Sundance Diary: 'No End in Sight'

Noend_lIn order to talk about Charles Ferguson’s terrific documentary No End in Sight (pictured), I think I first have to talk about the Sundance shuttle buses. They’re the best mode of transportation for us out here, and after a while you start noticing the different personalities of the drivers and how they relate to your bus-riding experience. Some like to use the intercom to announce stops, some just holler. Some listen to Jack-FM, some prefer country music, and one dude was blasting Godsmack the other day. Some drive in total silence, broken up only by the coughing of passengers. I’ve heard a rumor that there are some drivers wearing pink puffy skirts, but I haven’t seen them yet. Mostly, I tend to get on buses where the driver is about to go off shift, and so I’ve spent a lot of time sitting at the depot waiting for a new driver to arrive. Not sure the statistical probability of that happening to me every single time I’m in a hurry out here, but I’d say it’s pretty representative of my entire life.

Anyway, so as we drive around the same roads day after day, the soundtracks to the bus experience get stuck in our heads, relax us, drive us crazy. But no bus ride has stayed with me more than the one I took after seeing No End in Sight, a film in which the U.S. walk-up to and subsequent mishandling of the Iraq war is explored in immense detail via interviews with government officials, policy experts, Iraqis, and U.S. soldiers, amidst graphic footage of the chaos in the streets of Baghdad. I walked out with my head swimming in a pot of confusion and despair over how the greatest military in the world could have botched this thing so badly, and when I stepped onto the shuttle bus back to Main Street, all I could hear was the engine running and cars whipping by us on the slushy street.

But then, of course, the driver announced we were going to the depot to change drivers, and as he pulled the bus over and left it idling quietly there on the side of the road, I could hear what was on the radio: President Bush giving the State of the Union address. I couldn’t make out everything he said, but I heard him say the word "enemies" twice… and I started to cry.

So here’s an interview for you, PopWatchers, sort of the first in a series I’m going to do here over the next few days, tentatively entitled "Three Depressing Issues and the Men Who Brought Them To Sundance So I Could Get Really Sad About the State of the World."  Today’s is with No End in Sight director Charles Ferguson. He’s a Brookings Fellow and an MIT grad, and — amazingly, given his talent — this is his first movie. This interview is long, but I’m hoping some of you will bear with me. Imagine him talking in a quiet, confident, slightly grave voice, choosing his words with care. I could have listened to him all day. And then probably cried more.

You’ve said countless times that this isn’t a political movie, and you’re not a political person. In terms of making a movie that condemns the current policy, how can you convince people that you don’t have a political motive here?

There’s a difference between politics and policy. I got a Ph.D. in political science and worked in policy, which is, you know, there’s a problem in the world, what’s the best way to handle it? Of course, politics is related to policy, but they’re not the same thing. I really did try very hard to make this a film about policy. It’s a film about what the United States did in Iraq, and what the United States could have and should have done in Iraq, and not about whether a Democrat or a Republican should have been in the White House.

Do you think this administration is capable of identifying the difference between politics and policy?

Uh… less so than many, it does seem. You’re either for them or against them.

How much effort did you guys put into getting people like Rumsfeld and Cheney and Condi Rice to appear?

A lot. We also tried to get Colin Powell, and he refused to be interviewed.

Did you get the sense that some would have wanted to talk, but didn’t want to damage their political careers?

That might be the explanation in the case of Colin Powell. In the case of the people who are still in the administration, I think it’s much deeper than that.

During the panel you held this week, former Washington Post Baghdad office manager Omar Fekeiki, who’s a native Iraqi, said he thought the people in Darfur are lucky because there’s no US intervention there. Do you personally think that’s true?

Omar’s point, which is unfortunately correct, is that on a net basis, the United States has done something that few people didn’t think it was possible for U.S. presence to achieve, which is turn the country into something worse than it was under Saddam. Iraq under Saddam was pretty damn bad—between his wars and his internal repression, Saddam killed two million people. And now the death rate in Iraq — this is really almost incomprehensible — the death rate is higher than it was under Saddam.

What blew me away watching the movie was to see the history of the "war on terror" all put together in one place. To see something like Dick Cheney saying "the insurgency is in its last throes" and realize he said that in 2005, when it seems like yesterday… why do you think this occupation of Iraq has gone by in the blink of an eye, despite the fact that we’ve been in it longer than World War II?

You’re right. It does seem like it’s only been a short time, when in fact it’s been four years. And I don’t know quite why that is. It’s a very good question. But I don’t know the answer.

I was really hoping you would.

Sorry.

How many trips to Iraq did you make for this?

Just one. And I stayed in a secure compound outside the Green Zone the entire time, surrounded by blast walls and guards with AK-47s. Roads are terrifying. We ended up staying in Turkey for a week because the Baghdad airport was closed, and after a week there was no sign that it was going to reopen — which is something that occurs frequently — so we ended up driving to Baghdad, which is not something that one recommends for a healthy, prosperous, and safe life. We did it at night with four heavily armored pickup trucks with 20 armed guards. Our convoy was stopped three times because I.E.D.s had either just gone off ahead of us or just been discovered ahead of us. This was in March 2006.

So it wasn’t even as bad then as it is now.

Correct.

I guess as a civilian my biggest question is, with the greatest military minds in the world working on this — why doesn’t anybody know how to get us out?

I think there are two reasons. It is possible to dig yourself into a hole so deep that it’s really hard to get yourself out, and we’ve done that. The other reason is that to the extent that there are things we could conceivably do, many of them are increasingly politically or economically impractical. Would it help if we put in another quarter of a million troops? Maybe, maybe not… but there’s no way we’re going to get another quarter of a million troops. It’s just not going to happen. And then actually there’s a third thing, which is that the administration continues to be much too rigid.

Then, from your perspective, as an academic: if this was a hypothetical exercise on paper, how would you solve it?

Well, if there was the political will and the resources, it’s possible that a very large, partially American, partially United Nations international peacekeeping force could have a significant beneficial stabilizing effect. But we alienated the U.N. very badly, and there’s been not much of a rapprochement recently, and so that seems fairly impractical. I think now it’s just a matter of avoiding the worst and hoping that eventually, after 10, 20, 30 years, Iraq stabilizes on its own.

What’s your dream for what this film would accomplish?

I’d like it to be seen by a large number of people, but I’d also like it to be seen by potentially influential people. Before coming to Sundance, I showed the film to a small number of people who’d had very senior policy positions, some in the Bush administration, and people who’d been heavily involved in Iraq, and I was very gratified that they all said that I got it right.

So if my mom comes to see it, what do you hope she takes away from it and does with that information?

That war is very serious business. And it’s not that I’m a pacifist, and I didn’t try to make an anti-war film. I tried to make a film that said, if you’re going to go to war, do it carefully and with humility. So the next time someone in the U.S. says, "’Let’s go to war,"’ people will think about it.

Has it been strange for you coming to Sundance with this serious movie and seeing shiny movie stars and flashbulbs all around you?

[laughs] Occasionally it’s been a little bit strange. And anybody who’s been to Iraq or been through an experience like that has a little bit of trouble with some of the superficial aspects of the rest of the world, but you know, I like life. And by the way, many people in Iraq, even those living in very dire circumstances, they like life, too. The last day I was in Baghdad, I did something that now no one would even dream of doing: My chief bodyguard took me to where there used to be this row of fish restaurants along the Tigris. And they would fish directly out of the Tigris, and there’s this Iraqi dish made by grilling fish very slowly, and it’s delicious. And that was our last day in Baghdad, we weren’t coming back, the road had been blocked off, and by Baghdad standards it was safe. And so we sat for two hours in the sunshine and ate fish. And so even somebody who’s been through — he’d been tortured by Saddam — even somebody with that kind of background still likes to have a nice meal.

Comments (15 total) Add your comment
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  • mike

    Whitney, should you be seeing that many serious docs and indie films in a row? Isn’t there someone a little more hard-nosed and jaded to hit Sundance. Do you have an opportunity to slip Mary Poppins into the DVD player between it’s the end of the world documentaries.

  • Lorenzo

    Wow! What a very insightful and thoughtful interview. Did this really come from Entertainment Weekly? Nah. I’m must be dreaming.

  • Allan

    Thanks for the impressive interview. I think we should all be more depressed and cry more about this situation. Bush says over and over that we have to finish the job, that failure would be disastrous, but there is no finish and the disaster has already happened.

  • Karla

    My favorite so far:
    No, failure in Iraq is not an option.
    It comes standard with this administration.

  • TV Addict

    Well done Pastorek.

  • bob

    Thank you.

  • Lars Hammersfeldt

    Iraq is not worse now than under Saddam. You have foreign fighters coming in, with Iran and Syria stirring the pot. Yes, many are being killed, but leaving Saddam in power was worse. The government of Iraq is not killing and raping women and children as Saddam did. At this point, the US is taking a stand, and to leave now shows terrorists that just hold out and the US wil back down. Doesn’t this filmmaker see as a political stragist that running away will bring much more disgrace and damage to the US than staying and fighting terrorists and other factions which are solely bent on Islamic fundamentalism and extremism? Wake up please, this is NOT a WWII situation – new world, and no solutions are perfect.

  • Michael

    Whitney – thank you for illuminating the power of film and how it can highlight issues we all should care about a liitle more. Like many, I have become desensitived to the reality fo the war. I look forward to Seeing NO END IN SIGHT and sharing it with others.

  • J

    This interview should come with a warning. I had a lump in my throat when I read the last answer. This has been one of the most touching interviews I’ve read since this whole war began. It just shows you the human side of it.
    And to the person who said that Iraq is not worse now than under Saddam: wake up. It is worse. Yes, women and children are not getting raped; they just get blown up instead. The method of death doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, people are dead or dying. I just hope more people wake up to the fact that while it is ok to go to war in extremely dire circumstances, it is NOT ok to go without proof, without a plan, and without any direction.

  • Sandra

    I saw this at Sundance. Two things stood out to me:
    1) Where was Richard Perle’s presence? It was his “brilliant” ideas that led the neo-cons, not Wolfowitz (who is a dim-bulb compared to Perle). Ideas matter, they drive policy. Omitting Perle is criminal.
    1) The director still “doesn’t get it. “a very large, partially American [...] peacekeeping force could have a significant beneficial stabilizing effect.” That’s tragic rubbish. Has the director ever studied colonialism, and/or post-colonialism? Many hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about it.

  • dutch

    remember the history of irak…
    america was the main source of weapons and tactics of war to irak.do not forget,but learn…and that was extactly what america has forgotten….and not for the first time..remember osama?and vietnam?

  • K. Kensington

    Perhaps there is a larger picture here. Pertinent plans, studies recommending viable courses of action re: civil and economic stabilization were intentionally ignored b
    Bush. Officials brought in to assist with reconstruction given little to work with in every scenario. Competent and intelligent indivduals able to make the best of a bad situation, start to make some headway, at first sign their pulled and someone less competent is brought in to replace them. Bush ignores the best recommendations/studies, proven methods. The war prolonged the oil flows with U.S. intervention. The national debt already over a trillion dollars soars. Bushes billions sky rocket. The owners of the Federal Reserve/privately held corporation/which is mostly foreign owned have a hold on the United States which is almost unfathomable. The future of our country is bleak. With this type of foreign intervention our constitution, which restricts the federal govts. powers, is in shreds. We’ve been sold out!

  • K. Kensington

    Perhaps there is a larger picture here. Pertinent plans, studies recommending viable courses of action re: civil and economic stabilization were intentionally ignored b
    Bush. Officials brought in to assist with reconstruction given little to work with in every scenario. Competent and intelligent indivduals able to make the best of a bad situation, start to make some headway, at first sign their pulled and someone less competent is brought in to replace them. Bush ignores the best recommendations/studies, proven methods. The war prolonged the oil flows with U.S. intervention. The national debt already over a trillion dollars soars. Bushes billions sky rocket. The owners of the Federal Reserve/privately held corporation/which is mostly foreign owned have a hold on the United States which is almost unfathomable. The future of our country is bleak. With this type of foreign intervention our constitution, which restricts the federal govts. powers, is in shreds. We’ve been sold out!

  • K. Kensington

    Perhaps there is a larger picture here. Pertinent plans, studies recommending viable courses of action re: civil and economic stabilization were intentionally ignored b
    Bush. Officials brought in to assist with reconstruction given little to work with in every scenario. Competent and intelligent indivduals able to make the best of a bad situation, start to make some headway, at first sign their pulled and someone less competent is brought in to replace them. Bush ignores the best recommendations/studies, proven methods. The war prolonged the oil flows with U.S. intervention. The national debt already over a trillion dollars soars. Bushes billions sky rocket. The owners of the Federal Reserve/privately held corporation/which is mostly foreign owned have a hold on the United States which is almost unfathomable. The future of our country is bleak. With this type of foreign intervention our constitution, which restricts the federal govts. powers, is in shreds. We’ve been sold out!

  • K. Kensington

    Perhaps there is a larger picture here. Pertinent plans, studies recommending viable courses of action re: civil and economic stabilization were intentionally ignored b
    Bush. Officials brought in to assist with reconstruction given little to work with in every scenario. Competent and intelligent indivduals able to make the best of a bad situation, start to make some headway, at first sign their pulled and someone less competent is brought in to replace them. Bush ignores the best recommendations/studies, proven methods. The war prolonged the oil flows with U.S. intervention. The national debt already over a trillion dollars soars. Bushes billions sky rocket. The owners of the Federal Reserve/privately held corporation/which is mostly foreign owned have a hold on the United States which is almost unfathomable. The future of our country is bleak. With this type of foreign intervention our constitution, which restricts the federal govts. powers, is in shreds. We’ve been sold out!

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