The Reeler


July 23, 2007

Ferguson's Line of Sight

Policy expert-turned-filmmaker discusses his wrenching Iraq procedural No End in Sight

Here comes trouble: (L-R) Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Gen. Jay Garner in 2003, as featured in Charles' Ferguson's No End in Sight (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

As dogged and devastating a procedural as has yet been made about the 2003 buildup to the Iraq War, Charles Ferguson's new documentary No End in Sight outlines a succession of policy miscalculations and oversights that doomed the conflict to the chaotic conditions that endure today. Ferguson, a Ph.D.-wielding think-tank wonk of the highest order (certainly the first Council on Foreign Relations member and Brookings Institution fellow to open a summer blockbuster counterweight), eschews easy politics and propaganda for meticulous research and among the chillier facts offered by interviewees from three dozen administration alums, journalists, diplomats and military personnel; the result is 102 minutes of qualified calamity.

I spoke last week with Ferguson, who splits his time between Berkeley, Calif., and New York City; No End in Sight opens Friday, July 27.

THE REELER: I've got to say I found this film really, really hard to watch. I can't imagine how hard it was to make.

CHARLES FERGUSON: Obviously making a film like this at various points is emotionally quite difficult. It was a very emotional experience for myself and other people involved in it. At the same time, there were some ways in which it was remarkably easy. By which I mean, for me at least, I found making this movie really fulfilling -- definitely a peak experience. Especially the process of editing it. After we had done all of the interviews and collected all the footage, myself and two editors basically closeted ourselves at The Post Factory for six months and made the film. And it was great. We had a great relationship with each other amongst ourselves. We all worked very, very hard over very long hours, but it was a fantastic experience.

R: It's very illuminating, but it's all so retrospective. During that process as a viewer, did you ever sense kind of a vacuum of hope?

CF: Yes, that is true. But sometimes I think it's important to say, "Look, this isn't going to be all right. There isn't going to be a Hollywood ending here. It's a bad situation." I don't think it's possible to do anything productive about this obviously extremely broken society unless you realize that A) it is really broken, and B) we broke it.

R: I guess it's just that the possibility for resolution is not there.

CF: I did decide specifically against that. Not because there's nothing to say about it; there's obviously an immense amount to say about it. But that's a different film. I didn't want to try to put in five minutes about what should our policy in Iraq be now. I wanted to make a film about what happened. And I made that film. I think that's the proper role for a documentary film: "This is what happened." I don't think that in a situation like this, where the situation is changing rapidly -- very dynamic, very unstable, very unpredictable -- I don't think it would have made a lot of sense to try to commit to film the discussion in 2006 of what policy should be in 2007, 2008, 2009. It's a different film and different media. But I think it's a contribution -- I hope this doesn't sound arrogant -- but I think it is a contribution to the policy debate to lay out in a systematic way: This is what happened and this is where we are now.

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R: It absolutely has a sweeping, comprehensive feel to it, but at the same time, it never really loses its focus on the how and why. How did you formulate your own battle plan, so to speak, and your own exit strategy as you prepared the film?

CF: It just seemed like the natural thing to do. We really didn't have too many debates about that. Every now and then there were some people who said I should try to focus more on the motivations of the Bush administration -- the decision to go to war. But that was a minority in the first place, and in the second place it was pretty easy for me to resist that because it seemed unnatural to do that and it seemed extremely natural to make a film about what happened. Which is not to say that there were no debates or differences of opinion or changes of mind in the course of making the film. There were a lot: Who do we include? What events do we include? What do we keep out because there's just not enough time? All those kinds of debate of course occurred. Who are the principal characters, who do we have, who shall we use to make this point, to discuss this fact? I tried whenever possible to have events discussed and described by those who were there. And so I tried to avoid generalizations, and I tried to avoid people giving descriptions of things they weren't present at wherever I could.

R: You just mentioned wanting to contribute to the policy discussion with No End in Sight. There are increasing numbers of Iraq docs released every year, and more and more of them have potentially devastating implications. Yet their consequences have rarely extended beyond the theater. Do you sense that as well? Can -- or should -- they do more?

CF: I think this is a very different film than the other films that have been made about Iraq, which is not to denigrate them. The War Tapes, for example, is a very good film. And its portrayal of life on the ground for a GI in Iraq, I think that portrayal was fairly accurate and useful for people to see. I regret that more people didn't see it. But none of the other films released that I've seen -- and I think I would know if there was one -- have really addressed the question of how all this occurred and where we are now. I find that puzzling, but it's true. When I first thought of doing this in 2004, I approached network people and raised the idea to them. They dissuaded me, saying, "It's just such an obviously large and important subject that 20 people are going to be making this movie." I actually waited a year because of their advice.

But in mid-2005, I got sick of waiting, and I asked them again, "Is anybody making this movie now?" And they said, "No." Nobody else had. I think that in part, actually, this film is going to benefit from a strange reverse psychology issue. I think that there was a fear of making films about this subject because it was depressing and grim and people wouldn't want to watch them. And that led people who WERE making films about the subject to make films that were very personal, very individual about small-scale things in an attempt to kind of humanize the film, rather than an attempt to make a film that really looked at the large sweep of Iraq policy and American conduct.

R: I guess I'd look at something like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which also premiered this year at Sundance. It's more microcosmic, of course, but, through evidence, makes a very compelling case for something close to war criminal status for Donald Rumsfeld. Your film does a similar thing. Are you working to make sure your film are seen by the right people and potentially have repercussions for the responsible parties?

CF: We're not going to know what impact the film has until it's released, and either it has that impact or it doesn't. The early evidence is very encouraging. Our early screenings have been oversubscribed, and audience reaction has been extremely positive. The trailer was posted on the Internet three weeks ago -- a number of sites, one of which was YouTube. In the first two weeks, 20,000 people watched the trailer. Most recently, in the third week, 170,000 people watched the trailer; 60,000 people (in one day) alone. That suggests a very high rate of growth and fairly substantial interest. So I'm encouraged thus far.

Charles Ferguson at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, collecting a Special Jury Prize for No End in Sight (Photo: WireImage)

R: Your film credits several bodyguards. What was your level of involvement with Iraqis on the ground -- shooting unembedded around the country?

CF: The Department of Defense was, to put it mildly, not interested in helping me make this film. We asked them for many things, including the possibility of me being embedded, and they declined all of our requests. Every single one. So I got no assistance whatsoever from DOD in Iraq, so I was not embedded ever. I stayed in a compound outside the Green Zone, in the house that is rented by the Washington Post; it's a fortified compound that contains maybe a dozen houses and one of Baghdad's two still-functioning hotels.

You know, Baghdad is a very dangerous place, so your ability as a white guy -- as an American -- to operate freely in Baghdad is extremely limited; I did what I could. When I went out, you either go out high-profile or low-profile. High-profile is three armored cars, 10 guards with automatic weapons. It's very obvious who you are, but you're very well-protected. Low-profile is I'm dressed like an Iraqi; I have an Iraqi next to me who's an interpreter, and around us are a half-dozen bodyguards with concealed weapons in plain clothes, not appearing to be with me, just walking around nearby watching the scene. In that way, I was able to walk around places in Baghdad and interview people. They allowed me to do that for about a half-hour at a time. As long as I never exceeded half an hour, I never went back to the same place twice and if anybody saw any sign of danger -- for example, somebody near me opening up a cell phone is a sign of danger -- then we left immediately. It was very limited, but nonetheless, you can get something done.

R: Beyond the failure of the Bush Administration to establish or execute any sort of large-scale plan for Iraq, there were evidently massive systemic failures in the press as well prior to the invasion. Did you talk about this with journalist subjects like Chris Allbritton or George Packer -- why they and their colleagues didn't ask the hard questions and demand accountability?

CF: Yes, I've talked with a lot of people about that question. It's complicated, and it's a bit mysterious. Part of it is unquestionably that the media are responsive to their audience and panders to their audience. Even supposedly august, independent, elite news organizations... (Pause) I think I'm being told we're out of time. That's part of the story. It's obviously more complicated than that. There was the general mood of the country, which many people in the media shared. There was the political dominance of the administration. There was the fact that the administration initially was able to control information flows very tightly and very effectively. But I can't say that all those things together make, for me at least, a satisfactory explanation. It's a bit mysterious.

R: Don't you think that type of thing that should be approached in a documentary, perhaps?

CF: Yes, and I thought of putting it into this one. But in the end it got cut out just because the film the film can't be three hours long. It seemed like a digression. It's an important digression. It's another subject -- an important subject, but it is another subject. And with some reluctance I cut it out of the film.

Comments (3)

Read a little about this film and the director, Charles Ferguson, before you commit to seeing it. The premise of the film is "what went wrong in Iraq"--a sort of "would of, could of, should of..."explanation of the occupation of Iraq. However--and most troubling--is the fact that Ferguson is an establishment policy wonk and in fact
supported the war. So, the film never questions the obvious ill advised wisdom of invading Iraq in the first place. Either you are on the bus or off it. Ferguson has much explaining to do. If he's so smart, why did he support the invasion and why didn't he go run Iraq instead of making movies? More, most of the "whistle blowers" were are also war supporters who act surprised that it all didn't go well.

Lucky for them they could quit and go home.

Ferguson also spent $7,000 a day on security in Baghdad--which is pretty ironic since the average "other" filmmaker, you know the ones making the "small" films, probably spent $7,000 total to shoot on location.

There is something vaguely disgusting about the new generation of vanity documentaries, in that money buys not only a lot of access, but it also buys off
much guilt.

Perhaps Ferguson, like any addict (his vice is policy) should stand up in front of audiences and admit that he supported the war.

Money is better spent viewing work by filmmakers who have actually invested their hearts in Iraq. "My Country, My Country" is a fine example and shows the result of wonkie policy.

Thanks for the note, Adam. There is certainly an argument to be made for No End in Sight as an elaborate orgy of finger-pointing and buck-passing. It doesn't hold the press accountable, which is perhaps my most intense frustration. But as far as its place among Iraq docs, I think we're talking about apples and oranges. I would much rather scan Ferguson's dispassionate blueprint than the huffing, decontextualized screeds of Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald, but My Country, My Country or Gunner Palace fall into a different class of post-invasion docs. Few do it better than Andrew Berends, whose waaayyy unembedded one-two punch of Blood of my Brother and When Adnan Comes Home make No End in Sight look like a heartwarmer.

Berends films and the others are great films for the very reason that they were there and invested in the place.

As for blame, the press, sure, but please do blame people like Ferguson too who sat in comfort and approved of the war.

In todays NY Daily News, the professor has this to say, ""Reasonable people can disagree over whether it was necessary to depose Saddam Hussein by military force, but if you're going to do it, you have to do it intelligently and carefully. And there's a difference between that and what we now see was done."

This seems to suggest it could have been done right. Wrong.

Don't drink the kool-aid of apology for "failed policy".

Policy doesn't kill, people do.

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