"If You Hear Gunfire on a Thursday Afternoon, Assume it is a Wedding Party"
The Experiences That Most Don't Want To Know About Are Shared In A Stirring Documentary About Soldiers In Iraq

By Omar P.L. Moore
The Popcorn Reel

April 9, 2007


"The first idea was to try to make a film that spoke to the human experience of war."  -- Richard E. Robbins

Richard E. Robbins                                                  Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis, U.S. Army Reserve
(All photos: The Documentary Group)

Richard E. Robbins, director of the documentary "Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience" was part of the crew that made documentaries with the late anchorman Peter Jennings of the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News Division.  Mr. Robbins, an award-winning director of several documentaries and a producer for PBS found an opening and was inspired.  "When the National Endowment for the Arts announced their program it just seemed like a great opportunity."  The NEA collected over sixteen hundred written accounts from U.S. service personnel in Iraq and their families as part of their project dubbed Operation Homecoming.  "The military does not put a premium on individual expression," Robbins said, "and this [the NEA project] was a suitable avenue for the soldiers' writings to be released and put out on public display for people to digest."

A particularly powerful reenactment of a soldier's experience during "Operation Homecoming" comes in the form of the writing "Men In Black."  The writer, U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell, recalls being ambushed in Iraq by a group of men firing AK-47 rifles at him.  Amazingly the bullets missed their intended target.  After Buzzell escaped the fusillade of bullets by retreating to his tank and speeding through the ambush as fast as humanly possible, a moment of disbelief occurred.  "After a couple of minutes we were told to load up and go back to where we got ambushed.  I literally felt sick to my stomach."  This chilling recollection is read by an actor and the animated comic strip reenactment that accompanies the words is vivid and jarring.  "I was scared to death."  Moments later, Buzzell's writing continues: "I fired and fired and fired and fired and fired and fired.  At everything."  Specialist Buzzell is interviewed on camera about his experiences, as are numerous other soldiers.  The documentary is interspersed with comments from other American war veterans who are also prolific American writers.   The documentary is moving and compelling and features dramatic voice performances by several actors including Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Blair Underwood, Aaron Eckhart and Josh Lucas.  "Operation Homecoming" also details several agonizing tragedies suffered by Iraqi civilians and their families during the conflict.

Early on, "Operation Homecoming" makes note of the fact that over one million American men and women have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Says Robbins: "I will reveal myself as a cynic as I say that I was really surprised at how cooperative everybody was.  I would say that going in, working with two major (U.S.) governmental agencies -- the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts -- and a third -- because we got major sponsorship from Boeing company.  A major defense contractor and two major government agencies.  I thought it was just going to be a disaster."  Thoughts of censorship and myriad battles and political squabbles over content pervaded Mr. Robbins' mind.  But "there wasn't really any of that," he said.  "Everybody . . . left us more or less to our own devices."

Perhaps the closest to anything political is the passionate statement that comes from Sergeant John McCary in his "To The Fallen" writing, a moving tribute to fellow comrades stationed in Iraq, some of whom he saw die before his eyes.  For some three-plus minutes, the screen flickers with images of hundreds, if not thousands of dead U.S. soldiers, which speeds up to a dizzying crescendo as the haunting words of McCary's impassioned statement are being read.

Sergeant John McCary, U.S. Army, in a shot from "Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience", a documentary by Richard E. Robbins.

Later in the film Specialist Buzzell despairs at the lack of attention that the war in Iraq is getting back in America, with its media doing fifteen-second sound-bites.   He speaks of the reaction he receives from everyday Americans whom he encounters once safely back inside the States.  "You go to Iraq and you come back, and it's like, oh, you know, 'what have you been up to, what do you do?'  'Well, I was in the Army.  I was in Iraq.'  And it's like, 'Oh. Cool.'  You know -- that's it.  And then you're like -- I don't know.  It kind of bums you out."  It is that type of frustration and bewilderment on Buzzell's part that isn't often expressed in media accounts of the experience in Iraq, but "Operation Homecoming" guarantees many expressions of different feelings around the conflict in Iraq from U.S. soldiers that many people haven't been accustomed to.  Or perhaps do not wish to know.

And to that end "Operation" director Robbins declared that the lack of knowledge by everyday Americans about what their fellow countrymen and women were going through in Iraq was dismaying.  Politics aside, "[m]ost people don't even want to open their minds to talk about it, to even know more about it," Robbins said.  "Even the families of the soldiers don't want to deal with what has happened in Iraq, and they just want to move on.  They're just glad to have their loved one back home safe."  As a lesser but still interesting parallel, Robbins disclosed a stunning piece of news: that numerous movie theaters in the U.S. have refused to show his film "Operation Homecoming" even though theater owners liked it and sung its praises, because they felt that it would do poor business at the box-office.  Some theater owners in the U.S. deliberately decided to show the film in a theater that was typically poorly attended.

Despite the lowering of expectations by some movie theater owners in America, for Richard Robbins the hope is that Americans get an appreciation and understanding of what the soldiers who fight in Iraq have to endure.  In cultivating this documentary he aimed to avoid the stereotype that movies and television series portray, the stereotype of the "unthinking soldier".  He and his producers culled through many soldiers' written accounts and ended up selecting writers whose compelling narratives were translated vividly and cogently as the soldiers discussed their feelings on camera.  "Operation Homecoming" is currently playing in Los Angeles and Chicago, and has played in New York City, and will open soon in various other U.S. cities including San Francisco.  The theatrical release is a total of 81 minutes long.  When the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) airs the documentary on U.S. television on April 16 it will be as a 53-minute offering.  "Operation Homecoming" has attracted interest from Germany, where the film will also be showing at some point.  With recent documentaries like "Iraq In Fragments" and "My Country, My Country", the director hopes that audiences will also embrace his unique documentary.

U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell.  His powerful writing "Men In Black" is accompanied by animated comic-book images such as the one above, in the documentary "Operation Homecoming: Writing The War Experience."

Shots from "Operation Homecoming: Writing The War Experience"

Sharon D. Allen, Sergeant, Ohio Army National Guard                                    Michael Thomas, Staff Sergeant, Colorado Army National Guard

What the soldiers have to say onscreen is immediate, heartfelt, painful, incisive and humorous. 

Some of the statements from Iraq war vets and other war veterans contained in the documentary are worth quoting here:

"For me and for a lot of people I knew, you didn't wake up in the morning and go, 'I'm gonna go and bring freedom.'  That wasn't your life.  Your life was, 'I'm gonna have to get into that Humvee or that tank and roll out there and not die.'"

--Sergeant John McCary, U.S. Army

Tobias Wolff, in "Operation Homecoming: Writing The War Experience."

"You're afraid a lot when you're in that situation, and fear does not bring out the best in us.  It brings out a lot of ugliness.  And you really hate the people who make you feel afraid, because you're ashamed of being afraid.  And you become a racist because you simply see them as a mass, a dangerous mass.  To some extent you almost have to see them that way for your own protection."

--Tobias Wolff, Author and Vietnam veteran

"War is not this glorious thing that's made in a movie on TV.  If you break it down to the human level, it's actually quite disgusting."

--Captain Ed Hrivnak, U.S. Air Force Reserve, 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron

Staff Sergeant Edward "Parker" Gyokeres, U.S. Air Force, 325th Fighter Wing.  Sgt. Gyokeres says, in not so many words, that he'd go back to the battlefield of Iraq if he had to choose between that and being with his wife.  "Somebody's got to be over there," he says in Richard E. Robbins' "Operation Homecoming."

directed by Richard E. Robbins
executive produced by Tom Yellin
based upon the National Endowment for the Arts project
to be aired on PBS Television in the U.S. on April 16
now playing in several U.S. cities

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.


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