Director’s Interview: Charles Ferguson
Charles Ferguson, director of “No End in Sight,” talks to NOW about the dangers of filming in Iraq, his career jump from M.I.T. scholar to filmmaker, and his surprise at Sundance.
NOW: What inspired you to tell the story behind the invasion of Iraq?
First, there is the example of my Ph.D. thesis advisor, who had been President Kennedy’s deputy national security advisor, and who taught me to choose important questions and think hard about them. Second, conversations with journalist friends who were covering Iraq made it clear to me that television news was not telling the whole story, and to my astonishment nobody else appeared to be making a film about American policy in Iraq. Finally, it was clear that the Bush Administration didn’t want the story told, and I love a challenge.
NOW: It’s clearly extremely dangerous to be in Iraq, much less film there. What was it like?
Very, very tense. Nobody tried to kill us, but the sense of danger is everywhere. Automatic weapons are as common and normal as cellphones, we heard gunfire and explosions quite often, and several of us came across dead bodies in the street. The tension began as soon as we entered the country. Because the Baghdad airport was closed for a week, we traveled to Baghdad by road, driving overnight from Kurdistan in four armored pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in back. Three times our convoy was forced to stop because roadside bombs had just been discovered, or had just gone off, ahead of us.
In Baghdad, I stayed outside the Green Zone, in a barricaded, guarded compound. When going to meetings, we never gave our true arrival time in advance, and traveled from compound to compound in three armored cars, switching cars every few days. I fired the first director of my security detail, an American ex-special forces soldier, because he drove aggressively and screamed at Iraqis, which drew attention to the fact that we were foreigners. At other times, I would travel “low-profile,” dressed as an Iraqi, with several Kurdish bodyguards carrying concealed weapons walking nearby, pretending not to know me. We never stayed in any one place longer than 20 minutes, never went back to the same place twice, and if someone nearby started using their cellphone, we left immediately. When I read recently of Senator McCain’s comments about visiting a Baghdad market and feeling safe, escorted as he was by dozens of American soldiers supported by armored vehicles and helicopters, I truly wondered what planet the man was on.
NOW: How were you able to get footage of prayers and Moqtada Al-Sadr’s sermon?
We hired an American journalist, Nir Rosen, who had spent the previous three years in Iraq covering the war, and who speaks Arabic. We trained him in the United States in the use of a new, small, high definition camcorder, and he was able to film many things not visible to most journalists.
NOW: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the invasion while making this film?
While I already knew that major mistakes had been made, I was truly shocked when I learned how casually, stupidly, hastily, and carelessly major decisions were made. In the film, we go into considerable detail about one crucial example, the decision to disband the Iraqi military and secret police, a decision made secretly by a handful of men who had never even been to Iraq, and who consulted virtually nobody before making perhaps the most sweeping and destructive decision of the occupation. I cannot recall any other instance in which such enormous decisions have been made by the United States government in such a way.
NOW: You interviewed many people — journalists, American and Iraqi policymakers, experts — for this film. Who left the most lasting impression on you and why?
It is very hard to choose. Colonel Paul Hughes, who watched helplessly as L. Paul Bremer destroyed his careful work to recall the Iraqi Army; Lieutenant Seth Moulton, one of the first Marines to enter Baghdad, and who asks in the film: Is this the best America can do? And all the many Iraqis I spoke with who had welcomed the war, who initially supported the U.S., and who had such high hopes for an Iraq free of Saddam, only to see their country deteriorate into carnage and hopelessness. Of these perhaps the most poignant was Iraq’s deputy human rights minister, a woman who had fought Saddam for decades only to find things even worse after he was overthrown.
NOW: What do you hope your film will do for America?
I hope that it will help Americans understand that we must never go to war casually, and that reconstructing a nation after conquering it is just as important as defeating its army. Wars are sometimes necessary, but war is not a game, and the war is not over when the opposing army surrenders.
NOW: What make you take the unusual leap from scholar to filmmaker?
First, I have always loved film—I started going to film festivals when I was still a high school student. And second, while I love writing and academic work, I would like to reach people beyond the academic world, and to reach them in a way which is emotionally powerful as well as factually accurate.
NOW: This is your first film ever and you won a special jury prize at Sundance film festival. What was your reaction?
Very, very emotional. For both myself and, especially, my two editors, Chad Beck and Cindy Lee, making the film was an extremely intense, emotional experience, and when we heard our film’s name we felt drained and elated at the same time.