Wikileaks-Movie.com is pleased to introduce you to filmmaker James Spione, winner of a 2011 Tribeca Film Festival award for his documentary short Incident in New Baghdad. This film, profiled recently on this site, offers a fundamentally important view into Ethan McCord’s experience in the Iraq War and, more specifically, the Collateral Murder incident which Ethan witnessed first-hand and a video of which WikiLeaks later released.
“I feel that is the job of any good writer or filmmaker or artist of any sort– to look at the thing that no one else wants to look at, to hold up the truths that most of society would rather deny, and to say, “This is who we are.” It is often not a feel-good exercise.” – James Spione
In this interview, acclaimed filmmaker James Spione provides a bird’s eye view into his career, influences and film making philosophy. He also answers questions relating to the origination and release of Incident in New Baghdad, including comments on his relationship with Ethan McCord. From documentaries on the plight of the small family farmer to the Iraq War, WikiLeaks and Collateral Murder, Spione has a legacy of perspective and respected filmmaking. This is evidenced by the the quality of his films, his numerous awards, as well as recent predictions that Spione may indeed be a candidate for an Oscar at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Early Predictions for the “84th Oscars – Best Documentary Short”
1. Michael Kuehnert for SaveThe Farm
2. Jason Jakaitis for Mothersbane
3. James Spione for Incident In New Baghdad
4. Marta Minorowicz for Kawalek Lata
5. Jonathan VanBallenberghe for Guru
We thank James Spione for agreeing to this exclusive interview with Wikileaks-Movie.com. It is our hope that you find this interview both informative and inspiring. As always, we strive to bring you first-hand perspective that sheds light on modern affairs, Wikileaks and the many creative endeavors emerging to influence understanding and debate. We hope you enjoy!
James Spione | The Wikileaks-Movie.com Interview
1. Tell us about yourself and your journey into documentary film making? What sparks your passion for your work?
Well, I came to documentary work relatively late in my career. My first film Prelude, a 30-minute drama about a boy struggling to cope with the loss of his father, won a Student Academy Award, and that pretty much hooked me on the idea that I would pursue fiction moviemaking as a career. I made a couple more dramatic short films after that which played at Sundance and other major festivals on the circuit. Unfortunately, I then became mired in what is not-so-affectionately called “development hell” in the industry. I had an ambitious script for my first feature; I worked with an agent, and a number of producers and casting directors, but the project never quite came to fruition. This was still in the days (not all that long ago) before digital HD video brought the cost of indie features way down–so raising the money even for a modest dramatic movie was a major hurdle. I was feeling increasingly frustrated and knew I needed to put aside my fiction filmmaking ambitions for a while and try something new.
“There were some pretty potent and complicated family dynamics at work.”
Around that time I happened to attend a family reunion at my cousin’s dairy farm in upstate New York, and there was some discussion and concern among my relatives that the farm, which had been the family homestead for 150 years (my Mom was born there), would no longer remain in the family because no one in the next generation wanted to continue with the farm operation. This got me to thinking about how difficult it is to maintain the family farm tradition; even in circumstances where the business is thriving, working a small-scale dairy operation is so difficult and time-consuming that the next generation often turns away from the way of small farming. I could also see that, beneath the surface, there were some pretty potent and complicated family dynamics at work.
And that was the genesis of my first documentary, American Farm.
“What I love about making documentaries is that the process grounds me in a way that fiction movies cannot.”
In terms of my passion for the work, I think for me the goal is the same for both documentary and fiction, which is to illuminate something essential about the human condition. What I love about making documentaries is that the process grounds me in a way that fiction movies cannot. Fiction movies are all about creating an artificial reality; the process takes you out of the world and into the realm of a carefully constructed fantasy. With documentary you are connected to real life and the people in it, and every project for me is an education about the subject and its importance to the wider world. It’s a fantastic way to become immersed in subcultures and the fascinating personal lives of the individuals within them, to which I would not otherwise have access. It’s quite a privilege when people who are often relative strangers let you into their lives in this way.
2. What have been some of the most meaningful moments on the road to making “Incident in New Baghdad?”
When WikiLeaks released the so-called “Collateral Murder” footage in April 2010, like a lot of people I was absolutely horrified by it. Really, to the point where I was having trouble sleeping at night. The brutality and senselessness of it, the cold, machine-like execution of the helicopter assault, the assumption by the U.S. attackers that anyone and everyone in the vicinity of one or two people with weapons was a threat to be eliminated, the celebratory joking of the gunners, the merciless attack on the van and its occupants, all of this was so upsetting to me, as I am sure it was to many others. But almost as disturbing as the video itself was the subsequent packaging of it by the mainstream media here in the United States, particularly on network and cable television, as sensational fodder for the usual staged “debates” between partisans whose opinions we know in advance.
“Not one of the major networks here bothered to attempt to find actual witnesses or participants in this event. It made me realize how incredibly circumscribed and choreographed this whole TV debate ritual has become.”
The last thing the mainstream networks want to do is introduce an authentic voice whose observations and opinions cannot be controlled and do not fit into their preconceived framework. So without exception, the television media here featured inside-the-Beltway “experts” bloviating their entirely predictable opinions. And that is what is considered “news” now. It’s a joke.
“I found out that Ethan and a fellow soldier from his company, Josh Steiber, had released a letter of apology to the Iraqi people.”
Around the same time, I was searching the web for all the information I could find about this event, and came upon an interview with Ethan McCord on the Wired website, talking about his experience on the ground at the attack scene. Then I found out that Ethan and a fellow soldier from his company, Josh Steiber, had released a letter of apology to the Iraqi people. This was fascinating to me–that an American soldier would be so moved and disturbed by his experience that he would have a complete change of heart about the war. I decided then and there that I had to make a film about this. And three weeks later I was in Wichita with a cameraman, interviewing Ethan McCord.
“Incident in New Baghdad” |Winner Best Documentary Short – Tribeca Film Festival 2011
One of the first things that Ethan did was to sit down with me and show me his photographs of the attack scene. (Apparently, the Army tells all of its soldiers to take pictures of any engagement to assist in recordkeeping, body counts, etc.) Now when I first saw the helicopter footage, it was like a veil being lifted on what war actually entails: with the mask of propaganda and spin ripped away, here was what industrialized, state-sponsored slaughter really looked like. But when I saw Ethan’s photos I realized immediately that even the Apache video footage was still an approximation, a pixilated black-and-white abstraction in which much of the carnage is obscured. Seeing his pictures for the first time was like being punched in the stomach. I didn’t know quite how to process it–it is unimaginable that human beings can do this to each other, and yet at the same time one realizes how tragically commonplace it is. To tell you the truth, it took me a long time to figure out how to use these pictures, how I could incorporate them in a way that told us what we needed to know, but that wasn’t lurid or exploitational. It really weighed on me, too, that these weren’t just bodies, they were people who had family and loved ones that might someday see this movie. But in the end I felt that audiences, and Americans in particular, were so sheltered and in denial about the carnage we inflict every day, that these pictures simply had to be seen.
“It was necessary to forbid my children from even entering my editing room.”
I spent almost a year putting the film together. It can be a pretty solitary, lonely experience editing a film–all the more so with this one, which was the first film I’ve made where it was necessary to forbid my children from even entering my editing room. The material was just so disturbing and gruesome, and I did not want my kids seeing this stuff. It was pretty hard on me, to tell you the truth; there were many, many more photos than you see in the finished film, and I was looking at this stuff day after day. I have to admit, from a personal standpoint it really wasn’t healthy psychologically. It took a toll, and my wife noticed the film had really affected me. Anyway, as I progressed I showed cuts of the movie to a few filmmaker friends, but of course the test is always going to be, how will an audience react? So getting into the Tribeca Film Festival was a huge deal for me, an affirmation that this was a movie that was going to be relevant and important to people. And actually winning the short documentary award at Tribeca! That was just incredible.
3. What is the connective “thread” that unites the films you have directed and produced?
I think most filmmakers don’t consciously decide to explore a particular theme or subject as the basis for their life’s work; only in retrospect sometimes, when you look back over a body of work, do you see the connections. I am also reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s cautionary note to “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Writers and filmmakers are not always the best analysts of their own creations!
That said, I think the smaller scale and more personal nature of independent films (as compared to those made by most Hollywood practitioners) does lend itself more readily to the idea that a body of work is really a kind of self-portrait of the filmmaker. As I look back, there are a number of common themes that consistently turn up in my own work: alienation, mourning and loss, and family dysfunction seem to figure prominently, and often all at the same time. I seem to be drawn to characters who are outsiders in a way, who feel they don’t quite fit into their family, or their town, or into the culture at large.
Prelude concerned a boy who is missing his late father and feels he no longer fits into his family; he sets off on a solo hike into the mountains in an effort to somehow process his complicated feelings. In Garden, which was more of a suspense piece, the family was about as dysfunctional as it gets, and the main character was so alienated as to be disconnected not only from society but from reality. And both American Farm and Our Island Home concern isolated subcultures trying to maintain a dying tradition–or at least, the memory of that tradition–in the midst of a world where their way of life is increasingly anachronistic and even irrelevant.
“Ethan reminds us by example that people can still choose their own path and, even after witnessing and participating in the most unspeakable violence, can attempt to restore their own sense of compassion and humanity.”
In terms of Incident in New Baghdad, certainly Ethan McCord is another outsider, a kind of classic American loner figure. He has stepped outside of what is considered “acceptable” behavior in the Army, and is now openly challenging the whole dehumanizing system of war. It’s really a transformative story, a tale of redemption. Despite the carnage and terrible imagery on the screen, to me it’s a hopeful story, because Ethan reminds us by example that people can still choose their own path and, even after witnessing and participating in the most unspeakable violence, can attempt to restore their own sense of compassion and humanity.
“One thing I have been adamant to avoid in all of my documentary work is the use of a narrator.”
I believe strongly that the most involving and authentic way to tell a real-life story is in the voices of the people relating their own experience. As soon as I hear a narrator telling me things in a documentary, I feel like I am being spun in some way; it immediately jolts me out of the story and into someone else’s ideas about what is happening on screen. In a way, Ethan’s account in Incident in New Baghdad plays like an extended inner monologue. We so often in documentary get the usual montage of six or seven people discussing a subject, which immediately becomes a more academic presentation. For me, character is the thing. I let my real-life “characters” tell their stories in detail, without interruption. I love hearing one person’s voice for an extended period of time on film. You will see the same thing in both Our Island Home and American Farm.
4. What is the role of the arts, in particular documentary film making, in helping society make sense of complex issues?
Well, for me documentary is about finding human emotional truths, the essential meaning of things. I’m not sure any type of film is a very good place to get into extremely complex ideas (although Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job did an admirable job at making sense of the financial crisis). But in the past ten years or so there has been a tremendous resurgence in documentary, and in the status of documentaries in the eyes of the public, and this has been a very good thing. Part of that is perhaps a reaction to the extraordinary volume of senseless “Reality TV” that has inundated the airwaves (and is anything BUT real), as well as the increasingly vacuous mainstream media approach to news and information. So there is a real hunger out there for thoughtful and insightful work about the problems of the world.
I do think a good film can certainly provoke more in-depth, critical discussion of important topics — Josh Fox’s Gasland I think was very successful in this regard. Just the act of seeing things that are normally kept hidden can be an emotionally powerful, even revelatory experience. And I feel that is the job of any good writer or filmmaker or artist of any sort–to look at the thing that no one else wants to look at, to hold up the truths that most of society would rather deny, and to say, “This is who we are.” It is often not a feel-good exercise.
5. What film makers have influenced your own work? Who do you look up to? Have there been any mentors to you?
I think my greatest mentor was not a moviemaker at all, but an inspiring film theory teacher at Purchase College named Tom Gunning (I believe he is at the University of Chicago now). The first time I took a course with Tom really changed how I thought about movies. Over the course of a semester we watched maybe 15 films by Alfred Hitchcock in chronological order, examining each one both for its cinematic technique and resulting layers of meaning, and that was the first time that I had looked in depth at an entire career of a filmmaker as a cohesive artistic statement. Now what is interesting is that Hitchcock of course wasn’t an independent filmmaker at all, but a Hollywood genre director who for many years was pretty much dismissed as a competent technical showman. What Tom showed us all so clearly was that filmmaking was as vibrant, complex and relevant as any other art form. I think Tom is probably one of the smartest, most perceptive critical thinkers I have ever met, and I was very fortunate to have him as a teacher for those four years. I remember my classmates and I used to refer to the head of the Film Directing program at the time as “the King”–but Tom was always “The Pope.” That gives you an idea of how much influence he had on a whole generation of young directors–and there are quite a number of successful indie filmmakers out there right now who will tell you the same thing.
6. Which artists, filmmakers or writers have had a profound impact on your work?
I will often draw from the work of particular writers as formal inspiration for a film’s overall structure or design. When I was editing American Farm, for example, I thought a lot about the way novelists like Faulkner or Marquez would tell the story of a family or a town from the subjective perspectives of multiple characters with conflicting viewpoints, and that became the editing strategy for my movie as well. And I think the literary idea of an explosive subtext, something powerful and overwhelming about which no character can speak, was the animating idea behind Garden. A lot of critics and festival programmers picked up on that and compared the film’s narrative build and mood to Flannery O’Connor, who is another writer I greatly admire. I think short story in general is a great model for film structure, particularly short films, which have one clean story arc that leads to a climax. It’s too bad short films in general are often viewed as calling cards or practice work in this country, where everything is so business oriented and therefore the “viable” films have to be feature length. Shorts are really a distinct art form and when they are done well can provide an extremely powerful viewing experience to rival any feature.
7. You obviously established a solid relationship with Ethan McCord prior to making the film “Incident in New Baghdad.” Please explain to us what the process was like from your perspective as you worked to develop trust and rapport with Ethan.
Well, I had a couple of extended telephone conversations with Ethan before filming began, but the first time I met him in person was when I travelled to Wichita to shoot his interview. Fortunately, I was able to spend a few days there and I saved the interview for the last day, so that we could get to know each other a little bit. (In fact, as I recall the interview was so engaging for me that I lost track of time and we ended up missing our flight back!) I have to say, though, that a lot of our rapport came later, during the editing phase, when I would call Ethan and ask him about certain details in his account.
I am also very interested in Ethan’s experience overall in Iraq, for there are many stories there, some of them quite meaningful and politically explosive, and we spent many hours on the phone discussing his experiences. And then Ethan came out to the Tribeca Film Festival with his girlfriend Tammy, and that was really sweet, they got to know my family and friends and had such a marvelous time. Ethan even brought a ring and proposed to Tammy in Times Square, which was a delightful added bonus to the whole experience. I consider Ethan a good friend now. We are in touch regularly, and we talk about much more than just Iraq. He is really an outstanding guy.
8. Can you give us a sense of what film and movie makers might be going through right now as they craft movies and films which focus on Wikileaks and Julian Assange? What are the challenges and opportunities you see with this topic?
As for films that are specifically about WikiLeaks, I don’t feel I have any expertise, although obviously it is a major story about how information is going to be disseminated in our time. The second issue, though, is that WikiLeaks’ work is providing an astonishing amount of raw material for artists of every kind. The leaked Iraq and Afghanistan War logs, for example, will provide important background research not just for journalists but for playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, you name it, for many years. And of course, my own film would have been inconceivable without the release of the Apache helicopter footage. That led me to Ethan and his personal account.
But there is so much more to the story of what happened that morning. To me, that footage is a perfect microcosm of the Iraq War–the moral confusion, the devastation; the lopsidedness of the world’s greatest military on one side, and guys in sandals and sweatpants with outdated rifles on the other; the inability to tell civilians from combatants, with children and journalists caught in the crossfire. I have always planned a larger film about that helicopter attack, and all of the lives that it changed forever. I am currently continuing my research, talking to a number of other U.S. veterans (some with completely divergent viewpoints from Ethan), and if I can get the funding I need I would like to go to Baghdad and talk to the survivors. That is a hugely important part of the story that is missing from my short film.
9. What are you working on now? What can the Wikileaks-Movie.com audience expect from James Spione in the next year or so?
Incident in New Baghdad will be screening at several other film festivals in the U.S. The film will be shown on June 24th in a really exciting program of award-winning documentaries at the Palm Springs International Shortfest, and in August it will play at The Rhode Island International Film Festival. I have had a lot of inquiries since winning the award, and I am waiting to hear back from other festivals for the fall. I am hoping the exposure and reception at these events will spur more interest in a feature film version of the story, which as I said has always been my ultimate goal for this material. Incident in New Baghdad is very much the subjective story of one soldier and how his experience changed him–but what I envision is a film that would use the events of July 12th, 2007 as sort of a central intersecting point of a number of lives. My hope has always been to reveal how just one so-called “engagement” in war ripples out across so many lives in such profoundly devastating ways.
In the meantime, I am currently in production on another documentary about the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where I made Our Island Home. This film is going to explore the importance of waterfowl hunting and decoy carving to the region, and how carving in particular has evolved from a utilitarian necessity for subsistence hunting to a respected and sought-after form of collectible folk art. The long-term plan is to eventually create a trilogy of movies which together will offer an in-depth portrait of this whole unique, fascinating region of coastal America.
10. Anything else you would like to mention?
I am very grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me here to talk about my work. Thank you so much!
A Big “Thank You” to James Spione from Wikileaks-Movie.com!
Thank you for reading this Wikileaks-Movie.com interview with James Spione, winner of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Best Documentary Short” for his short film “Incident in New Baghdad.” This builds on our expanding library of “Edutaining” articles and interviews related to all things Wikileaks including recent pieces on and by @exiledsurfer, James Spione’s “Incident in New Baghdad,”Greg Mitchell, The Ireland Cables, the PBS LulzSec Hack and Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo). It continues our tradition of highlighting relevant Wikileaks and Julian Assange news and events as well as the many movies, films, DVD, televised specials and documentary film projects about this important story. Additionally, make sure to check in with Wikileaks-Movie.com with our massive “Go To” resource archive for online videos, film clips, trailers on Wikileaks as well as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Lulz Sec & Anonymous.