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Portrait of an Army Cemetery: An Interview With the Directors of HBO's "Section 60"

"When you stand there and see the rows of tombstones ... you realize what the price of war can be."
 
 
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Most Americans have never heard of Section 60, let alone visited it. But thanks to filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matt O'Neill, you can now get a glimpse of the area in Arlington National Cemetery where the men and women who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried. "Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery" is the third of a trilogy of collaborations between the filmmakers and HBO that captures the costs of the current wars. "Section 60," in fact, picks up where "Baghdad ER" left off. The tragic death from shrapnel wounds of 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Robert T. Mininger comes at the unforgettable end of "Baghdad ER." Their latest documentary opens with a mother visiting the grave of her son "Bobby." Unlike like the action-packed "Baghdad ER" or the stylized "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq," "Section 60" offers an almost unmediated view into the lives of the men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, who, week after week, day after day, find solace, community and a place to grieve and visit their lost loved ones in Section 60.

The Emmy-award winning directors are based in New York out of DCTV. They were recently in Washington, D.C., to attend a special TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) screening of their film at the Navy Memorial. I caught up with Alpert and O'Neill over the phone as they got ready for the screening and talked to me about why "Section 60" matters now, how making this film affected them in a way no other documentary has, and what it's like feeling "trapped in Section 60."

"Section 60" aired on HBO on Monday. For more information on when you can watch it, go here.

Katie Halper: Why should Americans care about Section 60 and your film?

Matt O'Neill: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become the background noise in this presidential election. No one is paying attention right now in the mainstream media to the costs that the military and their families are paying day in and day out, whether it's the 5,000 lives lost or the hundreds of thousands who have spent years away from their friends and families. That's why we're proud to be working with HBO and Sheila Nevins to make this film. They've consistently brought attention to these issues when the rest of the media is ignoring them. And it's an important time right now in the context of the presidential elections. Americans need to be paying attention to the two wars that we're fighting overseas right now and the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are serving the county over there. No matter what you think politically, it's essential that when you walk into the voting booth on Nov. 4, you remember that the person you're voting for, whether it's a congressional or the presidential election, will be deciding whether or not to send men and women to fight wars. We want the film to be watched by tens of millions of people, because that's the type of attention we want to bring to Section 60. And we told the families, "Let us into your world because we want people to pay attention to it." We think Section 60 deserves it.

KH: Your war-related recent films were very different. "Baghdad ER" was more dynamic and action-packed. And "Alive Day Memories" was much more stylized. How did this compare to those two experiences?

MO: The reality in "Baghdad ER" is very different than the reality in "Section 60." In "Baghdad," we tried to show what it's like being in an emergency room in a war zone, with tons of action. It's terrifying … riveting, it reminds you of the costs of the war in a visceral way. "Section 60" had a totally different energy. We're trying to help the rest of the country enter the world that these families live in every day. The greatest praise that we received thus far was at a screening for a number of the families. Paula Zillinger is one of the mothers in this film; she's in the first real scene in the film, and she goes to visit her son's grave. Her son Bobby died in the end of "Baghdad ER." At the screening, she got up and faced the audience and said, "Welcome to our world." I hope it brings an audience into the reality that these families are living.

KH: Was it eerie? Did you feel like you were intruding?

MO: Approaching these families was one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do as a filmmaker because their expressions of grief, their visits to the graves of their lost loved ones, are the most intimate moments you could possibly imagine. And we're standing there … waiting … with a camera. So the way that we operated was as human beings first, documentarians second. We spent lots of time in the cemetery not filming, talking about why we were doing what we were doing, how we wanted to capture the cemetery as experienced on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to capture their love. And sometimes the first time we spoke to a family, they declined to be filmed. And maybe on the second time we spent a lot of time talking but didn't film anything, and then maybe on the third time or the fourth time they said, "You know, we would like to be part of this. We would like to be filmed." And eventually we became part of the fabric of the cemetery. So many of these families are returning week after week or day after day, so we became part of their community.

KH: What was your schedule like?

JA: Basically the schedule was, we were in the cemetery from the opening of the gates to the closing of the gates every single day for almost four months.

KH: What kind of toll did that take on you?

JA: Every American should visit Arlington and visit Section 60. I hope it would have the same impact that it had on us. ... When you stand there and see the rows and rows of tombstones stretching toward the horizon, you really realize what the price of war can be -- not only these wars but what it has been for centuries. That really goes deep into your being. Section 60 is such an open wound in the families of the fallen. People say, "You'll get over it. With time you'll heal." The loss and the sadness of these families is not healing. That's another thing we hope America will pick up. Because maybe we're paying a price for the war in the way it's affecting our economy, but it's not something that has an impact. … I mean, people could watch a football game on Monday night instead of watching this documentary. But for these families, their lives have been altered and they will never, ever, ever be the same.

MO: I cried a lot in "Section 60." I got the sense that a lot of these families were trapped by their loss and trapped by their love that couldn't be requited, and I felt trapped to a certain extent. Over the course of four months I became somewhat overwhelmed by the sense of loss and the sense that nobody is paying attention. The loss is so profound in Section 60, so tangible. You understand that each of those numbers discussed in the media, whether they were talking about 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, have left a profound sense of emptiness and ripped a hole in the fabric of a community and the fabric of a family. And when I wasn't there, I wanted to be there, paying respect and honoring the people who are buried there. Because a large swath of the country isn't and isn't even aware of it. It's your responsibility as a citizen, an American, to know what's happening with our service members overseas. So I became quite depressed at times.

KH: When you were running around doing "Baghdad ER," you must have had a lot of adrenaline. With this film, the grief is unmitigated, with no action or suspense or chaos to distract you. It affected me, a viewer, in a way that "Baghdad ER" didn't. How did it affect you as filmmakers differently? And how did it affect the way you filmed it?

MO: There's very little that distracts these families from their love and their loss. And when they're in Arlington, that's a sacred time that they're spending with their loved ones. There really isn't anybody else there but the families, their memories, their efforts to celebrate lives lost too soon and, for four months in 2007, Jon and I and our cameras. There was a month where I was filming alone because of certain circumstances, and at the end of that month I was feeling totally crushed. This stuff plays out in slow motion. When you see the same grief, the same wounds that will never heal, acted out day after day after day, you realize it's a pain that's never going to go away. Paula talks about going to a meeting of Gold Star mothers (who have lost a child in war), where a mother was talking about her son she lost in Vietnam. And Paula said, "Forty years. I realized that I was going to feel this loss. … I was going to continue to love him for 40 years. It's something that never ends."

In the film there are no subtitles, no music, no graphics. You're just sort of placed in the cemetery as we were for four months, and you begin to get a sense of what it might feel like to be trapped in Section 60.

KH: This film focuses as much, if not more, on the people who are left behind as it does on the people who they lose. You as documentary filmmakers often travel to dangerous places to capture important stories. Did seeing the way people reacted to the deaths of their loved ones, did being surrounded by the grief of those left behind, make you think about your own loved ones who would be left behind if something were to happen to you? Did it make you reconsider the types of projects you'd want to embark on?

MO: One thing, universally, regardless of their political persuasion or feelings on the war, that parent after parent, husband after husband and wife after wife said was, "my loved one died serving the people that he loved and trying to do some good in the world." I never want to leave any of the people that I love behind. But I also think it's very important to try to have a positive effect on the world. I think the positive effect that we can have as filmmakers is helping other people understand the world and enter places they couldn't otherwise enter. Not everyone can spend four months in Section 60. Watching this film and participating in this film is a way to begin to get a sense of what is going on. There are lots of places in the world that we as Americans need to understand a heck of a lot better than we do. I hope this helps inform the American public and helps us understand other people. The better we understand other people, the more likely we are to all work together to build something useful and good.

JA: It compels you to go to the war zones. We've been lobbying to go to Afghanistan for three years. HBO is one of the few places that gives you the resources to tell these stories. And if we have a choice between going to Afghanistan and Alabama, we'll go to Afghanistan. I certainly was left wondering what would happen if I died. What it really made me think about was what I would feel like if my daughter, who is the same age as these soldiers, died. And it haunted me because I saw that … it's something that you can never be prepared for and something that you can never recover from.

KH: Besides watching the film, what else can people do?

MO: We have almost 200,000 people serving overseas right now. Write a letter saying thank you, send a package. Since the draft ended, only a small portion of American society is participating in war directly. And they're participating in an enormous way. So many families have sent their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers overseas not once, not twice, not three times, but even four different times. They've done four tours of duty in some combination in Iraq and Afghanistan, years away from families and friends and loved ones. It's important, no matter what your political persuasion, to say thank you.

There are so many families that shared stories with us who are not in the film. We wish we could have included them. We want the whole world to come to Section 60.

The other thing I think about all the time is in Section 60 we've lost 5,000 people. The loss that the Iraqi people have suffered in the last five years is horrific. The loss the Afghani people have suffered in the last five years is horrific, and each one of those holes is just as personal and just as deep as they are in Section 60.

Katie Halper is a co-founder of Laughing Liberally , one of the national directors of Living Liberally and artistic director and comedy curator at The Tank . Katie blogs regularly for the Huffington Post , Working Life , Culture Kitchen and the political comedy site 23/6. Katie is working on a documentary about Camp Kinderland, the "Summer Camp with a Conscience."

 
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