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Movie Review: Occupation: Dreamland

American Army vehicle driving through an explosion in Iraq

What the hell are we doing in Iraq?

That’s one of the big questions on the minds of U.S. soldiers stationed in Fallujah, Iraq in the winter of 2004. Documentary directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds lived with the Army’s 82nd Airborne for six weeks and were given what seems like unlimited access to the unit’s daily operations.

While the soldiers don’t question their orders (that we see, anyway) and understand the importance of doing what they are told, they fail to see the big picture — whatever the “big picture” is that their superiors believe the soldiers are a part of.

It seems as though the 82nd Airborne’s mission is doomed to fail and that the soldiers sense it even though they never quite verbalize it. The mission is two-fold: Root out suspected insurgents and win over the hearts and minds of the Fallujah citizens. Yet to find the insurgents the soldiers must break into Iraqi homes in the dead of night, frightening the women and children in the house and taking out men who of course deny their guilt, but are taken away anyway. We never do find out if these men are guilty and even the soldiers may not even know.

The soldiers also patrol the streets in the daytime to interact with the Iraqis. While the soldiers treat the Iraqis with respect and kindness and listen to the citizens’ grievances, there is an almost unbearable tension between both sides. The soldiers cannot help the Iraqis in any serious way and since the government collapsed, most of the Iraqi men are unemployed and frustrated at both the uncertainty of their future and the indignity of a foreign military occupying their streets.

Directors Scott and Olds previously made the fantastic documentary Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story about Shawn Nelson, the man who stole an Army tank a few years ago and drove it around San Diego on a rampage. But they’ve really topped themselves with Occupation: Dreamland.

They get in really close with the seven or so soldiers of the 82nd Airborne. The men all seem to come from different backgrounds, but with similar reasons for joining the Army, mostly a feeling of directionlessness in their civilian lives. Their superiors are evidently aware of this and prey on the soldiers’ feelings of inadequacy to keep the men enlisted, providing one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, which involves a re-enlistment seminar/meeting/berating.

For the most part, there isn’t much war footage in Occupation: Dreamland. But when the action breaks out, the filmmakers are right in the thick of it. The soldiers walk down deserted streets, expecting nothing, but then gunfire erupts from an unknown location. Are the bullets coming from behind, or above, or in front? Then, just as quickly, the assault ends and the insurgents are nowhere to be found.

The soldiers, though, are keen to do their jobs and follow their orders — whether they agree with them or not. Whether they agree with the war or not, none of the men are overly enthused to be in Iraq and living amongst an increasingly hostile population.

Shortly after the soldiers’ mission ended, Fallujah, as we all know, became one of the biggest battles in the occupation of Iraq and was totally decimated by the Marines. What eventually happened to Fallujah makes the 82nd Airborne’s mission seem even more surreal–and pointless.

Watch the Occupation: Dreamland movie trailer:


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