With the Iraq War underway, U.S. Marines were sent to clear out insurgents in the key strategic city of Fallujah in central Iraq in November 2004. The deaths of four U.S. contractors months earlier had sparked an outcry, becoming one of the triggers for a battle that would go on to become one of the bloodiest of the eight-year war.
Nearly two decades later, filmmaker James Bluemel tracked down two families who felt the long-lasting effects of the conflict first-hand for FRONTLINE’s latest documentary: Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah. The documentary tells the stories of William Miller, a U.S. Marine who lost his life while assisting two reporters, as well as Mustafa Abed, who was gravely injured in the fighting when he was two years old.
Bluemel spoke with FRONTLINE about the significance of the battle of Fallujah, the process of asking people to relive difficult memories and the complicated relationship between soldiers and the press during wartime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This documentary brings viewers into the battle of Fallujah, which took place in Iraq almost 20 years ago. Looking back now, what significance did it hold in the larger context of the war? What did it come to represent?
At the time, that battle felt like a significant turning point in the elongated war. [President George W.] Bush had previously declared the mission accomplished, and obviously, that wasn’t the case. As Al Qaeda was becoming more powerful and causing more havoc in Iraq, it felt like Fallujah was their stronghold. If the Americans could occupy that city and push Al Qaeda away, then there was hope for the future of that country. I remember at the time it was reported as a pivotal battle that needed to be won, and it felt like a victory for the Americans at the time.
But in hindsight, as you cut to the present, that victory sort of disappears. The insurgents that they managed to dispel from the town just reformed. They changed their name. They came back as ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. It was hard to see what that long-term victory was. And therein lies the essence of the venture in Iraq.
You focus on two different families, one Iraqi and one American, who each suffered loss during the battle in different ways. What drew you to their stories in particular? And how did you find these specific families?
We were looking and researching the story of the battle of Fallujah, and we knew we wanted to tell it through a human story. We wanted an eyewitness feeling of what it was like to live through that battle. Knowing that, we searched to build up a cast of characters that could collectively tell the story of the battle.
“You don’t want to glorify war. You don’t want to turn it into something that feels like a video game, nor do you want to censor it so it feels anodyne or too easy.”
There was a case where a photographer crossed over with one of the U.S. Marines and in a horrific, awful way, he ended up feeling arguably responsible for the death of that U.S. Marine. That brought in these themes of what role the press has and how the military deals with the press. Then came the story of the other side, of what it was like to be an Iraqi living through that battle. Through intensive research, we were trying to find a story that would equally take the viewer on some sort of journey, perhaps not in the way you necessarily expect. And that’s how we found Nidhal and Ahmed.
Nidhal and Ahmed Abed recount a harrowing story of their son Mustafa almost being killed in the battle when he was two years old. The Millers speak about their son Billy, a U.S. Marine, dying in battle. How did you approach asking the parents to share such difficult memories?
I’m very aware that people sometimes keep particular memories in a box, and I’m asking them to open up that box, get those memories out, look at them and relive them. That’s not something that is going to be done flippantly by anybody, and nor should it be. I’m very much aware of that when I’m interviewing.
When people say yes, they do it for a myriad of reasons. For something like this, they were interested in, “Well, what’s it for? What’s the story you will be telling? Is this the right film for me to revisit painful memories?” Those anxieties can be met and reassured over time just by building up a bit of trust.
The second layer is that someone like the Millers actually really want to talk about their son. They’re proud of their son. Even though it’s painful, the pain is mixed with a more complicated feeling of remembering.
On the Iraqi side, I found that the Iraqi contributors in this film were very keen to speak. The journey to build that trust was much shorter because I think that they felt they’ve never really been asked before and felt neglected and really wanted their voices out there.
The documentary includes a lot of footage of the war’s carnage. How did you balance painting a realistic picture of what the battle was like with ensuring viewers weren’t overwhelmed with graphic content?
You don’t want to glorify war. You don’t want to turn it into something that feels like a video game, nor do you want to censor it so it feels anodyne or too easy. There’s always that tension in knowing how much detail to show. At certain points, you can be guided by what your interviewees are telling you.
You don’t want to necessarily use graphic footage to illustrate something without really digging into why the scene needs to be illustrated that way. One way around that was using still images, which were taken by Ashley Gilbertson. You can control those images much more carefully than you can moving images. And we try not to use anything that would cause someone to be traumatized because they’re seeing something that they weren’t expecting to see.
Was it challenging to find archival footage of the incidents the people in the documentary described two decades after the footage was captured? What kind of work went into tracking it down?
Ashley Gilbertson gave us every single photograph he took in Fallujah. There was also a photographer who was a Marine who was documenting the battle in quite a different style, more like a crime scene photographer, rather than trying to capture the essence of the story. There were also lots and lots of embedded news crews who were there at the same time with different platoons. They might have been just 200 yards down the road, so you often had multiple views of the same incident.
“My hope is that viewers see those characters on the screen as real people, have empathy for them, and understand what it was like to walk in their shoes and live where they did.”
It feels like one of the first battles that was photographed that way. There’s just so much material that helped us create a film that brings viewers into the heart of that battle.
The film explores how a young U.S. Marine died while protecting journalists who were embedded with the military. What do you think his story tells us about the complicated relationship between servicemembers and the journalists who embed with them during wartime? What lessons does it hold?
I always thought it was interesting that Ashley and Dexter [Filkins] had a very clear code. You don’t ask for anything that would make the U.S. Marines that you’re with change their actions. As long as you’re observing and documenting, but not causing a behavior to happen, that’s where their moral line was. It’s interesting that the moment they crossed that line, that self-imposed rule, it’s when things quickly spiraled downward. And the results were disastrous.
Also, the pressures of the reporter’s job — that need to get a certain picture to tell a certain story — forced Ashley to break that golden rule that he always obeyed. And I’m sure that’s why he blames himself for the death of William Miller. Interestingly, the Miller family does not blame him at all.
What do you hope this documentary conveys about the war to those who watch it?
When the news looks at an event, there are certain aspects that it does well. It covers scale, and it does political commentary very well. It helps clarify the big picture and the big issues.
What it doesn’t do very well is humanize that story. It doesn’t make you feel what it’s like for a person to be living through that, and it often doesn’t create much empathy. What I’m hoping is that a documentary like this can address that balance a little bit. My hope is that viewers see those characters on the screen as real people, have empathy for them, and understand what it was like to walk in their shoes and live where they did. I want it to bring the human story to the forefront in a way that news is not necessarily designed to do.
The U.S. Marines you interviewed went through one of the most violent battles in the entire war. It’s striking how transparent they are about what they went through. Were there any restrictions on what they could share with you? Or could they share freely because they were former soldiers?
I don’t recall any restrictions. And on the timing of the film, I remember that after the dust began to settle on the Iraq War, people began not to want to speak about it anymore. It became a subject which, when I first raised the idea of wanting to do something on the war, I was met with, “What’s there to say about it? Everything’s been done.”
“Enough years had passed for these U.S. Marines to have insight and reflection on what they went through.”
So when I went out and met these U.S. Marines, and we would go for a drink and begin to chat a little bit about what life was like then and now, I noticed that they had a need to talk about it. They, perhaps, had felt neglected, that there was some wisdom that they were holding onto that people had not bothered to ask about. Enough years had passed for these U.S. Marines to have insight and reflection on what they went through. Once they got over that hump of trying to work out if this is the right vehicle for them and the right film, they really did want to open up and talk. My job was basically just to listen.
Fallujah fell under ISIS control in January 2014 and was taken back by Iraqi forces in June 2016. How do Nidhal and Ahmed describe the current state of the city? Where are they now?
In the film, Nidhal says it feels like Iraq is always moving backward and the rest of the world is moving forward. And you can understand why. Since 2003, they just cannot catch a break. That said, today, Fallujah is probably the safest it’s been since the battle [in 2004].
A semblance of peace is needed in the city for that family to rebuild their lives. They’ve got a severely disabled son whom they need to take care of, but because there’s now this semblance of peace, they can start to plan for the future. And that plan includes opening up a small shop their son can run, and it will be near the family home. They have a hope that I feel is very relatable. You want to provide a foundation to help your children and that’s very hard to do when there are always disasters in the city where you live. The present is better for them than it’s been for 20 years, so I think they’re finally trying to lay those foundations for their son.