Interview with Director of Alive Day Memories

09/10/2007 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1972, Jon Alpert, with his wife Keiko Tsuno, founded DCTV, a non-profit media education center and production house in New York. A 12-time Emmy® Award winning producer/director and investigative reporter, Alpert has filmed massacres, wars, injustice and brutality both abroad and at home. In 2006 Alpert and director/ producer Matt O'Neill made Baghdad ER, an HBO documentary about a combat support hospital in Iraq, capturing the stories of the staff and the injured soldiers.

For his latest film, Alpert collaborated with HBO, Ellen Goosenberg and James Gandolfini. In Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, 10 wounded soldiers and marines share their experiences in Iraq and back home, and their memories of their "Alive Day," the day they narrowly escaped death. As we spoke about the making and meaning of Alive Day Memories, Alpert reflected on interviewing Saddam Hussein, surviving bombings in Baghdad, being censored in Iraq and the U.S., and filming more wars than he can count.

How did you get involved in the project?

Sheila Nevins [executive producer and president of HBO Documentary and Family] and Jim Gandolfini conceived of the project, and asked us to join. It was conceived in a different form initially, as something called Walter Reed 24. There were going to be multiple camera crews filming 24 hours in Walter Reed. HBO wanted to tell the story of the veterans, sort of a continuation of the Baghdad ER theme we had worked on. Sheila had been very moved by Baghdad ER. And she and Jim had gone to Walter Reed to visit the soldiers and both felt that the story of wounded veterans, of what happens to them when they come back to America, needed to be told.

Shortly before the filming was supposed to start we were denied permission for this program. So we all sat around and thought, what are we going to. And then the idea was to find veterans who could tell their stories powerfully and passionately and let them talk to Jim. And that's what happened.

You have done several documentaries about Iraq. Why this particular interest?

Not only do I feel that I have a duty, if I can, to help bring information about what's going on in Iraq to the American people, but, and this might sound strange, I derive pleasure from feeling that I'm doing something important and useful. The life of our country and, in many cases, deaths in our country, are intertwined with Iraq at this particular moment. It's been difficult or impossible for reporters to bring a lot of information to the American public. Sometimes it's the fault of the reporters, sometimes it's the fault of the networks, sometimes it's the fault of our country, which is more interested in things like Monday Night Football. When we have the chance to make reports that are going to be useful, we grab it.

How was this project different from the other Iraq projects you've done?

Well this one is completely domestic. The other ones were Iraq-based or partially Iraq-based, so we faced different degrees of danger, based on whether we were at war with Iraq, whether Saddam was in power. I've been to Iraq five times I think and each time was really quite different. The first time was during the first Gulf War and while we were in Baghdad we were being bombed by American weaponry. That was really dangerous but it certainly gave us a window into the war that very few people had. It was basically us and [CNN reporter] Peter Arnett in Baghdad. We were the only American-based TV people there. Going back after the first war to interview Saddam gave me an insight into his personality, his regime. Going back right before and right after the last war with a program called Bridge to Baghdad that enabled young people in New York and Baghdad to talk each other offered another perspective.

How did filming U.S. soldiers back home in the United States, years after they were wounded, compare to filming U.S. soldiers in a Baghdad ER, just moments after they got hurt?

Well Baghdad ER was an incessant flow of broken and dying bodies coming and coming and coming. It was difficult for everyone to take, for the hospital staff, for the people who document it. But the bodies come and go rather quickly. It's American but it's not America. For Alive Day Memories, we spent a lot of time with the soldiers. The soldiers really got to talk and express themselves in a way that gave them an identity that has a location rooted in America. It brings the consequences of the war home. Baghdad ER was a slice of life of something that was over there. This was over here.

The film shows us how modern technology changes the way we fight wars and the way we survive them. The same advances that saves soldiers also force them to live with major injuries and a severely altered quality of life. Bryan Anderson, a sergeant who lost his legs and a hand when he was 24, says that if he had lost his other hand, "it wouldn't have been worth it to be around."

This is an issue that affects everybody. My own father's life was prolonged for many years my modern medicine, but it meant years of suffering and unpleasantness. He made a choice to end his suffering, he didn't want to live with so much pain and infirmity and immobility. But he was in his early eighties. Here we're dealing with a group of people who are mostly in their twenties. People in their twenties aren't supposed to be infirm, or immobile. We were interested in what gives them the motivation to keep going, to wake up in the morning and not see your leg, and know that's how it is going to be. We are always drawn to people who are faced with a struggle, an existential struggle; it helps us understand life and what it means to be human and to fight. To some extent every day is a struggle for everyone. But these people wake up and see a 95 degree hill every morning and they have to keep climbing up that.

It was inspirational to see them. But at the same time, did they need to be in this position? Did Dawn [First Lieutenant Halfaker] have to live her life without an arm and shoulder? Should she have been in the situation that got her blown up? These are questions the American people need to ask themselves. While we're inspired by the courage of these soldiers, we need to ask ourselves, every time we go to war, are we prepared for the consequences? And it's our job as reporters to tell people what the consequences are so they'll think about it.

So you had to show the inspiration of these stories and at the same time avoid sugarcoating the realities of war and its consequences?

Yes, that's a fine line. I think people and our country in general should be afraid of going to war and I'm not just talking about this war in particular, but every war. One of the things I've heard from most of the soldiers is that they went over there with some naiveté. And war has become very real very fast and very permanent for them. We went into this war real fast. You know, I was trying to count the number of wars I had the displeasure of documenting and I ran out of fingers. Being such a powerful country we tend to lose site of the consequences for the people we send to fight and for the people who live where we happen to be waging the war. For me, I really can't ever do enough to try to educate people about what war's like.

People who question the war are often accused of not being patriotic, not supporting the troops, being out touch. But you challenge and undo that notion by putting yourself in danger, by spending so much time with not just civilians but soldiers, and ultimately making documentaries that clearly communicate compassion towards them.

I feel really patriotic, I like being an American, I don't always like what my country does, but I'm very happy to identify as American. I've been in lots of countries where if had been doing the things I'm doing now, I would have been dead 20 years ago. Here we still have a chance to report about what we want to report about.

At the same time, during the first Gulf War, as reporters, we got ourselves into Baghdad in the middle of the war, we defied Saddam's censors, we documented the consequences of the war in Baghdad. It was, on the one hand, spectacular reporting. But that's only half of reporting, that's chopping trees down in the forest and nobody hearing them. Because we never got that stuff on American television during the war. NBC, after initially being very excited, got cold feet and refused to broadcast it. The person who had wanted to broadcast it got called at 2 a.m. and got fired. The handwriting on the wall was you better not touch this program, you better not broadcast this. And they didn't. So we did a great job as reporters in the field and failed completely at getting this story before the American public. We felt a deep powerlessness. It was horrible. And you know we've had trouble with some of the other programs. Bridge to Baghdad was supposed to have wider distribution and wider sponsorship. So it's been pretty rocky. But when HBO has been under government pressure to alter or censor programs, they have been very strong in a way no other media organization I've ever worked for has. Any time I've worked for corporate media and they feel this kind of pressure, they just cave in.

There is something incredibly 21st century about this film, which you couldn't have made during the last Gulf War. Not only does the film explore the technological advances in medicine, but the film itself is a product of technological advances and the democratization of video. You use soldiers' home videos and videos they took of themselves and each other in Iraq. The videos that are embedded in the vehicles are especially scary because they document the IED explosions from the inside. At the same time you use haunting footage of insurgent videos that documenting the explosion from the perspective of the person who detonates the bomb. The access to both embedded and insurgent video allows for a very dramatic and disturbing switch in perspective from the soldier injured in the explosion to the insurgent who causes the explosion, which makes the the film feels more fictional than documentary.

This is a really bizarre war because in what other war would you have a video camera that actually captures your Humvee blowing up? There is a level of documentation of this war unlike anything in the past. A lot of the insurgent videos were on the Internet. They're used as recruiting tools by the insurgents or sometimes as a "fuck you" to the soldiers and are dropped off at the bases. The insurgent videos were really disturbing to me because you can here them starting to get excited as the Humvees are driving towards the bomb and they start chanting, and then they push the button and we see the consequences of that and they're shouting with glee. It was difficult to watch.

During the first Gulf War you were filming in Baghdad as the U.S. was bombing the city. Now you are filming the U.S. military. How does it feel?

My experience with the Army really surprised me. I come from the Vietnam War era, an era of a really unpopular war, when I certainly wasn't interested in being part of the American military. My encounters with the military had all been on the receiving end. I spent a lot of time in Central America and there were American advisors flying helicopters, chasing us, sending out death squads. In the first Gulf War we were in Baghdad, which was being bombed. I was in danger every time I got close to the American military. But for Baghdad ER we were officially embedded. The embedded arrangements of the first Gulf War were basically a joke and were used to stall reporters and keep them away from what was really happening. As a result of the outcry from the press, the military changed its policy. They let us film everything, were very accommodating, flexible and helped us as liaisons, helped us figure out how to film things. It was an astonishingly productive collaboration. And I'm thinking, wow, I never expected this.

What was working with Jim Gandolfini like?

He's famous, but he is very normal, which gives the interviews a level of sincerity that you wouldn't have with a professional reporter, where it would be as much about the reporter as about the soldiers. Jim's in there very minimally; it's basically the soldiers' stories. Jim's shy and at first felt uncomfortable asking personal questions. But he began to see that the soldiers wanted to share with this guy who is famous and taking the time to sit down with them and share these stories with millions of people. And then it clicked. The first project Jim does after Sopranos is significant. If that had tanked that would have been mortifying. And if something about this subject had tanked that would have been really mortifying. This thing was a challenge, just beyond everyone's reach. And it worked.

What's next for you?

I want to go to back to Afghanistan really badly. I think there hasn't been enough good information about what's going on there. This was supposed to be a good war, compared to Iraq. This was where Osama was hiding, where the terrorists did have training camps, where the Taliban enslaved women, dragged the country back to the middle ages, where the heroin was coming from. We went in there and seemed to be setting the country in the right direction. But now the death toll is rising. I don't know, maybe this is a good war. I'm really curious. But we're spending a lot of money, a lot of lives, a lot of the America's credibility. I think it's really important for reporters to be able to go over there. I've set everything up with the Army. I just have to wait for HBO to give me the green light on Afghanistan.