Occupation Dreamland, 2005

During the spring of 2004, as the Iraqi city of Falluja slowly metamorphosed from secondary, wartime infrastructure target to the emerging epicenter of an escalating (and increasingly emboldened) Iraqi insurgency, soldiers from a squadron of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the volatile city struggle to adjust to their amorphous, undefined, and intrinsically irreconcilable roles as law enforcers, occupiers, and goodwill ambassadors in a foreign land. For a few hours each week, the young soldiers are directed by their superior officers to go out into the streets in full body armor for mandatory, pre-scheduled “public relations” where they canvas as many streets as possible in order to psychologically reinforce their presence and visibility in the city, initiate contact with the townspeople (usually through an interpreter) in an often fruitless attempt to gain their trust and gather information, and, with alarming frequency, play reflexive games of survival as militants seize the opportunity to take pot shots and launch last-minute offensives in their direction. The dangerous, frustrating, and often surreal encounters experienced by the soldiers underscore the seeming futility of their reluctant role as a peacekeeping (rather than combat) force in the openly hostile, war-ravaged town. Unfamiliar with the language and local customs, the soldiers’ relationship with the town has become palpably acrimonious (especially following the death of a fellow soldier from their squadron): distrustful glances from the Iraqis are often retaliated with verbal hostility and profanity (in English) by the disrespected soldiers; a soldier is reproached by several village men at a public square for committing a cultural faux pas a few days earlier by publicly detaining (and later releasing) an unaccompanied Iraqi woman to headquarters for routine interrogation; another soldier attempts to engage the townspeople in friendly conversation, but then hurriedly truncates the uncomfortable dialogue after receiving a blunt earful of how bad the standard of life really has become for the average Iraqi civilian since the invasion. Returning to the barracks, the soldiers receive little respite from their ambivalent roles and conflicted sense of duty as superior officers conduct periodic “pep talk” debriefings in order to encourage their re-enlistment and continued service, often raising the specter of their troubled youth, reinforcing their insecurity over their level of maturity and responsibility (and accomplishment) and preparedness for civilian life, or appealing to their economic reality with the promise of a college education and a life-long career. Filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds were embedded with the soldiers for the duration of the filming of Occupation: Dreamland, and the result is immediately apparent in the sense of intimacy, conflict, disorientation, and pervasive sense of danger and uncertainty captured by the film. Far from a concrete, immediately identifiable characterizations of good and evil, victim and transgressor, what is revealed in these irreconcilable quotidian images is a complex cross-cultural, postwar portrait of human desolation and moral ambiguity that festers within the vacuum of compassion, communication, social order, and authority.

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