Diving Into Iraq War

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No End in Sight' to Charles Ferguson's Career After Stunning Debut

At Sundance in January, much attention focused on “No End in Sight,” a still timely documentary critical of the U.S. military build-up in Iraq. American writer-director Charles Ferguson said of his first film: “I was overwhelmed. It was very gratifying, very emotional.”

Yet he seemed as poised as a veteran when tackling the festival’s many panels, discussions and interviews—including with The Washington Diplomat. In June, he traveled to the D.C. area for the AFI Silver Theatre’s SilverDocs 2007 festival, confidently facing off against policy wonks—on their own turf inside the Beltway.

Ferguson was prepared by his unusual background: “I have a checkered past. I was a political scientist. I got a PhD in international economic policy. I did a lot of work on the globalization of the high technology industry,” he said, noting that his thesis adviser was Carl Kaysen, deputy national security adviser to President John F. Kennedy.

“I spent a lot of time thinking … and talking about foreign policy,” Ferguson explained. “Through a random sequence of events, I ended up doing consulting to high technology companies. I started a software company. Microsoft bought it. I went back to policy … wrote a couple of books.

“I got into filmmaking because I’ve always wanted to make films,” he continued. “I finally reached a point in life when I could. I had some financial security, and also this issue arose. I felt strongly about it. Not only could I, but I felt that I really should. I didn’t have any good excuse not to, so I just dove in. I financed the film myself. I hope I’ll get my money back. We’ll see.”

Odds are he will. So far, “No End in Sight” has garnered a great deal of attention. “A number of important, influential people have seen the film recently in private screenings. The senior people on [Sen. John] McCain’s staff, for example, and a number of others like that. Some … have said that they were impressed, and they learned something. At this late date, it’s an interesting, sobering fact that people so heavily involved with the issue still learned something from the film. It’s a good thing for my film, a bad thing for the country,” Ferguson said.

“The main thing that people seem to have been surprised by was the extraordinary way in which the early critical occupation decisions were taken: the decision to stop the formation of the interim government … to institute an occupation … de-Baathification, and most importantly of all … to disband the Iraqi army.

“All those decisions widely considered to be disastrous errors. That’s not new, but what people didn’t seem to understand was the really amazing way those decisions were made in a complete vacuum without consulting anybody,” he added.

Noting that then Director of Recon-struction and Humanitarian Assistance L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer started work at the Pentagon on May 1, Ferguson said that on May 9, Bremer and his senior adviser, Walter Slocum, “decided to dissolve the Iraqi army. They hadn’t spoken to the people running the occupation, the ground commanders, the CIA, national security adviser, State Department. They just did it.

“All of these organizations and people opposed the decisions when they heard about them, but they only heard about them after they’d been implemented. The man in charge of dealing with the Iraqi army in Iraq learned about the decision by watching it on television. People didn’t know that. They found it educational and shocking that decisions like that were made that way,” Ferguson remarked.

“What emerged was a picture of a president who really knew nothing. The critical people around him … would basically say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ And he would said yes.”

Chilly Collaboration

Canadian director Sarah Robertson and cinematographer Adam Ravetch (who are a married team) presented the world premiere of “Arctic Tale” as the Closing Night Film at SilverDocs. Later, Robertson sat down for an interview with The Washington Diplomat to discuss their documentary, which follows the lives of a polar bear and a walrus as they struggle for survival in the Arctic Circle.

“It was wonderful being able to show the movie really for the first time,” she recalled. “We closed out at SilverDocs. We had a great audience. We had just finished the film within days of that. We were just anxious to get it in the film festival circuit in the United States before the movie opened up.

“We’d been working with National Geographic in TV documentaries for years. Once we decided we wanted to work up on the big screen with National Geographic, we started working with their new film department out in L.A.,” Robertson explained.

“It’s really such a larger canvas. It’s wonderful to be having a natural history film up on the big screen, where it should be. You can really see this landscape and the environment of the animals. You get the great sound design and system, whereas in TV, you just don’t get a sense of the place and the sound. It’s wonderful to be able to concentrate on that and really bring it alive, whereas we were never really able to do that before.

“Because we work in TV a lot, we always photograph really close-up,” she added. “There’s really close-up shots all throughout the movie, which is how we love to portray the animals. We’re living with the animals, or sitting with them. We’re not normal documentarians who are far back with long lenses. We’re living in the headspace in these animals.”

Being that close though can have its own drawbacks. “We put it on the big screen. My God! Everything’s so close! We actually went back into the Arctic to do some longer vistas, some establishing shots, to make sure that we really got a sense of the scope and breadth of the Arctic.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999