ONLY THE DEAD
Directors: Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag
Screenwriters: Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag with additional narration by Justine A. Rosnethal
Runtime: 80 mins.
Australian release date: 20 October 2014
Well I’m so above you
And it’s plain to see
But I came to love you anyway
So you pulled my heart out
And I don’t mind bleeding”
Lonely Boy, The Black Keys
After the second invasion of Iraq in 2003, when George W. Bush was at the helm of the U. S. of A., there followed a period in Baghdad known as ‘The Summer of Love’ when the city became a hub for international journalists reporting on the demise of Saddam Hussein. For many of the reporters it was a time of dinner parties and socialising at restaurants and in hotel bars. Unknown to all it was also the period that ultimately resulted in the birth of Islamic State. When the vicious Jordanian militant and al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi re-wrote the rules of engagement in Iraq, he also changed the map of the Middle East, creating a religious and civil war that pitted Sunni and Shia Muslims against one another.
The Australian war correspondent Michael Ware was employed by Time Magazine and, by mid-2003, was reporting on the depth of the growing antagonism to the occupying Western Coalition forces and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency. Behind the scenes, the little-known Al-Zarqawi was laying out his plans for a brutal terrorist war, a strategy involving car and truck bombings, summary executions and public beheadings… all the time filming his ruthless deeds. Ware had been reporting on the insurgency from behind enemy lines so he was personally selected by Al-Zarqawi to receive the first ever footage of a suicide bombing directly from al Qaeda and thus become the conduit for revealing their terrorist propaganda to the world.
A print journalist, Ware had been given a small handycam some time earlier in Kurdistan which he had begun to use as a visual notebook. He says, “it was an incredibly effective tool, because, amidst the confusion of a bombing, or combat, or in all sorts of circumstances, there’s barely enough time to scribble, but if you’ve just got the camera rolling, the story ends up embedded in those mini DV tapes.” He recorded hundreds of hours of footage which he stored in boxes under his mother’s bed in Brisbane. Then, in 2010, he joined forces with the experienced filmmaker Guttentag (who’d won two Oscars for his documentary shorts Twin Towers and Blues Highway) and editor Jane Moran, and together they compiled this shocking documentary. Only The Dead contains some of the most distressing, grisly war footage ever recorded on film for public viewing. The interviews with young US servicemen who spent their time not so much fighting a war as fighting to protect the guys next to them, are just as unnerving because many don’t look much older than college kids.
Ware was at one stage captured and about to be beheaded, all of which he captured on film. He was only released because he was considered more useful alive than dead but he still kept going into highly dangerous situations. When at last he questioned the effect that his war experiences were having on his psyche, he arrived at the conclusion that he had become a man he never knew and that the dark chambers of his heart had opened… and they were difficult to close. Indeed, this is the truth that lies at the heart of the film, too. After filming the agonizing suffering of a wounded insurgent, left to die with no medical assistance as US soldiers talked and joked around him, Ware realised that, “only the dead have seen the end of war” - a phrase attributed to Plato but one that aptly illustrated the horror of his situation - although he might leave Iraq, Iraq might never leave him.
This documentary reveals the real horror of battle and the terrible consequences that arise when, as Ware puts it, “meat meets metal.” There is so much carnage and moments when you wonder how Ware could not have been permanently psychologically damaged, having borne witness to such horrific scenes. He should be applauded for having both the courage to bring these atrocities to the world’s attention and for the honesty with which he has examined the dark reaches of his soul. Summarising his attitude to covering the war in Iraq, Ware has stated, “…there was nothing I could do to fix things, there was nothing I could do to help things, there was nothing I could do to stop things, but I could shine a light on it all.” And he sure has, albeit one that is so dark that you leave the cinema reeling.
Only the Dead, not surprisingly, is in consideration for a Walkley Award and is showing in very limited release in cinemas around Australia. Selected screenings will be followed by a Q&A with Michael Ware.