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Soldiers' stories

A timely and empathetic film documents life in wartime, as seen through the eyes of the 82nd Airborne

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There's an extraordinary scene midway through Occupation: Dreamland in which a captain addresses a staff meeting of junior officers in Falluja. Between expectorations of tobacco into a water bottle, Capt. Terence Caliguire asks his lieutenants a series of rhetorical questions. What are we protecting? What are we securing? His questions are met with silence, and Caliguire answers himself. "We're securing ourselves," he says after a pause. "What exactly are we protecting? I don't know."

This revealing comment is one of numerous extraordinarily frank moments in Occupation: Dreamland, a new documentary that is being released theatrically this week by Rumur Releasing, an independent distribution company operated by Chapel Hill native and longtime New York husband and wife filmmaking team Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley.

Occupation: Dreamland follows an eight-man squad from the 1/505 Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division for six weeks in the winter of 2004. We're informed at the film's outset that Al Falluja, the city of mosques, is a commercial center located on a highway linking Baghdad and the Jordanian border. A low priority at the outset of the U.S. invasion, Falluja quickly became a center of Sunni-led resistance.

At the time of filming, Falluja had not achieved the notoriety that would come with the April 2004 lynching of four Blackwater contractors, an event that would precipitate a White House-ordered siege by the Marines who'd replaced the 82nd.

But in January 2004, two relatively unknown documentary filmmakers, Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, received permission to spend six weeks with the Alpha Company of 1/505 as they attempted a difficult dual mission of peacekeeping and counter-insurgency. What emerges in Occupation: Dreamland is a surprisingly intimate portrait of remarkably ordinary young men with complex feelings about their calling as soldiers and the utility of their mission.

Making the film was a complex task for Scott and Olds, who had to check their own opposition to the war in the interest of listening to soldiers and gaining their trust. The initial meeting was surprisingly smooth, Scott says, and for soldier Joseph Wood, at least, the presence of two outsiders was refreshing. "Ian and Garrett came in and we hit it off," Wood says, speaking by telephone from New York, where he is now a civilian student majoring in fashion at Parsons School of Design. "They dispelled the notion that they were reporters. They were completely independent."

Although the soldiers seen in the film are a friendly and accommodating bunch, Scott admits that others outside the squad were not always welcoming. "There were gung-ho, suspicious types giving us the dead stare and yelling shit at us," he says. "After a while, though, I started going up to people who wanted to kick my ass."

"I was just a symbolic target," Scott says. "It's hard to sustain hatred for people you don't know."

Indeed, the interpersonal intimacy afforded by Occupation: Dreamland cuts a couple of ways. For one thing, the omnipresent cameras in an environment of little privacy means that there are unguarded moments, as when retention officers browbeat soldiers into reenlisting by undermining their confidence that they can thrive in the outside world.

An even more important aspect of the intimacy provided by Occupation: Dreamland is in the way we come to know the soldiers. Liberal anti-war activists tend to be hyper-sensitive to the charge--which conservatives and their media mouthpieces are always happy to fuel--that they are anti-military, contemptuous of soldiers and their families and the food they eat and the gods they worship. This perception hits such a sore nerve that Vietnam vet John Kerry became a prime beneficiary of it in garnering the presidential nomination last year. The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration is notoriously composed of people who avoided military service, while politicians who are combat veterans have been attacked or marginalized, whether they be Democrats (Kerry, Cleland, Clark) or Republicans (McCain, Hagel, Powell).

Despite the obvious contradictions, the meme persists that liberals hate soldiers. In a clear effort to begin a revision of that caricature, both Scott and distributor Galinsky stress that Occupation: Dreamland is first and foremost a pro-soldier film, and it's hard to disagree. As the film's narrative cuts between barracks interviews and tag-alongs as they patrol the tense and unfamiliar neighborhoods of Falluja, we burrow so deeply into their point of view that occasional glimpses of rage seem entirely understandable, given their dangerous and confusing circumstances.

The interviews reveal a wide range of personalities, but also a striking level of ordinariness. Although the details differ among the enlisted men, most signed up for duty as a way to bring order and purpose to their meandering young lives. One, a private named John Blyler, sold shoes for two years before venturing into the recruiting station located next door. Another, a good-humored and effective sergeant named Chris Corcione, turned to the army after realizing that his career as the bass player in a Fayetteville death metal band wasn't going anywhere (the film includes home video footage of his rocker days). And Wood, the fashion student, lacked money for college and went to the recruiting office out of curiosity. "I said to myself, ´I'm just going to ask a few questions,'" Wood recalls in the film. "I walked out of there with a four-year contract."

Politically, the views shown in the film skew to the skeptical. A bespectacled private named Thomas Turner turns out to be a rabid Democrat while Lt. Matt Bacik, on the other hand, is more of a believer, despite some reluctance to discuss politics. "Maybe you can draw a big diagram of how the world works and maybe it all connects oil and terrorism and people who hate the U.S.," the recent West Point grad shrugs, spitting into a water bottle. "But I've got pretty strong faith that our government didn't send me over here to protect oil."

Others admit to some empathy with the Iraqis. Luis Pacheco, a heavily-muscled medic, says, "If I was home in Chicago and some Iraqis came knocking on my door, I'd be running upstairs with a couple of guns myself."

One of the most charismatic subjects is Eric Forbes, who shows himself to be thoughtful and politically attentive in barracks interviews. "The last time I checked, the hijackers and Osama bin Laden were from Saudi Arabia," he says in a tone of withering scorn. "I hate to say it, but I think it's about setting up another OPEC country that's friendly to the U.S.," says Forbes, a ninth grade dropout. "You've got all these Halliburton contracts to protect the oil fields ... put two and two together and add it up."

But in one of Occupation: Dreamland's more felicitous ironies, when we see Forbes in action on the streets of Falluja, he turns out to be as tough as they come. (Forbes is now stationed in Germany, Scott reports, and will likely become a career soldier. "It's a pretty clear-cut career move for him, into one of the last meritocracies.")

The release of Occupation: Dreamland comes at a tricky time. Politically, the film's release is perfectly timed to the burst of anti-war activity sparked by Cindy Sheehan's quixotic enterprise in Crawford, Texas, her ongoing bus tour and the huge anti-war demonstrations planned for Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C., all at a time when the broken levees and dead bodies in New Orleans have left Bush's cloak of implacable authority in tatters. (Scenes from the film will be played during set changeovers at the Operation Ceasefire concert at the Washington Monument, which will be headlined by Le Tigre, The Coup and Steve Earle, and hosted by Jello Biafra.)

"Things are changing very rapidly, so it's a good time for [the film]," says Galinsky, speaking by cell phone from New York. "If you cut all the money for federal projects to hold together the infrastructure, and send away all the personnel to Iraq, look what happens."

Galinsky, who graduated from Chapel Hill High in 1987 and went off to NYU to study religion, is no stranger to George Bush (or, perhaps more accurately, his security detail). Horns and Halos, which he made with his wife Suki Hawley, won numerous prizes on the festival circuit. Released in 2002, it documents the extraordinary pressures put on underground publisher Soft Skull and one of its authors, J.H. Hatfield, who wrote a book about Bush's alleged youthful enthusiasm for cocaine.

In March, Galinsky encountered Occupation: Dreamland at the South by Southwest film festival, where "the film wasn't getting the attention it deserved." The biggest obstacle to Occupation: Dreamland's distribution was the prior, unsuccessful release of Gunner Palace, thus sinking the market for Iraq war documentaries.

The Gunner Palace analogy is inevitable but misleading. "It wasn't as skillfully made a film, and it was made before the insurgency began," Galinsky says. Occupation: Dreamland, on the other hand, "is 20 times better than Fahrenheit 9/11, and it won't date in the same way."

Drawing on his experience self-distributing Horns and Halos, Galinsky approached Scott and Olds about marketing their film. Subsequently, at the Full Frame fest in April, Occupation: Dreamland won the Emerging Pictures award offered by the Wilmington, N.C.-based Working Films, which offers outreach and marketing support for documentaries.

After opening this weekend in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Fayetteville, Occupation: Dreamland will open in New York, Boston and Portland and 15 or 16 other cities.

In the meantime, of course, the war grinds on. The members of Alpha Company we meet in Occupation: Dreamland are no longer together. Wood and Pacheco are civilians, Forbes and Corcione have been reassigned and Turner, the diehard Democrat, has "fallen off the radar," according to Scott. Earlier this summer, Lt. Bacik lost part of his right foot in combat, and is presently convalescing in the United States.

The winter of discontent captured in Occupation: Dreamland is going to be a long one, as Corcione acknowledges in the film: "Can Iraq be fixed? Yes, but after years and years of people like us going out there and getting blown up."

Occupation: Dreamland opens this Friday in Chapel Hill's Chelsea Theater, Raleigh's Six Forks Station Cinema and in Fayetteville. The filmmakers will be on hand to discuss the film at the 7 p.m. screening in Chapel Hill on Saturday and the 3 p.m. screening in Raleigh on Sunday. For more info, see www.occupationdreamland.com .

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