Ex-Marine aims camera at self to heal from the Iraq war
Los Angeles • An ex-Marine filmmaker whose unit carried pocket digital cameras into some of the worst fighting in Iraq is using that footage, and post-war interviews, to open viewers' eyes about combat and help himself deal with the lasting emotional impact.
The videos are stark. One Marine is so badly hurt he filmed himself giving himself the Last Rites.
Some of the fighters seem unaffected years later in civilian life, while others have gone through severe bouts of post-traumatic stress and one man, who in Iraq saved fellow Marines' lives, wound up in prison back home.
Garrett Anderson hopes to show this all up close with "And Then They Came Home," a documentary he is making from footage he and his comrades gathered on Nov. 22, 2004, one of the bloodiest days of fighting during Iraq's second battle of Fallujah.
One of Anderson's comrades died that day and six others in his platoon were wounded as they fought building to building in the city of Fallujah, searching for snipers. One of those shot was so badly wounded that he pulled out his digital camera and hit the record button as he gave himself the Last Rites so his family would have a record of it. Anderson plans to include that footage in his film.
"We were probably the first group of people who were allowed to go into combat with a digital camera in your pocket," Anderson said recently from his home in Portland, Ore.
The Marines carried their own pocket cameras from their private lives and never saw a reason to leave them behind. Anderson said their commanders never said anything about it or tried to stop them.
"And so the whole battle was documented from the perspective of the guys who fought it, and we're going to be able to use some of that footage," he said.
Anderson and his colleagues hope it will be a healing experience for them, as well as an eye-opening one for those who have never seen war.
"I hope that they see how it really affects these young men that come back," said Nathan Douglass, who was badly wounded on that day and is one of the 12 Marines who will recount their experiences in interviews Anderson plans to film this summer.
"It's not just a video game," Douglass added. "There are long-term effects, whether you are physically wounded or not. Sometimes I think the mental effects can be so much worse."
Several of those to be featured suffered severe bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, some even attempting suicide. One of the worst afflicted, a Marine who saved the lives of several comrades when he shot to death a would-be suicide bomber, is now in a Texas prison, serving a lengthy sentence for sexual assault.
Others, like Lance Cpl. Luis Munoz, who gave himself the Last Rites, seem largely unaffected by what they experienced. The naturalized U.S. citizen has returned to his native Mexico, where he works now as a police officer in the state of Coahuila, a region plagued by drug cartel violence.
To those who have known Anderson for years, the 26-year-old filmmaker also appears, at least on the surface, to have been largely unaffected.
Since returning to civilian life in 2007, he has shed his Marine buzz cut, grown a beard and is engaged to be married in the fall. He works for a private company that enforces parking regulations in Portland, and he likes to take in Trailblazers games in his free time, although he laments with good humor that it will likely be years before the team contends for an NBA title.
Truth is, though, he was one of the most seriously affected.
"He was never the same boy afterward," says his father, Dennis Anderson, longtime editor of the Antelope Valley Press in the Los Angeles suburb of Palmdale, where the younger Anderson grew up.
Old friends say they did notice upon his return that he was drinking heavily. They initially dismissed that as just an ex-Marine blowing off steam. That was until he ended up in a hospital following a mental breakdown after a night of binge drinking.
To this day, he says, the first thing he thinks of each morning is the name of the fellow Marine who was killed on Nov. 22, 2004.
"This documentary is going to be a healing process for me," he says.
Anderson and his colleagues have talked for years among themselves about that fateful battle, the footage they gathered and how it affected them. During one of those conversations, he said, he realized how he and a friend had seen different things that day and how it affected them differently. He thought the various memories of the 12 different people in his platoon would be worth putting on film. All 12 agreed.
Although there have been documentaries made about war for as long as there have been cameras to film them, documentarians say it is unusual for the warrior himself to be the one making the film and using his own battle footage.
"Live action, American, filmmaker as subject on war trauma is not, to my mind, terribly common," said Michael Renov, associate dean of academic affairs at USC's School of Cinematic Arts and author of "The Subject of Documentary."
Perhaps the effort that comes closest to it, he noted, was Ari Folman's 2008 Oscar-nominated film "Waltz With Bashir," in which the filmmaker interviewed Israeli soldiers he fought with in the 1982 Lebanon war and used animation to visualize his story.
One of the hardest things for Anderson to do will be to fill in the years between the battle and what his fellow Marines are doing now and still be able to effectively show how war changed them, said Mitchell Block, who produced the Oscar-nominated war documentary "Poster Girl."
For that film, onetime cheerleader and Iraq combat veteran Robynn Murray allowed cameras to follow her for more than a year, vividly capturing her struggles to overcome PTSD.
Having the close relationship he does with the people he's filming could overcome missing out on those years between the battle and the present day, Block said, but only if his subjects have compelling stories to tell.
Anderson and childhood friend Antonio de la Torre of Los Angeles hope to have the documentary finished by the fall, about the time of his wedding and in time for next year's film festival circuit.
They are making it on a budget of $30,000, most of it raised through the website.
"That may seem like peanuts to most people," Anderson says with a laugh. "But me and my buddy Antonio have been working together for more than a decade with digital editing and we've written up a pretty clean budget and we think we can do it."
The two made their first film in high school, a mockumentary that took the filmmakers to Nevada's infamous Area 51 in a jokey attempt to prove long-held conspiracy theories that space aliens live there. They have since gone on to film commercials for small local television stations. This will be their first documentary.
With reams of war footage and 12 engrossing stories to tell, Anderson believes they are up to the task.
"I've had the luxury of growing up with digital media, and I could see right away when I was younger that this was going to be the future," he said. "It gives the artist the opportunity to bypass a lot of the old ways, and in the future I hope it comes down to it's going to be more about story and not about budget."