Life During Wartime

Everyone's mind wanders to distant places from time to time, but Michael Tucker is one of those guys who actually gets up and follows his. With a camera. Tucker has shot footage in Asia and America, in Africa and Australia, but over the past year, there's one spot on the globe that's drawn him back again and again, namely, its hottest: Baghdad. Though he's still editing the feature-length documentary that took shape over the course of these extended stays in the scarred and violently festering city, Gunner Palace already has an audience. You might even call it a following.

On June 1, Tucker posted a moving account of his experiences with the 2/3 Field Artillery unit stationed in a palace built for Uday Hussein, one of Saddam's high-living sons. Since the unit has also been referred to as the "Gunner" Battalion, the former den of luxury, now sporting a gaping, ragged hole where a bomb tore through it, it became known as "Gunner Palace." Tucker has also posted two clips from the film and word has spread across the Net like virtual wildfire. It hasn't just been blogs, either. At first, he was hearing from conservatives, the pro-war crowd, thanking him for drawing attention to the sacrifice U.S. soldiers are making in Iraq. The link to his site spread by digital osmosis via mailing lists, online discussion groups and so on, until, eventually, he was hearing from the anti-war side as well, just as appreciative for more or less the same reasons.

The two clips are, interestingly, both musical numbers. In one, a soldier raps about the constant fear of getting hit, about having seen more at the age of 24 than most men see before they're 50. In the other, a specialist armed with an electric guitar cranks out a Hendrix-inspired version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the roof while helicopters make their rounds above him. Clearly, these clips have resonated far and wide. There's been a wave of mail via hip-hop sites recently, people writing Tucker to ask for soldiers' addresses so they can send them, among other things, poetry. And then there's "that kid in Michigan who wrote last night, saying that he's posting everywhere he can to make sure people see these clips," says Tucker. These are the ones that fascinate him most. Sure, it's great to be linked to from, say, Daily Kos, but that kid found the site in a forum dedicated to the Minnesota Vikings.

The clips are also indicative of what sets Gunner Palace apart. The U.S. now has around 140,000 troops in Iraq. Since President Bush declared their mission accomplished, nearly 800 have been killed and thousands more wounded. Regardless of where you stand on the war, you've got to wonder what life for these men and women is like day by day – and that's precisely what goes missing on the news and very much what this film goes a long way towards showing us. All politics aside. "I don't even know what my bias is anymore," says Tucker. "My bias has completely changed. I think that sometimes I sound like a raving right-wing lunatic and other times I sound like a raving socialist or something. But I'm trying to make something that's honest. And soldiers have a huge hang-up about it. All they want is for someone to tell the truth. Not embellish it."

Tucker is editing his film in Berlin, where he lives with his architect wife and his eight-year-old daughter. All of this has been hard for them, seeing him haul off to the vortex of what has become a global conflict. "It's been extremely risky," Tucker admits. "No insurance, no nothing. I've had to rely on this German friend of mine who sells armored cars to get in and out safely. It paid off, being careful, because some people have been hurt. Or killed."

The film begins with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld declaring an end to "major combat operations" – which cuts straight into a fire fight, raging four months after that announcement. The terror of this opening sequence is that this is not a succession of rapidly cut well-composed, color-balanced, dramatically lit shots; it's one long one, the result of Tucker running with his camera on from doorway to doorway along a street where the bullets are flying from God-knows-where to God-knows-where. There's no music pumping you up; it would just get in the way.

The series of scenes that follow vary widely in mood and setting. There are parties in Uday Hussein's pool, raids on Iraqi houses, patrols through the streets, meetings with local community leaders preparing them for the June 30 hand-over, a risky trip to Burger King. It takes a while, but begins to sink in: What makes life hell here is the persistent awareness that wherever they are, mortars, IEDs ("improvised explosive devices") or gunfire can come raining down on them at any time. It's the randomness, the unpredictability. And for weeks on end, Tucker lived with them, gaining their trust – his coming from a military family and his own six years as a reservist have helped – and capturing on digital video scenes, opinions and general aspects of their lives they wouldn't share with journalists.

Tucker didn't start out trying to be a film-maker. He started out working on fishing boats, and after an accident on a factory trawler, he returned to his hometown, Seattle, and took a video production course at a community college and, within a year, was shooting in Southeast Asia for humanitarian groups, working mainly on films about prosthetic limbs in Vietnam and Cambodia. When he came back to New York, he met his wife, Petra, originally from East Germany. Off to Europe, then, where they made one of the first digital movies, The Last Cowboy, founded a DVD authoring company and dabbled in what he calls "various little media art things." The most famous of these would be iToke, "an exercise in marketing and promotion," Tucker calls it. "I saw it as an experiment during the whole Internet bubble in how far it could be pushed and how far the media would take it seriously." The idea was that you could order pot online – or via your mobile phone; remember WAP? – and have it hand-delivered to your door. Big splash, lots of coverage. The Wall Street Journal, everybody. "Except for a few clever people who could figure it out, it was amazing how far you could go. We had venture capitalists contacting us. It was completely insane. It was just a great story, one of those little joys."

A bigger joy is Nomados, the name of both his company and a project for kids that has had him traveling around the world with his daughter, collecting stories, images and sounds to work with. "The original idea is giving kids an intelligent way to see the world. Something that's not entirely dumbed down. That's not boring." And he'll get back to it, too, but then comes the refrain of the afternoon: "The war kind of pushed that aside."

How does one just decide to go to Baghdad and start filming? "You fly into Amman and then you drive in," he says matter-of-factly. "There are taxi services at the international hotel. They're big, white, like 1980s GMC suburbans. It's about 900 kilometers to Baghdad. 500 of that's in Iraq. You leave very, very early in the morning and hope something doesn't happen. For about 350 of those kilometers inside Iraq, it's complete no-man's-land. No U.S. forces. And of course, you have to drive to Ramadi and Fallujah, which ... is really dangerous. Always traveling in an armored car, or traveling very discretely. Sometimes, on the way out, you take taxi cabs and dress up like Arabs. It sounds ridiculous, but it's really paid off in the end. You start to think it's silly, but then you see just attack after attack after attack."

It's a situation that makes him dependent on his hosts, and he's aware that this will open his portrait of them to criticism. "'Well,'" he can already hear, "'What we see here is the Stockholm syndrome.' And I would say that that's probably why I like the film. I like the fact that I became like them. I like the fact that I say that 'We raided houses.' Not 'they.'" Not that he's always happy about it. Several of these raid scenes are, as he puts it himself, "unnerving." In one, an Iraqi journalist speaks directly to the camera, claiming his innocence, as a soldier forces him at gunpoint to squat down, keep his hands behind his head, and above all, "Shut up." "Yes, 'shut up,'" the journalist tells the camera. "'You see this. You see what's happening,'" Tucker repeats moments after we've watched the scene. "It was one journalist to another, but I didn't necessarily feel like a journalist there. I felt like a guy with a camera. I wasn't about to start interviewing him. 'So, tell me, you're innocent and here you are.' That's not my place. But I think I had to assume a different persona to do it. I'm not a reporter. I just wanted to be there and not be intrusive. To let things play out."

But is it really possible to remain a strictly objective observer, no matter what happens? "I'm trying to show you everything that I can. Yes, it makes me a little uncomfortable to go raid a house and there's a girl standing there in a pink bathrobe that's the same age as my daughter. That made me really upset. It was like, 'What are you guys doing?' And everyone's pumped up and screaming and later, at the end of the film – in fact, it's the last raid scene of the film, they're really pretty out of the control. I mean, like, wiping the pavement with people." That's the sort of thing he wouldn't be able to capture if he hadn't won the soldiers' trust and part of that process is understanding that there really are reasons for these raids in the first place.

"You would go into a house," Tucker explains, "and it looked perfectly normal to me. And they would start finding stuff... money, mortar tubes, things buried in gardens, hidden under the rooftops, and always a denial: 'I know nothing about it.' That also changes your perception. When you're out as a foreigner or as a journalist on the street, people treat you differently. You're kind of giving them a really sympathetic ear. Now, when you're out with the military, you sense constantly that resentment. It's not just resentment towards the military. It's resentment to all kinds of things. And it's really in your face. You saw the scene with the kids throwing rocks at us. Spitting on us. I don't know if you've ever had a child spit on you before."

One of the ideas Tucker clings to as he edits is the "easy way" vs. the "hard way." Staying out of the picture you're trying to capture is actually the hard way, he argues. He's an admirer of the verit̩ school, of Jean Rouch and Robert Drew's Primary. "You try to tie these things together, but let the audience see things for themselves. Put yourself in this person's shoes. Just for a little while. Even if you completely can't stand the military, maybe you can still walk out of it with a tiny little bit of respect for the people who do this job. Because we're the ones who asked them to do it." Which doesn't mean, it should immediately be added, that he's glad we asked. "I personally don't even know what the war was about. From the start. It was an extremely misguided adventure, to the point that even neocons are now admitting, 'We had no idea that they'd put up a fight like this!' It was just foolish. They could have watched Lawrence of Arabia and figured that out. [laughs] You don't want to be the I-told-you-so naysayer, and I'm furious at people who are sitting on the sidelines cheering for every casualty, because those casualties are attached to faces and names and it's awful. I just think everyone needs Рyou know, if you're in a democracy, I think the audience has to ask itself at some point: What's their responsibility? How much can you stomach before you stop what you're doing and say, 'Enough is enough. I'm going to go and sit in front of the White House.' I tell you, if I wasn't finishing a film now, I know what I would be doing."

So that's the hard way. And the easy way? "It's too easy to show people shocking things and say, 'Look at how terrible this is!' And it's too easy to mock something and make fun of it. What's harder is to show that it's not black or white, it's very gray. And I'm asking you for an hour or 90 minutes to please try and open up your mind and think about this differently. That's probably one of the hardest things you can do."

Among other things, Gunner Palace shows us the constructive work U.S. troops have done that the media doesn't usually have time for. "The soldiers would harp on things like, 'Well, the journalists never go to the orphanage with us. They don't see the Internet we put in the school. They don't see the hospital we're rebuilding.' And this was all true," says Tucker. What's more, especially after the photos from Abu Ghraib came out, that need was only intensified. "They'd done a lot of stuff and they wanted someone to see that, 'Hey, we didn't spend a year torturing and raping.'"

Tucker also talked with the families back home of many of the soldiers he got to know in Iraq, and visited a few families who lost their sons and daughters. He took his camera, "but I decided not to put it in. I thought that it was too – this may sound really strange, but I felt that it was too painful for them. I felt that it didn't show them strong, it showed them weak. It showed them in a really terrible position. And of course, these people are going to say things. They're angry, they're sad. Again, this is that button-pushing thing. A lot of this stuff is so easy to misinterpret."

One parent, the father of Ben Colgan, a lieutenant killed at the end of last year, asked Tucker a question that seems like a paradox yet is impossible to misinterpret. It's a question Gunner Palace will leave many of us asking ourselves: "How can I be so against this war and so for my son?"

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