Pull Focus: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein

Patricia Aufderheide

Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein have become chroniclers of the Iraq war-era America. (They bring some distance to the subject; she is German and he spent 12 years in Berlin.) Their documentaries—Gunner PalaceThe Prisoner, or How I Planned to Kill Tony BlairBulletproof Salesman, and now How to Hold a Flag—carry us from 2003 to today. Their latest film follows four of the soldiers they met in Gunner Palace back into the lives they left behind. Javorn, an African-American in North Carolina, is balancing work at a meat-processing plant with community college. His mom dies during the filming, of cancer poorly treated. Stuart is a white Colorado kid who composes and plays death metal when not working as a convenience store cashier. Jon, an officer, is now running for Congress. And Michael, who struggles daily with guilt over killing an 8-year old Iraqi girl, is a cage fighter. The film invests the viewers in the tough choices of the people we meet. It also quietly reveals the harsh terms of economic and social inequality, and the brutal game of electoral politics. I interviewed them during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2009.

Your four films form a kind of chronology of the American experience of the Iraq war.

PE: Yes–the story about the soldiers, the prisoner, the war profiteer, and now the story about America. Just the other day someone said to us, “Whenever someone says what was the Iraq war like, I give them Gunner Palace“.

MT: It is amazing to think that in this age of digital technology, from our living room we have created the largest body of [documentary] work about the war. It’ll be a lasting thing. And it makes you wonder why that important storytelling is left to independents—to people like us, a couple of people in their living room. The networks, with all their money, haven’t created anything lasting or of weight. In fact, they keep cutting down further and further what their coverage of the conflict is. Even in 2003 they told us, “Oh the war’s over.”

Each of your films is different in its style and approach. Is this evolution or experimentation or both?

MT: We’ve been learning. When we started making docs, we just went out with a camera. When we started, we were very rigid, maybe even self-righteous. We would do everything in chronological order when we edited. We created self-limiting rules. Over time, with Prisoner, and then Bulletproof, we came to understand that you’re not just shooting; you are directing.

Why documentary?

MT: There’s a lot of confusion about the role of a documentarian. It’s not reportage; it’s the idea of portraiture, to capture what and who we are. Reporters are giving us headline news, and we’re making a portrait. I love to hear from people, “You nailed it”–the feelings, the textures, the emotions. Professionally I’m most driven by the iconic images that define the times like the combat photography in Vietnam. The war in Afghanistan–how is that conflict being defined in the public mind, especially now with newspapers and magazines dying? What iconic imagery will there be to go back to? The iconic images of the Iraq war are the photos of Abu Ghraib, which is an unfair, one-dimensional portrait of the conflict. A lot of people in the military think that wasn’t their experience. It’s part of the record, but it doesn’t represent experience. We’re trying to capture experience.

PE: We make documentaries for the general public and for public discussion. Documentary is about documenting something. Activism is something totally different.

MT: What guides our filmmaking is the personal more than the political. We just want people to think about what they’re seeing.

What were your goals with this film?

PE: When we thought about what we wanted to make, we thought about emotion, about catharsis. How could you create a memorable emotional experience? That was a new goal for us. And that’s the movie we made; we’re thrilled about that. It’s a middle-American film. At Toronto, we’ve met people who are responding well to it, especially women. I think women see the men we feature in the film as sons and family members,which is how we focus on them.

MT: We wanted to make a film that really touches people. We also didn’t see this as an Iraq film—even though it seems to be slotted in that category.

PE: I refuse to call it a film about the war. This is a film about America. America happens to be at war, but the prime focus is about America.

MT: It’s about a country at war with itself, and it’s also about those other wars—race, poverty, political corruption. The guys we meet are like a lot of other people. It’s a way into their worlds. Stuart Wilf is basically a poster child for what kind of white American male goes into the military. That’s who they are. In this film you go deep into Javorn’s world, and you understand the chronic poverty he lives in. He may never escape that. There is no upward mobility in his world. We should be outraged about that. People need to see it.

PE: I was totally shocked that this was America. Javorn’s really smart, and you can see the hopelessness of his situation, but he has hope, and that’s what keeps him going.

MT: We think that the film will be important for soldiers coming home. And we think that when people see what happens to them, those are things that make people angry. I hope that the soldiers see it. My greatest moment is showing a film at Fort Bragg. It’s relevant on a lot of fronts. Someone told us, “You could cut the scene of Javorn and his mother in the hospital and run it on television and you could just end the healthcare debate.”

PE: We wish.

How did you approach your subjects? You really get inside their lives.

PE: The typical approach of films about soldiers and returning soldiers is that they are looked at almost as specimens to be studied. But we do live with them, and know them. After all, it’s my life too that I spend with them. You have to have empathy for these people.

MT: You know, I was in the Army Reserve, and my father was in the Army. I had things in common with the soldiers. They know we’re not New Yorkers who are there to look at them as curiosities. They knew if they needed something they could come to us. You live their problems with them. When I first started shooting in Fayettesville, Javorn’s hair was huge, his pants were hanging down to the ground, we were going into a Waffle House. There’s a family going out toward us, they got off the sidewalk and onto the road to avoid him. That told me something about what his daily life was like. Once I was with his friends and cousins, and we got stopped by the police, because I was walking with them. The police wanted my videotape and my ID.

PE: Mike has a special talent with people–they trust him. It’s just him and his camera. Being one person makes a huge difference.

MT: When I shoot, usually I shoot by myself, then together, and then–

PE: I watch the footage and comment. I’m the fresh eyes.

MT: She says, “This I understand,” “This isn’t doing it for me.” Then we say, “Where will we go?”–really getting into the idea that you are directing, you’re not just a passive translator.

So you’re showing us a picture of America through these returning veterans?

MT: Javorn had said to us, “Come down and see how I live.” We were originally going to title the film, “See how I live.” Our model was Walker Evans, and the chroniclers of unseen America during the WPA. If you look at WPA, the goal was to send people out to create art, to document, to sustain a culture, to understand the culture. It’s amazing that the work coming out of that project has been so lasting and so revered. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, James Agee, they are all people who inspired us, people who hit the road and captured what is going on. In How to Fold a Flag, there are so many things that are beautiful, and then also so many things that are terrible. The pageantry in American life, you can get swept up in, like the parades, the pop culture. You can take a quick look at Javorn’s life and say, that’s the South, and it fits your cliché understanding. But we don’t really know what’s inside. The point of the movie was to get below the surface of what “we all know” about America.

Do you find that, with the intimacy of your relationship with the subjects, you end up intervening in the story?

MT: The subjects become part of the process, they help us find out what we want to know. And we share with them the problem of telling the story. There’s a scene in How to Fold a Flag, where Javorn pulls out a dictionary. He calls it the “book of knowledge.” That was his phrase, and his idea. He sat there with it, and looked up the definition of normal. I pushed him to look up “paranormal.” That was a kind of set-up, but it was in the service of helping someone hone their voice. I don’t think that’s wrong. He is articulate, but he needs help. He agreed. After all, he’s invested too–how are we gonna tell the story?

PE: He’s eager to tell the story himself, and he knows he can’t do it alone, and that’s why he’s open to suggestions.

Can you talk about ethical problems you’ve faced in making this film?

MT: Ethics are always an issue in all our films, because we often profit from tragedy. This is how we make our living. You’re on the hunt for something happening. It’s an uneasy balance, but in the end we hope that our work minimally allows people to experience other realities–which provokes thought and maybe change. It’s not quite ambulance-chasing, but there is a discomfort in marketing tragedy. It was hard with Javorn and his mom in the hospital as she was dying, but I’m glad they let me film it. On the other hand, I spent a night in a military hospital, and ended up not filming.

Anyone you film, they want you to tell their story and they want their story told well. There’s always that line where you say, “How exploitative is this?” We know when to stop with it, but that line might be different for someone else with difference experiences, different backgrounds and traditions.You do find from commissioning editors that they want as much drama as possible, and that means getting in there.

Can you describe your music choices?

MT: Our music decisions were decided by what is the cheapest music we can use. The real music of this time would be songs like “Lollipop.” That would be the music of these times, but we’re not licensing that. Music eats up a huge part of the budget. We tried to find music, a lot of it marching band music to register the politics.

In the fight scenes there’s a lot of fair-used music there. We used the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use like a Bible! When Michael Goss enters the ring and someone sings, “I’m Proud to be an American” that’s the flavor of the time. To alter that, it would castrate the meaning of the event. We’ve gotten much more liberal about our fair use since the Center published the document. In Gunner Palace, we paid $15,000 for the right to play “My Girl”, which was being played at a pool party. Now we know that was ridiculous.

What’s your production model?

MT: We always make movies with nothing, and we use our own money to start anyway, We’ve been able to make films on our own terms. We’ve been able to have them be accepted on their own terms as well. Gunner Palace is the most profane PG movie in history. It was originally rated R. We appealed and won. I couldn’t believe it. And then Discovery’s Military Channel decided to take it and ran it like it was.

How do you see the business at the moment?

MT: It’s disappointing—people are afraid to take risks. They have fixed in their minds what models work and what don’t. You’re hearing about stunt films, glitz and glamor. That’s not what we do. The support for the kind of film we’re making isn’t really there. The tradition of the Pennebakers and Maysles, capturing the world in long form, doesn’t exist anymore. The biggest problem right now is that reality television is lumped into this category as nonfiction, which it isn’t really. You feel a lot of pressure from commissioning editors to get a reality-television vibe in what you’re shooting, and that’s not reality.