***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A-
directed by Garrett Scott & Ian Olds
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover
"I guess someone smarter than me knows what's going on."
-Pfc. Thomas Turner, Occupation: Dreamland
Last year's thoroughly deplorable Gunner Palace had exactly one mode of thought: things are bad for our boys. Treating the citizens of Iraq as errant children and the soldiers like tin gods, it ironically had the effect of making the Iraqis look like victims and the troops look like callous, oblivious schmucks. Occupation: Dreamland is the necessary corrective to that film, at once granting the low-ranking occupiers a claim to feeling righteously confused and the occupied the right to answer back to people they never wanted there in the first place. Though many of the troops are as contemptuous as they were in Gunner Palace (some of them even more so), the overwhelming feeling is that nobody knows anything, with the inevitable end result being a mess of chaos and recrimination that neither side on the ground has a direct means of stopping. It's a reminder that the people who "know what's going on" are generally silent, largely remote, and completely unconcerned with the mess their ill-considered orders create.
The concept of "exit strategy" won't even enter your head: it's clear from this film that nobody apart from the architects of war has any coherent idea of an objective. None of the soldiers interviewed--from the death metal frontman who found himself without direction to the shoe salesman coaxed into four years of service--has a strong idea of what the hell they're doing in Fallujah, though they hold strong and divergent opinions on how to react when they get there. Some are smart enough to place themselves in Iraqi shoes and wonder how they'd feel if a foreign power took over their country. Others are disgusted by their rejection by the people they're supposed to be helping and contemptuously write them off as bastards. But once exposed to combat and a world they never made, none of them feels a strong ideological bond with the mission they've been handed. Even the one true believer vaguely praises Bush Jr. for merely "doing something"--there's no thinking beyond the immediate present.
As they patrol Fallujah (just before it morphs into a major insurgent stronghold), it becomes obvious that they can't control the ideological chaos their presence has brought. Several meet-and-greet sessions with the locals prove largely fruitless: despite attempts to allay fears and explain cross-cultural disasters (everyone seems horrified by the arrest of women), the soldiers are only really allowed to explain the American position and hold fast whether the message took or not. Usually not: one chilling scene sees a Fallujan addressing the camera, telling the filmmakers not to mess with them. "This is Fallujah," he says, "be careful of Fallujah." He's not a fanatic; his hostility is of the sort any angry citizen would have after an assault on his immediate surroundings. He could very easily be a New Yorker after 9/11--but that's a parallel nobody really wants you to draw. After all, that might humanize the enemy.
Humanization, however, is what Occupation: Dreamland is all about. Its purpose isn't to abstract the troops into superpatriots or to demean the occupied nation as victims needing saviours. It's about watching what happens when a bunch of people with no real understanding of a situation are asked to defend it, and the confusion and resentment that results from asking them to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, it's a documentary about pawns from one nation trying to shape pawns from another--a mutual degradation that only manages to destroy the security of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves at ground level. Although the piece is careful to incorporate the opinions of soldiers loyal to the cause, the sheer variance of viewpoints throws into sharp relief both the lack of complexity it took to get America into the war and the infinite confusion that will be its undoing. Essential viewing for these dark times.
Rumur's DVD release does Occupation: Dreamland justice, despite the 1.76:1 widescreen transfer's lack of anamorphic enhancement. The image is very sharp digital video, and though there are grain issues during scenes of darkness (a few of which use night vision), that has to do with the low light levels rather than any mastering issues. Otherwise, it's sharp, crisp, and beautiful for a film with much visual interest by documentary standards. In a similar vein, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is surprisingly immersive for the genre.
Extras begin with a film-length commentary featuring co-directors Ian Olds and the late Garrett Scott, sound designer Jim Dawson, and subject Spc. Joseph Wood. The track adds more layers to the film's simmering confusion, with the participants explicating the motivations and dangers involved in the aforementioned meet-and-greet as well as miscommunications between translators that intensified the nightmare. It's highly informative and almost as alarming as the movie itself. In a two-minute where-are-they now reel, we discover that while most of the subjects have left the military, others are training soldiers to go back in their place. One minute of "Marine Assault Footage" shows what happened when the Marines relieved the film's Army subjects--it's enough of a chaotic firefight to turn you off enlisting forever. Finally, four deleted scenes are offered; two of them, including a scene where an officer grills a woman on why she has armour-piercing rounds, deepen the sense of conflict and paranoia, while one of them is a humorous aside in which a bodybuilding soldier is told how gay his muscle magazines are. Also on board: the trailer; an informative short essay by Christian Parenti that provides background on the Fallujah debacle; and a timeline tracing the invasion to the Marine siege of 2004.
78 minutes; PG-13; 1.76:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1; Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Rumur