In 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.
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.
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.