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Veteran's Day Special: Coming Down to Earth with "Occupation: Dreamland"

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For all of the obvious reasons, the massacre at Fort Hood, where American soldiers killed American soldiers, captured our immediate horror and attention and snapped us out of our day-to-day regard for our troops which can be summed up by the word "distance." It is a stark reminder of the need to guard against becoming numb against the human face of war and of the intimate stories that our active duty soldiers and veterans carry into battle here and abroad. Fortunately, the film "Occupation: Dreamland" fills that void. In the wake of this week's tragedy, and for Veteran's day, this documentary brings us all down to Earth.

When "Occupation: Dreamland" opened in 2005, I went to see it on the Friday night of its modest premiere in Manhattan. The two filmmakers were a bit like outlaws. They entered Iraq with improvised journalist badges and moved in on the 82nd Airborne to request the right to live with the unit, to go on combat missions with them and to film them. They were granted permission based on their promise to adhere to the soldiers' insistence on the lack of narration, and the lack of music. This gave the soldiers a sense of integrity, and as a result the film leaves the audience without the props of the more predictable viewing experiences.

Co-directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds made a film that puts the viewer in the uncomfortable position of having no easily manufactured feelings or opinions. We witness the actual soldiers, speaking out loud their wonderings about the war, giving voice to their mixed feelings and confusions about the Iraqi people. We see the boy who looks so simple saying things so deep and contradicting our own prejudices, right and left. Each soldier seems familiar by the end of the movie, and their political views don't offend us since we have come to know them as real people.

For those of us aching to disown the racism we share by default, we are taken by surprise and are discomfited by the officer in the film who is the most easy to hate. He is Black, and his job is to predictably bully soldiers on site with urgency and threats to re-enlist for another term. He warns them, in menacing tones, that they will be smoking crack and shooting up in hallways and alleyways, and (it would sound like a Bob Dylan refrain if it weren't said so literally), "Yo' mama's not gonna want you, nobody is gonna want you."

It was, for me, easy to become especially sympathetic to Joseph, the young shoe salesman without the funds to pursue an education in design. We watch Joseph describe what seemed like the simple impulse to wander in and take a look around at the recruiting office next door. "Wandering" is best reserved for nature walks where no signing of papers is possible. Alas, the papers were signed in seconds and there went four years of his life.

As I watched, I anxiously awaited news of whether Joseph would make it out of war, to be able to design. It was easy to identify with him, and I felt such relief to find that he was in the movie audience with us that night, and he later participated in the discussion. He was also part of the directors' life story, since they were helping him get back a life.

"Occupation: Dreamland" isn't obsolete even though Afghanistan and Pakistan may be replacing Iraq as the heartland of our fickle concerns. Iraq -- it's memories and losses -- is part of us. It is as real as the boys on the screen who hint of others who might also be confused or bored, loving to listen to music, and then out of nowhere are jolted into the fearless adrenalin rush of battle and killing and dying. The directors never leave these soldiers, not even in the late night rush into combat. Through the camera, we feel the boredom and the tedium and the rush. We experience it in real time, without commercial interruption, so the effect is that it feels we are waiting with the soldiers, almost impatient for the "action" to begin. We are so used to the excitement and pace of "war" in our usual films that it is easy to forget these are real people who could stand more boredom and less death. This movie stays authentic to its own mission by giving us slices of the truth, and so it gives us no predictable climactic moments and no dependable moods or conclusions.

In general, we have been increasingly geared to not know the people who make up what is called the "news," or to meditate on a picture so poignant that it would arrest our attention had we seen it done by Picasso and hung in a museum. Even my own distaste for the war, which I experience without ambivalence, collided with the more raw and simple concern, as if I recovered my own capacity to care; one that I didn't known I had put away.

Veterans Day, is perhaps not meant to be an easy day for flags or protests or sales or a day off. We are to honor veterans; thank them for having defended our freedom while we plan for peace. But there is no true freedom unless we can consider, not just a party line about a war, but all the sides, and all the people engaged in that war. Otherwise, we think without feeling, or we detach without either thought or feeling. Our soldiers are not necessarily aligned with one party or party line...they are much more.

There is a disconnect between the salute and the battlefield of the present; the raw combat and the amputations of limbs and of hope. More and more we are getting facts without faces, without the words of soldiers living the ordeal.

"Occupation: Dreamland" takes a few soldiers out of the massive haze of blurred images. It forces their quirks and their moods and opinions on us until the barriers of class and education seem trite and even negligible. We cannot afford to smirk or condescend during this film, and so it might be a dose of what we need at this moment in our history.

On this Veteran's Day...especially in the wake of Fort Hood...and eight years and more than 5,130 battlefield deaths later...we can only truly honor our veterans by getting to know them. "Occupation: Dreamland" is that gift to them and to ourselves.

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