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FRONTLINE premiers: Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah.


Tuesday, May 23, WGVU-PBS presents FRONTLINE’s Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah. As this spring marks the 20-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah chronicles one of the Iraq war’s defining episodes — through the eyes of people who lived through it. WGVU talks with director James Bluemel.

James Bluemel: I think there’s an interesting perspective to be got as we moved further away, the voices that we used to hearing that explained the Iraq war where often the voices of the politicians and the decision makers. And I think what's a useful voice to hear, which was neglected at the time, were the voices of the ordinary people that were involved, the ones that weren’t making those decisions but perhaps the ones that were living with the consequences of those decisions, be that sort of soldiers and regular Iraqis just sort of living or trying to live, you know, in the midst of this awful war. And I think those voices at the time were perhaps neglected.

Patrick Center: And when we think of Fallujah at that time, I think the time period that you return to…

JB: …when the Blackwater contractors were executed and strung up on the bridge.

PC: Yes, the U.S. contractors at the bridge.

JB: Yeah. That's what sort of go the world’s attention to Fallujah. Fallujah was a hot bed of Al Qaeda activity, they were making car bombs and shipping them to Bagdad and Bagdad’s not that far away from Fallujah. But when those Blackwater contractors was strung up in such a public way, it probably felt that the Americans had to do something about that, which led to the initial invasion of Fallujah, there was two invasions of Fallujah interrupted by an election.

PC: And the importance of Fallujah at that time.

JB: It was a big city really near Baghdad, just about an hour away from Baghdad and it was run by al Qaeda and it was an embarrassment for the Americans to, you know, have supposedly won the world, but have the city on the doorstep of the Capitol, which was a hotbed for terrorists.

PC: You really cast a broad net here to tell this story. There are U.S. Marines. There are those who were living in the city at that time who didn't have the means to escape. What stories did you have the opportunity to hear and to get that perspective and to share it with Americans like you said, not the politicians but the people who were there.

JB: There are lots of stories which you could have found in Fallujah. It was quite an immense battle. I was interested in following a couple of key characters, Dexter Filkins, Ashley Gilbertson and their particular story of what happened to them in Fallujah. It's a challenging and complex story. And at the same time I was looking also to tell what it was like from the other side; to be a regular Iraqi family. In our research, we found this family that had this amazing story of disaster and tragedy, but one which sort of moved into complexity as that family were then taken by American charity over to America to help fix their infant son who is very badly injured. And it was an American charity that helped save his life. So that was a complexity with all those stories which when you put them together it really sort of painted this interesting portrait of the battle of Fallujah.

PT: How did they all process this? It's 20 years later. They go back in time. I can only imagine the pain remains. It's still there. It's still fresh.

JB: Yeah, people process it in various ways. We interviewed a family called the Millers about their son who died in that battle. He was a Marine. Obviously they have the pain of losing the sun, but the pride that he was doing his job and doing his job well in a situation that he'd been trained for. And I imagine, I can’t really speak for them. I know it's hard to talk about, but there is a sort of a desire to talk about their son. For the Iraqi family, I think there was a desire to tell the world how much they had suffered and at the hands of the American bombing campaign that preceded the battle. And for someone like Ashley whose story plays out in the documentary, Ashley has tremendous guilt about what happened to him in Fallujah. And this is something he has to live with for the rest of his life. But he talks about it with eloquence and a huge amount of respect for the person that ended up being killed.

PC: As a journalist, this is a story of a lifetime, spanning 2 decades now. What are your takeaways? You being there on the ground, walking the streets, talking with people who are there, knowing the history, not only the war but of this specific battle. How has it impacted you and what lessons do you feel we all should learn?

JB: The lessons that I think we should take away from this is that, you know, it's a very basic simple lesson that I think we’ve all heard in life before, but we keep forgetting, it is that war is a horrific thing. When you press that button and go to war the consequences for the people involved are forever lasting. And it's very rare to hear the stories of heroism and bravery which people retain, its the stories of loss and trauma, tragedy and they’re the stories that people carry with them after an experience like that. There is something to be sort of learnt from a film like this. I suppose it's to remember that and to hopefully, well I don’t know how this would play out properly, but, you know, the next time we’re in the situation where we are looking at pushing that button and going to war, people should think twice about that.

PC: Revisiting this and being on the streets of Fallujah today. The vibe that you get, what does society like today, 20 years later in Iraq in Fallujah, how they process the war itself and how has society moved on?

JB: That's a really big question and I'm not sure I'm completely qualified to answer if I’m completely honest. What I saw when I was making the documentary was a country that was feeling the first green shoots of optimism in a long, long while. There was a hesitation about whether this optimism would be short-lived because it often is. But it definitely was in existence. Roads that had been previously blocked for 20 years since the war were being unblocked. Traffic was moving through Baghdad. Fallujah had been the safest it had been in a long while since the so-called defeat of ISIS. And, yeah, I mean, there’s hope, and I think people have learned that feeling often doesn’t last, but right now maybe there is a bit of hope.

PC: Tonight at 10 o'clock on WGVU Public Television Frontline presents Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah. Director James Bluemel, Thank you so much.

JB: Thank you very much.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.
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