Richard E. Robbins
eople don’t get it,” says one young soldier in Operation Homecoming. “They either want to talk about the blood and the gore, or the politics. They don’t get what we went through.”
Well before Operation Homecoming was a film—maybe the best documentary to come out of the war in Iraq so far—the story it tells was an idea in the mind of Connecticut’s state poet laureate Marilyn Nelson. At the first-ever gathering of state poets laureate in 2003, this daughter of a Tuskegee airman suggested writing workshops for US troops serving since 9/11, their spouses, and families. Over 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts took this up, recruiting 24 writers who conducted 50 workshops on 25 US military bases in five countries (and one aircraft carrier). For the project’s book, which Random House published last September, editor Andrew Carroll winnowed 100 letters, poems, stories, and memoirs from the 10,000 pages that 6,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families at home produced.
The film was a parallel but independent project from fairly early on, drawing on the same material and distilling just eleven pieces of writing by nine authors, focused on Iraq alone. With remarkable delicacy and visual restraint, the film pairs readings of each piece with an “illustration”—ranging from news footage to black and white stills to animation to collage to recreation-of-sorts. Stories of combat, camp life, emails home, attempts at humor, grief, fear, boredom, watching an old man who’s lost his son beg, “Kill me now,” working the medevac, volunteering to accompany Chance Phelps’ body home to DuBoise, Wyoming, and the wandering of ghosts unsure how to get home. Novelist Tim O’Brien says that in wartime the words “come unstuck” from their meanings, but this film is ever attentive to let those words through.
Except for Brian Turner, whose poems open and close the film, professional actors perform each piece. The writers here are all men (though the National Guard’s Sharon Allen, who has published work about soldiering, appears in the film). Clips of these writer-soldiers talking about what they went through alternate with comments from writers who led the NEA workshops—writers who themselves emerged from past wars with now well-known memoirs and novels, from white-haired Paul Fussell to Vietnam’s Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Yusef Komunyakaa to the Gulf War’s Anthony Swofford, who wrote Jarhead. Not much is made of anybody’s star power. The final credits list voice performances by Robert Duvall, Josh Lucas, Beau Bridges, Blair Underwood, Justin Kirk, Aaron Eckhart, Chris Gorham, and John Krasinski, but never say who did what. Director Richard Robbins says he thought matching the actor to the piece would just get in the way.
Robbins is part of The Documentary Group, formed in the wake of journalist Peter Jennings’ 2005 death by Tom Yellin, who produced Operation Homecoming, and others who worked with Jennings at ABC News. Since the New York theatrical premier, Robbins, the film and a handful of its crew and writers have been trekking to film festivals and special screenings. On April 16th, Operation Homecoming airs on PBS’ “America at the Crossroads,” nine documentaries about the Iraq War over six consecutive evenings. Richard Robbins spoke from Los Angeles by phone with Nancy Keefe Rhodes the day before he flew east for the film’s premier at Film Forum in New York City.
Let’s start with what you intended. Why did you want to make this film?
Even before the NEA announced this project, my long-time producer at ABC, Tom Yellin, and Peter Jennings and I had been talking about a film like this, that would speak to the human experience of being a soldier. When the NEA announced its project we felt like that was an amazing opportunity. After I got back from Afghanistan, I spent quite a bit of time interviewing soldiers. And I’ll tell you in advance, it is a very, very difficult job, trying to get soldiers to express themselves, because the military doesn’t really put a premium on individual expression.
What was so exciting about the NEA project was that they were looking for individual expression from soldiers. Soldiers who write are a rare breed, because they are naturally inclined to want to communicate about what happened to them. Fairly quickly we started reading the writing. The NEA was phenomenal. They really just said, we’ll let you read what we read. There’s an intimacy to what people put down on paper that they might never be able to speak to another human being.
The press packet talks about the aim of not being political—
– and by refraining from that of course you’ve made something that’s very political. But political in a way that’s at another remove. You really have solved the apparent—for some—contradiction of how people can be against the war but for the troops.
Well, you should see the outtakes. All these soldiers have very strong political opinions. I have very strong political opinions. We all agreed that this wasn’t going to be about that, that we were going to talk about what happened to them, without passing any judgments. It does feel, when you spend time talking to soldiers, that the culture has conspired to keep us to rarely want to talk about what soldiers go through. Both from the left and the right. The right doesn’t want to talk about it because most of what soldiers go through isn’t so great. Most of the left is against the war to begin with, so hearing about all the awful things the soldiers go through just makes them feel sad.
There’s one young soldier in this film who says, “People just don’t get it. They either want to talk about the blood and the gore, or the politics...”
“. . . and they don’t get it, they don’t get what we went through.” The whole film is a response to that. Right up front, the first thing you see after Brian Turner, is how this project came to be. You know, I heard Brian Turner on NPR several months ago, reading, “Here, Bullet,” which is actually not in Andrew Carroll’s book.
I know! I don’t know how they didn’t pick it!
And then you open the film with “Here, Bullet,” and close with Brian Turner’s “Ashbah,” the Arabic word for ghosts. He has three poems in the film and seems to have kind of a special status in this film.
Two things happened. The person I was associate producer for and worked with for a really long time always said the hardest two things about a film are the beginning and the end. I definitely think that that’s true. And I worked a lot of different beginnings. Brian Turner reading “Here, Bullet” was one of the first things I ever shot. I shot it on my own DV camera on part of a demo reel. When we were trying to get funding for the project I drove up to Fresno. I had picked him, I had seen his writing and I thought it was very good. He was drive-able from Los Angeles when we didn’t have any money and I could use my own car. I sat in his living room and put a piece of black cloth behind him and asked him to read some of his poems. He had just come back. The war was still a day-to-day kind of thing.
I spent a very intense afternoon with him and I used it as the opening in the demo that we submitted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to get funding. When we got all the money and we were shooting in high def and I was experimenting with all of these techniques, I could never find anything as powerful. I tried a lot of other things to start the film and I never found anything that I liked as much. I was trying to find an ending that didn’t feel like this was all wrapped up because all the soldiers have come home, because obviously they’re not home. I kept trying to create an ending that didn’t let people walk away feeling finished. Brian’s poem seemed like the only answer I could come up with. The whole film was just trying to figure out how to take written texts and bring them to the screen in a way that didn’t change them too much or undermine them or over-interpret. There were a whole series of failed experiments.
Could you talk about the design and the look of the film? One thing that strikes me is how quiet it is. It has the visual precision of good writing. Almost none of the music is loud and clashy. Other documentaries about Iraq have tried to recreate the chaos on-screen but you really don’t. It’s quiet—the images, most of them beautiful. It doesn’t shout. How did you arrive at that?
I’ve spent most of the last ten years making programs for commercial television in which I felt I was always forced against my will to be too fast and too loud. The luxury of being able to let people talk and let the thing breathe was so intoxicating—you know, I just ran with it. It’s great, the moment that Brian Turner misspeaks and to not cut it, to just let him try and find the right words. We really wanted the soldiers’ writing to be the strongest thing in the film.
When I talk about failed experiments—and we had a couple—where you allow things on the screen to get almost too engaging visually. The most blunt example—when people really start shooting on-screen? And things start exploding and everybody’s running? You stop listening to what’s being said. There’s no way that a voice, no matter how good the actor is, can compete with watching those things happen. Every time we turned up the volume on the visuals, you’d find yourself watching and you’d stop listening—even if it was only for a couple of sentences. We always had to make sure that the visuals didn’t overpower the writing. I think overall you come away with a feeling for the voices of the soldiers. That was really what we were after.
How did you get the actors that you did to read these parts?
We just got lucky. It’s not a very big time commitment. The only person who took more than an hour was Aaron Eckhart—he just became obsessed with getting it right. We stayed and did it over and over again. I think that they want to do things like this. We asked, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough that I know some people who know some people who can get the question actually in front of somebody.
My guess is that the people who said no—and there were some people—never even were asked. It just was their people who said no. There’s no money in it. We paid everybody SAG scale just because by law we have to—$600 or something like that. People wanted to do it, they were thrilled. Some of the recordings were made in people’s homes. They didn’t have to come to a studio. We built little mini sound booths in Robert Duvall’s farmhouse in Virginia.
Some of these scenes I wondered if someone was filming them when they happened. In the piece, “Taking Chance,” how much is recreation and how much somebody happened to be shooting at the time? The same question arises with those really powerful black and white stills that accompany Jack Lewis’ “Road Work.”
In “Taking Chance,” we went to DuBoise, Wyoming, and just eventually went through the steps that Mike Strobl describes in his piece. In the scene where we go into the funeral home, we shot the funeral home exactly as we found it. There was a casket out. We talked to the funeral home director and said that we were coming. Should we put a flag over the casket? Because there would’ve been one on Chance’s. We said, well, no, because that just feels hokey. The only thing that we did in terms of recreating is that when we got to DuBoise we asked the guys from the VFW to put up the flags in the cemetery. It was so beautiful and the wind was blowing and the sky looked incredible and we thought, well, we’ll get the flags up and it will look amazing.
I have very, very mixed feelings about recreations. I made a full recreation in “Road Work,” with the still photographs, which I have to say was really hard for me. I’m very happy with how it turned out. To a large degree I attribute that to the photographer, Antonin Kratochvil. You know, he’s a documentarian. He’s taken a lot of pictures in Iraq. He’s very, very talented. My issue with recreations is never that I object to them in principle. I just think that they’re usually not very good. I love Touching the Void! I think it’s amazing partly because it’s so well-done that you just don’t think about the fact that it’s all recreated. I would never do that if “Road Work” had taken place during the day, I’ll tell you that! I could never recreate Iraq daytime! The night gave us a break.
One of the guys who speaks very early, Edward Parker—
Gyokeres—believe it or not, he pronounces his name “jokers.”
He says, “I was afraid I was going to miss something.” And then, “I can’t believe how dumb I was to think that!” He’s astonished at himself. He says, “I had a lot to learn.” And that’s such a powerful moment because it happens early and it’s against type—not what we think young men would say as they go off to war.
The whole ethos of the film was to say, these are real people and they react to these situations in complicated ways. One of the lines of questioning that didn’t end up in the film—though we talked about it a lot because I was very interested in it from my own experience in Afghanistan—was how beautiful some of these things that you see are. The example that I always use is the mushroom cloud. I made a film years ago about the Manhattan Project. Mushroom clouds are incredibly beautiful. I found from covering the war that there were really beautiful, beautiful images in the midst of the horror. They stayed with me.
I talked with these guys a lot about that. I think the ability to hold two completely contradictory emotions at the same time is a central part of what soldiers go through and are trying to reconcile. A lot of these guys struggle with the fact that in some ways it’s the time in their lives when they felt most alive. These contradictions are very confusing and very profound, and in the film we’re trying desperately not to resolve them—to let the film have them both present and not tie them up.
The novelist Tim O’Brien says in the film, some things shouldn’t be healed.
Another young man says people have been writing about war in the same way since the Romans.
With few exceptions—a quote from Hemingway, one from Stephen Crane, a couple others—you mostly stuck with living writers. Did you have a temptation to go back further, to some of the classics like All Quiet on the Western Front, or others?
Yeah, there were endless lists, once we—four or five of us worked on this—got into reading all the war literature out there. Once you start you feel like you can’t stop. I decided, for cohesiveness, to have the quotes also be from authors who were interviewed as much as possible. And I do think there’s something nice about the American-ness of all the voices. As much as war is a universal experience, I do think different cultures experience it differently.
Since you’re talking about extreme experience, you also could’ve used, for example, the work psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who reinterprets classics in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder and so forth—Achilles in Vietnam and the later one, Odysseus in America—and you didn’t.
I like to think a lot of what he writes informs my thinking about what happens to soldiers. You know, this is an odd film, in that we began with the writing. I didn’t even know the names of the soldiers when we picked the writing. We went from about 1,500 pieces of writing down to about fifty that we were really passionate about. Then we started meeting some of the writers. I had this incredible window to their experiences in the writing and there wasn’t that much room for what I thought about it. As a filmmaker, I have a really clear guide in these writings if my goal is just to try to be true to it as much as I possibly can. This is the first film I’ve made where I didn’t have to write any narration. I can’t tell you what a gift that was! I just wanted to let them talk.
It’s quintessential documentary because you really do trust the material. All the other things that you could’ve done would’ve gotten away from the material, which is risky, risky with a subject like this—
Yeah. And we really came into this thinking, this is about war literature. It’s probably not for everybody and we can assume people who come to the film will have a level of interest and a patience with this literature. In commercial television we constantly think about how to hook people. I felt very fortunate. I just kept thinking, what if the writing had been really awful?
You wouldn’t have been doing the film.
Right! But we went pretty down far the road saying that we wanted to do this film before we really knew there was good writing there
Anything else you hope people pay attention to?
At the heart of the film there’s a new way to start thinking about Iraq. You know, I was born in 1969. I didn’t really live through Vietnam as a personal experience, even as a news consumer. But the culture that I came to adulthood in was deeply influenced by Vietnam as a human experience, and by what people who lived through the opposition to it experienced on a human level—not a political level. I hope if this film finds an audience, it’s the beginning of a conversation for us as a culture. Brian Turner says the people who’ve been to Iraq, they’re gonna come back and they’re gonna be our friends and neighbors and it’s part of what it means to be an American now. There’s another kind of conversation. It’s not about the rightness or the wrongness of this war, but what it means to us as a nation and as a family in the collective sense. I think that’s gonna matter in the long term for us as a country, more than who wins the 2008 presidential election.
Operation Homecoming premiered on Feb. 9th at Film Forum in New York City. It continues in limited theatrical release, at festivals and at special screenings. On April 16th it airs nationally on PBS at 9:00 p.m. as part of “America at the Crossroads.”