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It’s been a little more than seven years since we started filming GUNNER PALACE in Baghdad. That fall, our daughter turned eight and entered the third grade. Back then, the war was supposed to be over by Christmas. On November 1, 2003, the Gunners lost their first soldier when LT Ben Colgan was killed by an IED. By Christmas, they had lost two more soldiers from Alpha Battery. The holidays came and went. Somewhere in between, Saddam was found living in a hole and surely the war would be over soon: but it wasn’t.
Spring brought an uprising and Lynndie England became a household name. The Gunners lost another soldier just outside their gate. Soon after their tour was extended and they were sent to Najaf. When they came home in July 2004, the war was anything but over. By Thanksgiving, Falluja was under siege.
When GUNNER PALACE hit in theaters in March 2005, the war was two years old. By the time I made it back to Baghdad in May 2005 to research the PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR, security had deteriorated to a level where a trip from the airport to central Baghdad required a heavily armed escort and lots of luck. Later that year, while in Amman to film THE PRISONER, the first of millions of Iraqi refugees were pouring across the border. By winter 2007, when the film was released, Baghdad was in a state of civil war and thousands of Iraqis were being killed every month.
That summer, we decided to complete BULLETPROOF SALESMAN, a project we had started in May 2003 when we followed a German armored car salesman into Baghdad where he later sold hundreds of vehicles. By the time we rejoined him in June 2007, he had written off Iraq as too dangerous for most of his clients and he turned his attention to Afghanistan where “business was booming”. Two days after we arrived in Kabul, as if to prove his point, the Taliban blew up a police bus killing 42 police people.
Coming back to the States a week later was like returning from Mars. Here, the war had become an abstraction – something that happens to other people. As a young soldier said in GUNNER PALACE so many years ago, “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.” What network coverage there was of the war was limited to minutes — if not seconds — per week. America had changed the channel and was Dancing with the Stars.
In 2008, five years into a war that was supposed to last three weeks, we started filming what would become HOW TO FOLD A FLAG. 15 months, 100,000 miles and a president later, we were finished with the film, and yet, there was still no closure, only the realization that the war, no matter how distant, had become part of us. Our daughter turned fourteen this fall and entered high school. For her generation, war is a constant state, free of history, politics or motives: it’s just something that Americans do.
HOW TO FOLD A FLAG is not a film about the war, rather, it is about a country at war.