Judge Joel Pearce takes a look at a unique war documentary, set in Fallujah in the months leading up to the great battle in that city.
This is Falluja. Be careful of Falluja.
There have been a lot of films and documentaries that have studied the recent conflicts in the Middle East. Most focus on the areas with the most tension and fighting. We hear less about cities like Falluja, where there are many small insurgencies, but few strategic reasons for the insertion of a large force. Still, American marines are stationed there, attempting to keep the peace, patrolling and arresting dangerous people as a more friendly Iraqi government is established.
Occupation: Dreamland is a documentary about young men who have found themselves in a strange and dangerous world, unsure why they chose to be there in the first place. Using a mixture of interviews and mission footage of the men from the 82nd Airborne, it gives one of the clearest and most interesting looks at what our soldiers are doing in other parts of the world.
Most of the films about recent American wars in Iraq have not focused on the combat. After all, these wars have featured little of the bold, heroic infantry action that war movies like to focus on. Of course, there have been American troops in Iraq during these conflicts, but the situation is completely different. As such, Occupation: Dreamland is a completely different look at war. The documentary cuts between interviews with soldiers and footage of their missions as they hunt down insurgents in the residential areas of the city of Falluja in Southern Iraq.
For the most part, the interviews are fascinating. They're a constant reminder that these are not military experts, they are young kids dragged into a huge conflict. The oldest subject that we hear from is around 30 years old, and many are in their mid 20s. They are all happy to talk to the camera about their political views, how they feel being in Iraq, and how they came to be in the army in the first place. They are unsure of themselves for the most part. Most of them landed in the army either on a whim or as a way to avoid the dead end they found themselves in after high school. We get to see meetings as well, where the army tries to convince them to stay in service. These discussions get even more interesting as the film continues—these soldiers really are chewing through major issues, and they have lots of time to try to figure out why they're in Iraq.
The interview footage exists in stark contrast to the footage of the missions that these young men find themselves on. Whether they have been ordered to pull suspicious locals from their homes or suddenly fired on during routine patrols, the services these men perform are constantly scary, unpleasant, and dangerous. The acts that they perform often look frighteningly close to the terrorist acts they are trying to prevent, though they are convinced that it is for a better cause. I'm not quite so sure, though even the soldiers themselves see the irony in what they are ordered to do.
Although the film promises to be an uncensored look at the war in Iraq, that's not entirely true. The soldiers agree that there should be no political dissent on camera, and they are always aware that the camera is present. They are performing, so we never get a completely candid look at how it feels to be in their shoes. It's about as close as we will ever get, and probably as close as most of us ever want to be to this kind of conflict.
The disc does justice to this interesting study of modern warfare and American colonial power. Although the transfer is non-anamorphic, the image is as clear as this kind of documentary footage gets. The sound has unexpectedly been mixed in 5.1. The interview dialogue is always easy to understand and the moments of action are quite immersive.
There is a commentary track, featuring the directors, as well as a member of the crew and one of the soldiers. It's a good commentary track, which keeps moving and does far more than just summarize what happens onscreen. There are soldier updates as well, which let us know what has happened to these young men since the documentary was filmed. There is also some raw assault footage, which has quite a bit of emotional punch. No matter how realistic war films attempt to be, there's an added impact when we know that what we're seeing is real. There are a few deleted scenes as well, none of which add much to the experience.
All in all, Occupation: Dreamland is a unique and provocative look at war. All fans of war movies need to see it, as it offers a worthwhile perspective on the mindset of American soldiers. Those interested in political issues will find a lot to like here as well, as it offers quite a bit to chew on.
All involved are free to go, and I hope that all these young men make it home safely.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Rumur Releasing
• Filmmaker and Soldier Commentary
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