MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
A new documentary began with a simple idea, let soldiers tell their own stories. Filmmakers gave members of the New Hampshire National Guard cameras and training and asked them to document their experiences in Iraq for one year in 2004. The film, called The War Tapes, was named best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It chronicles the experiences of three guardsmen, Specialist Michael Moriarty, who signed up in a burst of patriotism after 9/11 and later asked to be shipped to Iraq, Sergeant Stephen Pink, a carpenter who joined the Guard to pay for college, and Sergeant Zach Bazzi, a Lebanese-born American who in truth says he'd prefer to stay home, but knows he has a job to do.
Sergeant Bazzi came by our studios to talk about the film, along with Steve James, the film's producer and editor. James, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, was impressed by the soldiers' camera work.
Mr. STEVE JAMES (Producer and Editor, The War Tapes): When they would shoot, some of the most interesting facets of what they did was narrate what they were seeing and because they're close to the camera as they're shooting, you're hearing with crystal clarity their view of what you're seeing, and I think that really brings the footage to life in a very, very personal way.
NORRIS: There's a scene where they're on a rooftop and they're looking at a little boy who is, like, playing with, I think, some chickens or some birds.
Mr. JAMES: That's Mike Moriarty, shot that footage.
NORRIS: Yes, and he's sort of thinking out loud.
Sergeant MIKE MORIARTY (New Hampshire National Guardsman): Here we are in a fighting position with machine guns and Mach 19s, but this is actually someone's backyard down here right below us, and there's this little boy that plays there. He just kind of wanders around talking to himself and torturing his little chickens over there. This little kid is in a world of his own, surrounded by all this stuff.
Mr. JAMES: And it comes on the heels of a scene that we've done back home with his son, with his backpack that he got from his dad. Mike always thought about his own kids when he would look at those Iraqi kids.
Sergeant MORIARTY: Funny little kids in the middle of a war zone. You just hope that they don't turn bad as they get older, like many of them do.
NORRIS: Sergeant Bazzi, you arrived in Iraq just as the insurgency was wrapping up and you were given one of the toughest assignments on the ground there. You escorted these convoys, or these KBR and Halliburton trucks.
Sergeant ZACH BAZZI (New Hampshire National Guardsman): Yes.
NORRIS: There's a scene where you actually, you get that Humvee view of an explosion in the distance, and before we talk about this, I think it would be helpful to actually listen.
(Soundbite from The War Tapes)
NORRIS: When something like this happens, an explosion in the distance, I imagine a soldier's instinct is to immediately pick up the gun. In this case, you don't have to pick up the camera, because it's actually locked down.
Sergeant BAZZI: Yes.
NORRIS: On the Humvee, but are you aware in that moment that this is something that you're capturing as part of this wartime experience, something for the film, or do you sort of lose that thought?
Sergeant BAZZI: Not at all, not at all. I mean, the IDE had just gone up. My first instinct is to look around, make sure my men, my soldiers, are okay, and then your next - your training kicks in.
Mr. JAMES: And indeed, to me, this scene, and there are others in the film like this, it really, I think, points out the difference between what these guys captured and what a typical journalist or an embedded reporter would capture. Because the camera is inside the Humvee, you really feel and see the chaos of these moments in ways, I think, feel it in a way that the soldiers do.
NORRIS: Sergeant Bazzi, you experienced war from a unique perspective. You're someone who was born in Lebanon then moved to America. You speak fluent Arabic and there's a scene where a man approaches you carrying his son. His son is sick. He's speaking Arabic, and even though you speak Arabic, you pretend like you don't understand him. You don't respond. Why didn't you respond? And this is my question to you, Sergeant Bazzi, and this is to my question to you, Steve - why was that scene important for this film? You first, Sergeant.
Sergeant BAZZI: Well to put the event in context, we were outside of Fallujah. We were helping cordon off the city, and the order was nobody crosses any major roads. So you know, we had this little village. It was isolated, and the road bisected it, and you had different varying institutions on different sides of the road - hospital on one, the cemetery on the others. Shops, water on the other, and the people that have emergencies, they are in dire straights, they would leave their house and try to cross it.
It culminated with that event when the father came up to me, his little baby in his hand. The kid obviously looked very sick to my eyes, so I turned over to my squad leader, asking for guidance, and he's like, well, hey, you know, we've already let a few people kind of get across. We've got to stop sometime. I'm like, hell no, dude, you go tell him that. I'm not going to do it. And I went over and sat in my Humvee.
NORRIS: And why was it, Steve, important to include that in the film?
Mr. JAMES: Well, I think it's an important scene to include because one thing you certainly get from the film is that Zach is a soldier's soldier. He's dedicated to the military. He was active duty before he was in the Guard. He takes his job very seriously and he's very professional, and this was a moment in which he basically defied orders. Now he wasn't, strictly speaking, an interpreter, so he didn't have to do that, I guess, but he basically made this, you know, moral decision that he did not think this was warranted in this case and he wasn't going to be party to giving that order to the Iraqi father with the sick child.
And there are other examples in the film where our guys act in a very humanitarian way, regardless of their position as soldiers fighting a war, and I think that it was important to see that in the film because, you know, we have a tendency to view these soldiers as automatons going into combat. And they're not that way, and they may struggle with these things, and that's something we really tried to include in the film. Guys don't just put on the blinders when they go off to war. They think about these things.
NORRIS: What happened to the boy who was being carried by his father?
Sergeant BAZZI: Oh, I did not want to know. I just walked over to my Humvee. I must say, a couple days later, our own battalion commander came down and checked out the troops who were on the road patrolling, and we all gave him a piece of our mind, how asinine we all thought that order was, and a few days after that, to the credit of the military, the order was repealed.
NORRIS: In the beginning of the film, Sergeant Stephen Pink notes that what he's seeing and experiencing will likely impact him for the rest of his life. How did your experiences impact you, Sergeant Bazzi?
Sergeant BAZZI: Well, I must say I've deployed three times, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Obviously, the first two were not as dangerous and stressful as Iraq. But I suppose my service in Iraq, I'm very proud of it. It made me a better human being, I think. I know I'm obviously more mature and confident and part of me is a little cynical. You go there and you reflect over why we're there and think about it and, you know, some things do add up, but some things do not add up. So in a way, I find myself a little more suspicious of things that come many, many peg legs above me. But that being said, I'm able to reconcile my personal beliefs and my political views with my professional love for the job and, ultimately, I go wherever my unit goes, as long as I'm in with a unit.
NORRIS: And are you going back?
Sergeant BAZZI: Well, I re-enlisted a few months after my return and got promoted, so if the orders come down for my unit to go, I'm with them, proudly so.
NORRIS: Sergeant Zach Bazzi, Steven James, it's been so good to talk to both of you. Thanks so much.
Mr. JAMES: Thank you.
Sergeant BAZZI: Pleasure being here.
NORRIS: Sergeant Zach Bazzi and filmmaker Steve James talking about The War Tapes. It opens today. You can see a trailer at NPR.org.