By Mark Danner
September 01, 2015
ONLY THE DEAD
Australia, 2015, 77m
Directors: Michael Ware, Bill Guttentag
When Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda terrorist with a $25 million bounty on his head, decided to show to the world videotapes of the planning and execution of his terror attacks, he delivered them to Michael Ware. Ware, a reporter for Time magazine and CNN, brought the grisly footage to the world’s attention, making it clear that for the U.S. any victory in Iraq was very far off.
A legend among war correspondents, Ware found himself covering the war from two sides, reporting on both the carnage of insurgent attacks, and methods of those attack’s planning and execution. He was on the ground when the U.S. bombings began, survived a kidnapping by Al Qaeda and documented firefights from behind the scenes of both the U.S. and insurgent camps. Rather than scribble in a notebook as bombs were falling, Ware shot video, a form of pictographic notes intended for his use alone. These hundreds of tapes from his seven years in Iraq, half forgotten under a bed in Australia, now serve as the basis for Only the Dead, a shocking, visceral portrayal unlike any in the long history of war journalism. Ware and co-director Bill Guttentag spoke with Mark Danner about the film.
MARK DANNER: I feel as if I've seen every film ever made on the Iraq War, and this one seems far and away the closest portrait of what it was like from the soldier’s point of view. It’s also an extremely moving and powerful account of what it was like to be a reporter there. But in a sense Only the Dead is an accidental film.
MICHAEL WARE: The subtitle of this film easily could have been Only the Dead: An Unwitting Documentary. It was footage that obviously I didn't have a single thought of making a film out of. Our object, the feeling we were trying to achieve, was to take down the veil between the people back home and those who experienced fighting a war. We want everyone who watches it to feel so immersed—they're the ones walking on that street or standing in that courtyard. They don't just see war or watch a war playing out in front of them on a screen. They feel it.
And what they feel perhaps more strongly than in any other comparable film or text is the transformation that war works on people, be they soldiers or reporters: the subtle but dramatic changes that combat and death work on them.
WARE: Absolutely. You hit it right on the head. It’s about the duality within all of us: the light and the dark, the heart of darkness. This is a story that explores that journey to the darkness, which just happens to be set in a war, which just happens to be in Iraq. It transcends any conflict. Conrad told that story by sending a man up a river.
Could you say a word about how you managed to take a Tupperware box of a few hundred tapes stored haphazardly under a bed and come up with this film?
WARE: In a way, the processes and the challenges of this film reflect the process of my homecoming and my struggle to claw my way back. Even once I was physically home, I had to find meaning, and here’s this Tupperware box with hundreds of tapes.
I had spent the course of seven or eight years using the camera as a reporter’s notebook. I learned the value of having a camera when the bullets are flying. It became my visual memory. When I’d write about a particular incident, I could go back and watch it. There are things I still can’t remember that are part of these tapes. You can clearly hear my voice. But I don’t remember being in that patrol. I don’t remember being in that little village.
If I had known that I was going to make a film, I would have recorded a lot more things, things that were much more personal. I chose to hit record for the most bizarre things, and sometimes for the most beautiful things. The ending of the film was a challenge. There’s not one soldier who you can follow from the beginning to end. There’s not one unit, there's not one Iraqi. What was the thread that was ultimately going to link them all? Coming to the answer helped me to find my own meaning after coming home. The P.O.V., the point of view, the camera, is the one thing that is consistent throughout the whole film.
Zarqawi, the single character you don’t interview, looms over the film as its guiding bloody spirit. His presence is extraordinarily vivid and powerful. Why do you think Zarqawi choose you to broadcast his videos? Did he recognize and understand your obsession? Did he see some of his own darkness in you?
WARE: This is a question that I’m going to be asking myself for the rest of my life. At the end of the day, I don't have a black-and-white answer. I’ll preface this by saying: Iraq was the last great global conflict before social media. There was no YouTube, no Twitter, no Instagram. There wasn’t the immediacy of an outlet for [Al Qaeda] to get its story and vision out.
When that very first CD was brought to me, I asked the courier, “What’s on this?'' He said “I have no idea.” Apparently the [Al Qaeda] council argued all day: should we give it to Al Jazeera? Should we give it to Arabian TV? But Zarqawi said, “Give it to the infidel.” Why he made that decision? I suspect he knew that I had come to realize that the U.S. military wasn’t that great. It had no idea who they were fighting. Seriously, very bright leaders couldn’t understand it. “We came here to liberate this country, we are bringing democracy, we want to rebuild …” They could not understand why these men were shooting at them.
Having reported on the Iraq War, I found the moment when you were filming this group of insurgents in the darkness about to stage a martyrdom attack—a suicide bombing—absolutely electrifying. For anybody who has covered that war, it is dizzying to suddenly find yourself seeing it from the other side. It wrenches your head upside down.
WARE: Well, thank you. From someone like you, who has been on the ground, that means a lot. Because you understand what it was like.
It strikes me that when you began making the film, it might have seemed more of a historical and autobiographical document but in the time since, it’s become deeply topical. As we speak, U.S. warplanes are flying over Iraq and Syria, bombing the Islamic State—and Zarqawi, whom the Americans killed in 2006, was of course the father of that organization and remains in a sense its dark lord.
BILL GUTTENTAG: You are absolutely right. When I got involved in the film, my thought was that most Americans have very little interest in the Iraq war. Most Americans just wished for it to go away. Obviously, it’s an extremely important subject, but we just think about it as a horrible mess that we don't want to deal with. Our hope is that it has some importance in terms of where we are in 2015.
One of the points shown most vividly in the film is how the U.S. army, the most powerful military on the face of the globe, can have no idea what is going on. Not knowing where these insurgents are coming from. Not knowing who is an insurgent and who isn’t. Again and again the American soldiers grab people, cuff them, detain them, without knowing who the hell they are. It’s a vivid demonstration of the way armies create insurgencies.
WARE: For every insurgent you kill or capture, ultimately you end up creating two or three more. We can never kill our way out of insurgencies.
I remember vividly an Iraqi businessman telling me in sadness in 2004: “Mark, you Americans have created your own enemies here.” We're in year 14 of the war on terror. Do you think your film confirms that point?
WARE: Those of us who were there know that inadvertently, mistakenly, unwittingly, we unleashed the Islamic State. The very thing we say we went there to prevent, we created by accident. And we unleashed it upon not just the region, but upon ourselves.
When you look at the film from the beginning to end, do you find yourself learning something that you didn’t know before about war—and about your own obsessions?
WARE: I had to sit down and watch all those tapes as step one, then watch them all again in the edit room, day in, day out. But watching the 78 minutes, my response can depend on the time or day I watched it, or the mood I am in, or if I’m seeing it with my mom and dad. Different moments, different senses, different recesses of memory occur to me. This movie still turns around and surprises me every now and then.