occupation: Dreamland an indispensible wartime doc, in my reading, is the fact that it allows the Iraqi people to speak. These scenes never cease to fascinate me, as the people who do speak clearly appeal to the camera and believe in its ability to transmit their complaints against unjust actions (whether by Saddam or by the soldiers). I didn't mean to write at such great length on this film, but it clearly affected me more deeply than I realized, and while I sometimes found the lack of context a little frustrating, Ocupation: Dreamland demonstrates why documentary filmmaking remains such an important, vibrant practice.

Note: If you're in the DC area, Occupation: dreamland is playing this week at the Warehouse Theater, not too far from the Gallery Place Metro station.

Posted by chuck at October 1, 2005 11:01 AM

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