War correspondents don’t have to worry about balancing a camera and a gun at the same time. But Specialist Brandon Wilkins was an unusual kind of reporter. In November 2004, Wilkins, a National Guardsman from Maine, was standing in one of the Iraq War’s hottest zones—the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah—when enemy fire opened on him and his men in the rubble of what had once been an auto dealership. Strapped to the palm of his hand, staring down the barrel of his combat rifle, was a Sony mini-DV camcorder.
At first, the footage Wilkins shot is creepily reminiscent of a video game: a viewer feels almost like a first-person shooter with rechargeable lives. Then Wilkins’ voice can be heard—“There they are! Right there! Corner of that building!”—and the camera makes a sickening lurch as he and his men rush for cover in their armored Humvee. We can’t see the target they’re firing at, just sand, shadows and distant shapes; all we can hear is the gunfire around them. The video game is shooting back with live rounds.
As jerky and chaotic as Wilkins’ footage is, it helps provide a clearer picture of what’s happening to American troops fighting overseas. The same can be said for The War Tapes, a remarkable documentary assembled from 800 hours of raw footage shot by soldiers stationed in Iraq. Wilkins, 28, who was once stationed at Fort Campbell, was one of five servicemen who volunteered to film his entire tour of duty; he will introduce the film Friday night at the Belcourt and host a post-film Q&A.
“To be honest, I didn’t even think about it after a while,” said Wilkins, when asked how hard it was to tote a camera and a gun simultaneously. “It was just one more part of our equipment.”
When director Deborah Scranton approached the New Hampshire National Guard about the project at Fort Dix, N.J., in 2004, Wilkins was among the 10 soldiers out of 180 present who signed on. A tech whiz from his high-school theater days, Wilkins said he was “always interested in filmmaking,” but he initially had some of the same reservations as the other troops. “There was a lot of concern about what the end result would be,” he said. “[Many soldiers expected] the traditional media spin.”
Instead, the movie takes its ideological cues from Sgt. Stephen Pink, a 24-year-old former reporter who joined the National Guard to help get into college. “I wondered if I could tell the story truthfully without putting some kind of slant on it,” Pink says early on. (When a man in his platoon refuses to talk on camera because of a media embargo, he’s quick to retort, “I’m not the media, dammit.”) Scranton and editor Steve James (Hoop Dreams) tried to edit without editorializing: there is no outside context other than what the soldiers or their families provide.
What emerges, to these civilian eyes, is a convincing and tactile account of contemporary warfare: a mix of numbing tedium and ever-present danger. The men don’t talk about their mission. Iraq, in the soldiers’ footage, becomes an endless convoy down congested one-lane roads, which glow an eerie green in night shooting; a land where every citizen must be viewed with caution. As Wilkins puts it, “The car that is full of people who don’t want to do you harm looks just like the car full of people who do.”
For not providing more context—i.e., an explicit anti-war stance—The War Tapes has been taken to task by some reviewers and a few audience members. (Ideally, the movie would be counterbalanced by Iraqi-focused docs such as The Blood of My Brother and My Country, My Country.) While the movie is plainly an unmitigated soldier’s-eye view, though, it’s far from uncritical: if anything, the criticisms sting more because they’re not coming from “the media.” Pink seethes over the mess hall’s plastic dinner plates, for which defense contractor KBR charges the U.S. government $28 apiece by the thousands. “Everybody stands to make money the longer we’re there,” he says.
In the film’s most horrible moment, an Iraqi woman gets accidentally crushed under the wheels of a Humvee. “It’ll be a better country in 20 years because we were there—I hope,” says a soldier on the scene. But nothing about the accident raises any hope, either for the civilians’ goodwill or the mental peace of the haunted soldiers when they return.
For many of us safely at home in the States, finding out what’s really happening in Iraq is a source of perpetual frustration. Iraq may be covered from more angles than any war in modern times, but the picture is splintered among countless partisan lines. The War Tapes doesn’t correct that as much as it offers another valuable piece. What Brandon Wilkins hopes people will get from the movie is a clearer portrait of who those faceless American troops are, in the background of the nightly news.
“A soldier isn’t some guy in a green uniform [people] need to stand off from,” Wilkins says. “We go to work like everybody else. We just go to work in a war zone.”