New film highlights 1st AD's Iraq mission
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Filmmaker Michael Tucker is perplexed.
The Berlin-based documentary maker asks why America doesn’t seem to care about the Iraq war or the American soldiers who are fighting it.
America, he says, has lost interest in the war and turned the channel to “Survivor” and “American Idol.”
“My friends say, ‘You’re obsessed with this war,’” Tucker said in a telephone interview from his Berlin office. “I say, ‘How can you not be?’ The American people have no idea what life is like for these soldiers.”
Tucker, a Seattle native, has channeled his obsession into “Gunner Palace,” the first feature-length film about the Iraq war; a film that he says is from the perspective of the soldiers themselves.
It’s a film that may do for the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment — nicknamed “Gunners” — what HBO’s “Band of Brothers” did for Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division: Make them into American icons.
The movie is set to open Feb. 11 in six U.S. markets, then expand the following week to 15 markets. Tucker said he hopes to have pre-release screenings next month at major U.S. posts, such as Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Drum, N.Y., but those plans are not yet complete.
Tucker spent a total of two months between September 2003 and April 2004 living with the unit at what soldiers call “Odai’s Love Shack,” a partially bombed-out palace on the Euphrates River where Saddam Hussein’s son, Odai, brought paramours for trysts.
The regiment set up headquarters at the palace complex, which they nicknamed “Gunnerland,” while patrolling Al-Adhamiya, one of the most volatile sections of Baghdad. Tucker accompanied soldiers on countless missions and simply hung out with the troops. He said that left him with a sympathetic view of his soldiers that strongly runs counter to an image colored by soldiers’ abuses of Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib prison.
“I tended to give soldiers the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They didn’t ‘sandbag’ detainees (place sandbags over their heads). It shocked me you didn’t see rougher treatment of detainees” given the constant threat level.”
He did see, over time, mounting frustration among troops over the language barrier, and the fatigue of working nearly around the clock.
“It’s a bunch of 20-year-old kids who just want to survive,” he said.
Gunnerland was a world between the reality of raids and attacks and the “real” world via the Internet, phones and the media, Tucker said. There were the funny moments, when soldiers would pull up to find suspects conveniently waiting to be caught, and darker moments when the U.S. troops rammed Humvees into houses, only to find out they had the wrong targets, he said.
Tucker said his goal is to show Americans — without being voyeuristic, political or patronizing — a world that he finds inspiring and terrifying.
He quotes one of the men he calls “soldier/poets:”
“It’s like (Spc.) Richmond Shaw said – ‘For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.’”
Tucker and his partner, Petra Epperlein, have shown “Gunner Palace” at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto Film Festival in Canada to enthusiastic reviews.
It is, said Tucker, art out of pain.
It was painful getting to know and respect soldiers and officers such as Sgt. Maj. Eric F. Cooke and 1st Lt. Ben Colgan before they died in separate attacks, he said.
After that, he said, he couldn’t make “something rah-rah.” But neither could he make a film disrespectful of soldiers. Tucker said: “I most like that it shows them being them.”
Tucker succeeded in keeping the film “apolitical,” said Jon Powers, 26, a former 2-3 Field Artillery captain, now a schoolteacher in Buffalo, N.Y.
“It’s a great movie … for soldiers to see, and … for their families and friends to see if they want to understand what we went through for 14 months,” said Powers, who saw “Gunner Palace” at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
The film is, he said, an accurate depiction of daily life made by a filmmaker given extraordinary access by Lt. Col. Bill Rabena, the battalion commander. Attempts by Stars and Stripes to reach Rabena were unsuccessful.
“People always ask me if there was censorship; if I had trouble getting access and all those issues,” Tucker said.
Instead, he said, he had unrestricted access to soldiers in their off hours, to all missions and even to interrogations of suspected Iraqi insurgents. “They embraced your being there,” Tucker said. “People just want their story told.”
Whether the regiment’s soldiers will be able to go to the local base theater to watch themselves on the big screen remains unclear. Army and Air Force Exchange Service executives say that’s unlikely, unless a major distributor with whom AAFES has a contractural relationship picks up the film, and it goes into wide release, said Judd Anstey, media branch manager at AAFES headquarters in Dallas.
Viewers should be prepared for what Powers calls “some down-and-dirty” footage, including a scene where soldiers are “playing guitars and basically hanging out,” a peaceful moment interrupted by a mortar attack. “But once (the audience) gets over the shock, it will get a conversation started. … The guys who went with me to see it said, ‘Is that what it was really like?!’ … I said, ‘Yeah.’”