VOD film review: Only the Dead
Ease of viewing5
Helen Archer | On 21, Feb 2016
Director: Bill Guttentag, Michael Ware
Cast: Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Michael Ware
Watch Only the Dead online in the UK: iTunes
Let’s be clear: Only the Dead does not make for easy viewing. Covering the seven years the Australian journalist Michael Ware, former CNN and Time correspondent, spent in Iraq, it documents the chaos, terror and brutality of war, and the myriad ways it can corrupt a soul.
Co-directed by filmmaker Bill Guttentag and edited by Jane Moran, the film takes the hundreds of hours of footage Ware shot on his tiny handicam, adds voice-over (the narration was co-written with Justine A. Rosenthal) and splices it with some contemporaneous news footage for context. Ware manages to get not only embedded with US forces, but also inside the insurgent groups, and in doing so demonstrates how both sides become increasingly savage and desensitised.
At the time of his arrival in Iraq, in 2003, news channels were presenting the facade of a successful overturn of Baghdad, yet anti-US feeling was already rife. Men who saw themselves as nationalists began fighting against an occupying force. These men were not yet waging a holy war – the people who were doing so, we are told, “scared even them”.
Ware captures the first suicide bombing in Baghdad, and the terrible aftermath of the car bomb at the Jordanian Embassy. “No one knew who had done it,” says Ware. “But it had only just begun.” The bombing of the UN headquarters follows shortly thereafter.
Although it is presented in chronological order, the documentary is fragmentary in nature, illustrating the unordered, tumultuous mess of conflict. Be it in Fallujah, Ramadi, or Baquba, the viewer is left with small moments – the still camera catching the smiling face of one of Ware’s colleagues, lost to the violence; the pain, anger and betrayal etched in a young man’s face, as he vows vengeance for his brother, killed by jittery US soldiers; a suicide bomber reading his will straight to camera before his mission; house searches laden with traps, in complete darkness save for bursts of gunfire; US soldiers blindfolding the enemy’s eyes with duct tape; men being assassinated in the street, and “hung like piñatas” from bridges; shell-shocked faces, haunted eyes. These are visions of random and ugly violence – these are visions of war. And only the dead can unsee them.
The documentary asks questions, too, of the viewer. So much of this is so deeply shocking, and yet we view it on the news and the internet every day. Have we, like the fighters, become numb to the horror, stunned into silence in much the same way Ware is stunned into silence in his final, terrible footage, as he witnesses a young fighter die slowly while surrounded by US soldiers? We, like him, can do little more than watch, appalled at the horror he is witnessing.