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Bad Voodoo's War at the Frontline Club

On Friday 10th October, the Frontline Club hosted the UK premiere of Bad Voodoo’s War by American director Deborah Scranton, followed by a Q&A chaired by BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wood.

Bad Voodoo’s War is the second example, following The War Tapes (2006), of Scranton’s “virtual embedding” technique. Instead of directing the film on the ground she provided US National Guardsmen on tour in Iraq with the equipment and training to shoot over 500 hours of footage for themselves. Deborah provided support via instant messaging and email on technical aspects of the experiment but also, ultimately, developed strong emotional bonds with a platoon of stressed and worried soldiers, some of whom were only too glad to have another outlet for their frustrations. The film is part of a broader PBS Frontline interactive project, whose website provides more details and footage.

The film follows members of Bad Voodoo Platoon as they are deployed to Camp Virginia, Kuwait, during the 2007 Surge. One member, Sergeant Jean-Paul (JP) Borda is probably well-known to many of us as the man behind but, despite his role in getting Scranton’s project off the ground, plays only a bit part in the eventual film.

Most of the story is told through the camera and commentary of SFC Toby Nunn, platoon sergeant, a family man, father-figure to his troops, and whose sometimes dark humour is shot through with deep honesty and integrity. What is most striking about Nunn is the genuine duty of care he feels for his men, a difficult burden given the task with which Bad Voodoo have been charged. For an infantry platoon used to having boots on the ground, driving for thousands of miles across Iraq as convoy escorts is a hard role to fulfil with good grace. Nunn at points makes clear his distaste for the task, and also for contractors like Kellogg Brown & Root, whose vehicles they must protect against the undetectable threat of IEDs to destinations as far north as Tikrit and Kirkuk. “The rules of engagement are fucked up.”

The footage reflects this. Staring for hours at the back of a truck, waiting for an IED to go off, sitting ducks for insurgents everywhere, is a nightmare for these guys. Nunn says, “you try to be hyper-aware” when driving through areas like the Balat-Tikrit “IED Alley”, and one can only imagine how tense the platoon members are. One, Specialist Jason Shaw, is obviously suffering. “I think it’s totally pointless”, he confesses, “I hate it.” Shaw is no stranger to real combat but looks to be on the edge of a serious breakdown, and was diagnosed with PTSD after a previous tour. His anger is a problem he admits readily, and it’s up to people like Nunn to keep his body and soul together. Nunn embraces this role with a big heart. This is a tale of men in war: “I don’t mean the harshness, I mean the sweetness … these are the stories that are important.”

And Deborah Scranton obviously agrees. I asked how she edited down hundreds of hours of film into a 56min PBS episode, to which she replied that the story emerged by itself. She neither chose the guys who became the main protagonists – “storytellers, not subjects” – nor dictated how the story unfolded. Her “virtual embed” method is about “telling the story from the inside out, not the outside in”. That means her role as director is principally as an editor although any disingenuousness that might arise from such a statement is more than offset by her rejection of total objectivity in film-making.

Unfortunately, the U.S. military did not agree. Evidently, they saw less value in the American public engaging with its servicemen than did Scranton or the soldiers themselves. I’ve seen conflicting reports in the blogosphere over their current enlistment status, and the only thing that seems certain is that both men’s marriages failed. Scranton herself seemed to indicate that Nunn had been dishonourably discharged. If anyone knows the real story here, I’ll amend this post accordingly. (Daniel Bennett, Frontline blogger, was also a guest of Deborah’s that night, and is similarly unsure about this part of the tale.)

I wait with interest for Deborah’s next project, for which she went to Rwanda to find out about a post-conflict country. One of the fascinating and under-reported issues I came across when I first went to Rwanda in 2005 was the conversion of many Rwandese to Islam after 1994. There is a solid logic to this – one of the few parties to act with real integrity during the genocide was the Muslim community, who sheltered a lot of Rwandese faced with murder. They have not been tarred with the brush of complicity, unlike the Catholic church, and it is small wonder that many Rwandese saw Allah as truly a merciful deity, unlike the God in whom most people put their trust. Deborah has picked up on this and is shooting a film for which this will be one of the informing stories.

Yes, I was a guest of the director’s that night, but that in no way influences what I’ve written here. Bad Voodoo’s War is an affecting, and occasionally chilling, film about dedicated men in an impossible situation. I haven’t gotten into the ‘virtual’ angle on this occasion as, despite the use of this technique, it’s the reality of the men and their situation that is the story here, rather than the technology used to tell it.

Watch Bad Voodoo’s War here.

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