Scranton has Iraq soldiers shoot themselves

Every war finds its own way to communicate with the homefront.

Newsreels in movie theaters and the globe-trotting photographers of Life magazine captured the images that defined World War II. The Vietnam War was dubbed the living room war when color film footage played nightly on the evening network news. The Gulf War took on the look of the video game as the military released footage of smart missiles homing on their targets.

In the case of the current Iraq War, video cameras and e-mail have moved to the fore. In the new film "The War Tapes," distributed by SenArt, that allows the soldiers on the ground to tell their stories. "Tapes," named best documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, opens Friday in Los Angeles.

"Tapes" director Deborah Scranton, who is based in Goshen, New Hampshire, originally was invited by the New Hampshire National Guard to cover the war as an embedded journalist because of a previous TV docu "Stories From Silence, Witness to War," in which she filmed Goshen's WW II veterans. "But I woke up in the middle of the night and just had this idea -- what if I give soldiers cameras? I would be virtually embedded and I could work with them over the Internet," Scranton says. Because she also had worked covering sports for TV networks like ESPN, she'd had experience with orchestrating multicamera shoots and figured "I could take that paradigm and do a traditional documentary, having the soldiers film the Iraq portion so that I could really see the war through their eyes. I wanted them to tell the story from the inside out instead of going with my preconceptions."

The guard proved receptive to the idea, and the next thing Scranton knew she was standing before the men of Charlie Company 3 of the 172nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain), pitching her proposal before they headed to LSA Anaconda, the support base north of Iraq that has earned the moniker of "Mortaritaville."

Ten soldiers stepped forward, and five of them ultimately filmed footage for her through their entire year of deployment, and three became the focus of the finished film. Although the guard had the option of reviewing the tapes, which were shipped back from Iraq to Scranton via the company commander, it censored only one that captured footage of the aftermath of a battle in Fallujah.

Scranton remained in touch with her collaborators through e-mail, just like the wives and girlfriends they left behind. "I was up many nights biting my nails," she says. She dug out an old baby monitor and left it next to her computer so she would be alerted whenever an instant message from the front popped up.

Ultimately, the experiment produced 1,000 hours of footage, which producer-editor Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") and Robert May ("The Fog of War"), help her pare down into the 97-minute finished film.

With cameras mounted on the dashboards of Humvees and gun turrets, "Tapes" captures the tedium and chaos of war. Some moments are like a modern version of the absurdist war bible "Catch-22" -- in one scene, a convoy must accompany a Halliburton tanker that soldiers nickname the poop truck as it empties human waste by the side of the road. In others, the guardsmen confront the particular challenges of Iraq, where the enemy blends into an almost incomprehensible landscape.

"I believe in the power of empathy," Scranton says. "Unlike World War II, where everyone seemed connected to the war, right now there is a real disconnect between those who know a soldier and those who don't. But one of the powers of film is that for an hour and a half, it allows us to walk a proverbial mile in someone's shoes."