- One of the soldiers of the 2/3 FA unit, stationed in Baghdad and filmed by Michael Tucker for his documentary, Gunner Palace.
Gunner Palace (R)
It moves from peaceful to extremely violent here without warning. I wouldn't say that these guys are scared, but careful. Every time they roll down a street they see things that I don't see -- they know the danger is out there, they just don't know where. Every time I see a box or a can next to the road, I cringe.
-- Filmmaker Michael Tucker, from his Gunner Palace diaries
Michael Tucker arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, just after President George W. Bush declared the end of "major combat" on the Iraqi front in the "war on terror."
A documentary filmmaker armed only with a digital camera and a keen sympathy for the soldiers still in Iraq, now engaged in what they jokingly called "minor combat," Tucker insinuated his way into 2/3 FA unit, 400 American soldiers housed in the bombed-out palace formerly owned by Uday Hussein, complete with a swimming pool and putting green, located in Adhamiya, one of the most volatile sectors of Baghdad.
Tucker's goal was simple: to bring attention to the soldiers' personal experiences of the war, something he saw missing in nightly newscasts and in American newspapers.
The result is Gunner Palace, a documentary film co-directed and produced by Tucker and his wife Petra Epperlein, set for national release by Palm Pictures on March 5 and scheduled for a premiere screening in Colorado Springs on Monday, Jan. 31, with Tucker in attendance.
"Talking to American soldiers during that summer," said Tucker in the director's statement from the production notes of Gunner Palace, "many expressed frustration that folks at home, accustomed to quick televised victories, had simply lost interest in the war or had changed the channel to the more entertaining reality of Survivor and American Idol. Thirty years after Vietnam, it was apparent that the average American had no tangible connection to the war, no matter what their views were on it. With the All Volunteer Army, there was no fear of being drafted. Instead, a tiny sliver of a society was fighting and dying. Their families were hoping, praying and mourning, while much of the country remained untouched by the realities of war and the ongoing suffering in Iraq."
For two months, Tucker filmed the intimate details of these soldiers' lives, everything from poolside barbecues to freestyle raps to night raids in the streets of Baghdad. One day, while Tucker was recording a freestyle rap, a young soldier looked directly into the camera and said, "For y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie." Tucker determined that this would be the essence of his film -- not a chronicle of battles or traditional war imagery, but a record of the soldier's experience of this unique and often bizarre war, far from home.
Critics have praised Gunner Palace, comparing it to Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. But it is a documentary, capturing actual experience in real time, and as such occupies a unique place in cinema. New York Times critic A.O. Scott named it the one must-see film of the Toronto Film Festival. "Gunner Palace is so startling because it suggests -- it shows -- just how complicated the reality of this war has been," said Scott. "It may not change your mind, but it will certainly deepen your perception and challenge your assumptions, whatever they may be. I hope Gunner Palace makes its way quickly from this festival to American theaters, because it is not a movie anyone should miss."
The Independent recently spoke to Tucker from his home in Berlin.
Indy: What was it like to be in Iraq, in Uday Hussein's palace, with these American soldiers?
Tucker: Well, it was often bizarre. In the film, one of the first things that happened was, I was standing outside smoking a cigarette. I'd been there (in Baghdad) one night. The guys had gone inside to watch a trashy DVD or something when I suddenly heard these huge, explosive impacts, coming closer and closer.
I was very timid about running in and saying, 'Hey guys, we're under attack,' but finally I went in and there they were, chasing a rat around the room.
That's the kind of stuff in this film, just that day-to-day life, what [the soldiers] are going through.
Indy: Yes, it's not what we hear or see about the war on the news.
Tucker: What you see on the news is operation after operation after operation. It's all that stuff in between -- the loneliness, the dislocation, the boredom -- that's the stuff soldiers really appreciate seeing.
People who see this movie who aren't connected with the military, especially middle-aged men who have not been in the military, in combat, have an expectation that they want to see shoot-it-up violence -- that's what a war film should be.
The film doesn't deliver what [some] people want, the violence, the politics. It does deliver the experience of the soldiers; that's what it's meant to do.
Indy: What about violence? How often were you in the middle of it?
Tucker: Well, the unit I shot, when I left they had insurgents literally outside the gate. And there are some startling scenes in the film of gates getting kicked in with little kids cowering, that kind of thing. During my last moments in Baghdad, about to board a plane, there were flares crossing the sky, the distant sound of gunfire; they were loading wounded soldiers and I just thought, oh my god, where am I?
What you'll see, though, is [in Iraq] you usually don't see this enemy and the violence is so random you don't even know what hits you when it comes. These soldiers go expecting firefights all the time; they're expecting to see the face of who they're fighting.
But there are a lot of people who've never even left their forward operating base. Look at the Stryker brigade from Fort Lewis that got killed eating their lunch.
What these soldiers get used to, what they consider normal is pretty extreme. One kid in the film, his Humvee has been hit eight times with IED (Improvised Explosive Devices). They're told to cowboy it up, suck it up, until after a while they can't any more.
Indy: What are we missing in our limited exposure to the war, through the mainstream media?
Tucker: There is such a disconnect with the experience of being there. So few people have had this kind of experience and there is something definitely life-changing about it.
Everything about the war has become so politicized, so polarized. Everyone has an opinion and it's a very loud opinion. When you politicize everything, when you see it from the point of view of strictly anti- or pro-war, what's lost is these people. They are having a profound experience that is being tainted by politics.
These guys are doing a job; they took an oath to do it. A lot of these soldiers are really good people; we should be glad we have these good soldiers. People say they appreciate it, but they don't really share the burden.
Every day in America, there's a family somewhere in terrible pain because they've lost a son or daughter or father or mother in the war. That's what matters.
Gunner Palace premiere screening with Michael Tucker in attendance
Monday, Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m.
Cinemark Tinseltown theater, 1545 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd.