It's not every year a Vermonter is linked to the Oscars, but last week, when the Academy released its "short list" of best documentary films, The War Tapes was on it. Executive producer and Jericho resident Chuck Lacy could only jump for joy in his mind - he's lying low at home, recovering from knee-replacement surgery. "We were psyched," he allows. "It was a pretty damn humble project."
Humble? Only in the sense that the film was shot by rank amateurs: American GIs. The War Tapes' subject is one of the most complex and vexing issues of the day - the quagmire in Iraq - and the ragged but unflinchingly real footage tells the story in a way no staged production ever could. The War Tapes is said to be the first film in which soldiers were given video cameras - to shoot, along with their guns. Specifically, 10 cameras went to Iraq with members of the New Hampshire National Guard in Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry Regiment. (They were edited down to three in the final film.) The soldiers were based in the deadly Sunni Triangle and subjected to the constant threat of ambush, IED and other attacks during their yearlong tour of duty in 2004.
With cameras mounted on gun turrets, dashboards, helmets and vests, the soldiers accumulated more than 800 hours of tape. Along with the tension and sometimes grisly happenstance of warfare, they also captured moments of candid cynicism, horseplay and utter boredom. Stateside, the filmmakers shot 200 additional hours documenting the lives of the families at home, both during the soldiers' tour and after their return.
Director Deborah Scranton and Lacy met when both were taking a writing class at Dartmouth College. "She needed a partner," he says simply. (His partner in life is Vermont Speaker of the House Gaye Symington.) For Lacy, an entrepreneur and former president of Ben & Jerry's, this was a first film. Scranton, who had previously made a well-regarded pic about World War II, was invited to become "embedded" with a troop in Iraq, but she decided instead to find soldiers willing to record their own experiences. Luckily, the New Hampshire Guard was cooperative, and the U.S. Army didn't pull the plug on the project, Lacy says. Other members of the filmmaking team were producer Robert May (The Fog of War) and producer/editor Steve James (Hoop Dreams).
The result of their collective efforts is "mordantly effective filmmaking," in the words of The New York Times. That esteemed paper is one of many that have heaped praise on The War Tapes, which won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and Best International Documentary at the Britdoc Festival last year.
Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences narrowed a field of 81 contenders down to 15. "This is the fairest step in the process," explains Lacy. "The people who vote on the short list are documentary filmmakers - it's less haphazard, less political." Four of the 15 films are about the Iraq war. On January 25, the five Oscar nominations will be chosen. The winner will be announced at the 79th Annual Academy Awards on February 25.