BBC Four interview with Sean Langan
Seven months after the end of the war, Sean Langan (Behind the Lines, Travels of a Gringo), armed with just a camera, takes a brave and eventful trip through Iraq, seeking to shed light on what life is like in this newly occupied territory. As well as interviews with civilians, Langan joins the US-led coalition on patrol (even at times of attack) as well as instigating secret meetings with the resistance fighters.
BBC Four: What was your focus when you started this film?
Sean Langan: Last summer I kept getting calls from contacts in the Middle East who said there was a simmering insurgency war in Iraq. This was when we were being told that “the war is over”. I went there in November to try and make sense of this resistance movement, which didn’t seem to have any name or clarified aims. I stayed for three months in the so-called Sunni triangle – Baghdad, Fallujah and towns like Ramadi.
BBC Four: What level of support did you gauge that the resistance had?
Sean Langan: In Baghdad last year it was mainly frustrations about petrol shortages and power failures. But in towns like Fallujah and Ramadi it felt much more like a military occupation and there was open resentment about American forces entering their homes at night, mass arrests, sieges and curfews.
BBC Four: Did support for the resistance seem to grow while you were in Iraq?
Sean Langan: I spent months at the beginning trying to get to the resistance, it was really quite difficult, but by the end it was on the streets. Some guy in Ramadi said to me, “Why are you looking underground? Me, the brother next to me, that guy over there – we’re all terrorists if that’s what you want to call us.” I think it’s a classic case of failing to tackle an insurgency. The Americans, with their heavy use of force, have helped turn something quite small into a popular uprising in some places.
BBC Four: The locals you met seemed extremely willing to air their grievances.
Sean Langan: It’s become very difficult for journalists to get out of Baghdad, especially if they have to deliver daily reports. If they do go into other towns or the countryside it is usually in an armed convoy and they can only spend a few hours there. I was different. I had a car and stayed in Fallujah and Ramadi. At first they thought I was a Jewish or American spy and when they didn’t know you, it was terrifying for a few minutes, but then one person would say, “It’s okay, I’ve seen him about” and then immediately they would open up. There was all this built-up resentment. The mob scene in the film, when one guy had his finger in the grenade pin, really shows their anger. It was directed at me because they couldn’t get an American. But even then I noticed that there were seven or eight guys that were really protecting me. The hospitality I got in Ramadi and Fallujah was phenomenal.
BBC Four: How was your experience with the US troops?
Sean Langan: It was a really weird feeling because you could see that their heavy-handed tactics in Ramadi and Fallujah were not the best way to go about winning hearts and minds, yet at the same time I loved being on the base with the Americans. They are playing video games, listening to rock music and I am eating burgers. As journalists you always want to get on an American base just to get some good food! It was very hard to film with the Americans. I was feeling really bad hanging out with and getting close to soldiers knowing that the next day I’d be meeting the people who were taking shots at them.
BBC Four: There’s a bizarre scene where one of the US troops suggests that there’d be peace if the Iraqis had a few McDonalds and Pizza Huts in Fallujah. He seemed deadly serious.
Sean Langan: That was weird. Those guys, the 82 Airborne Division, are notorious even within the American military for being hard heads and a bit gung-ho. There was stuff that they said off-camera that I just didn’t put in because it made them look so bad. The guys I was with in Ramadi were very different. I went out on patrol where the officer spoke Arabic and knew which sheik was in charge.
BBC Four: One of the most fascinating aspects of the film, in light of what we know now, are the scenes outside Abu Ghraib prison.
Sean Langan: I think I filmed that in late January or February. That was two or three months before the story broke. When the woman who worked in Abu Ghraib as a translator told me that there was sexual and physical torture going on, even I didn’t know how strongly I believed it. A lot of ex-prisoners wouldn’t talk to their own family members about being raped or tortured but some had, so all the mothers knew about it. I don’t know if it was seeping out through visiting time or with ex-prisoners but there was no surprise. In a way that’s what’s most shocking about it. It took us another three months and then the world was shocked, but the Iraqis already knew all about it. I don’t think the story would have broken without a Western journalist, Seymour Hersh at The New Yorker, because they were too embarrassed to admit they’d been buggered or raped. When I was there they said they had no food or water but there were other things that they were too ashamed to talk about.
BBC Four: I got the impression that your visit to the US army hospital was a more affecting experience than you anticipated.
Sean Langan: Yes. It was so intense. There was a constant wave of helicopters landing. And seeing people, there was a young GI whose face was very bloated and yellow and he was shivering in shock clutching a teddy bear, as a journalist that’s when you feel you are intruding most. I asked permission of everyone but I still felt I was intruding on incredibly intense personal moments. That was really shocking. The doctors, as you always imagine, were fantastic. They were working around the clock and in between the helicopters landing they would sit around eating cheese dips and salami and Cheetos. The funniest thing was that the doctors had the unhealthiest diet.
Read more about Seans’ film Mission Accomplished