The Iraq War introduced the concept of the “embedded” reporter to the world. Their highly choreographed, round-the-clock reporting gave the Pentagon extraordinary control of war reports back home, and also allowed the military to quietly contain those journalists who wanted to report the war independently: the so-called “unilaterals.”
War Feels Like War is the story of an international group of journalists who refused to be “embedded.” Motivated by the desire to get the ‘real’ story, the unilaterals ventured onto the battlefield without military protection and frequently without guides. They often found themselves reporting the stories that went uncovered in the wake of the triumphal columns of soldiers and embeds: civilian deaths, injuries, chaos in the streets, and a more mixed reception for the invaders than appeared in first reports.
Stephanie Sinclair, a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, is told to continue towards Baghdad at her own risk by U.S. military forces days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was one of the largest media events in history. More than 3,000 journalists from around the world flocked to Kuwait City and Baghdad to cover the war (19 died, at least five from “friendly fire”). Many, including representatives from all the major Western news organizations that dominated coverage of the war, were prepared to follow the troops from Kuwait as embeds, or to file reports from the relative safety of hotel lobbies.
For all the media in place, Spanish filmmaker Uyarra felt there was yet a story waiting to be told: that of the journalists themselves confronting modern war in an age of live-action telecommunications. When he arrived in Kuwait City, Uyarra soon found a dramatic angle on covering the journalists. Among the reporters who were neither embeds nor hotel-lobby commentators, Uyarra discovered an intrepid and independent group of “unilaterals” determined to get into Iraq to report the war first-hand without the permission, guidance, or protection of the U.S. military.
To make War Feels Like War, Uyarra spent three months with a hand-held camera following a diverse group of international unilaterals, sharing their dangers and uncertainties as they maneuvered to get into the war zone and then to Baghdad. These reporters were not from marginal, alternative news outlets, but included correspondents from major U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, and representatives of leading broadcasters in America (including best-selling author and foreign correspondent P.J. O’Rourke reporting for ABC Radio News), Norway, Denmark, Poland and Spain.
In the film, the reporters share mounting frustration as air-raid sirens and first reports from embeds with the troops signal the start of the war while they are forbidden to enter Iraq from Kuwait. The military offers, instead, guided tours of logistical support operations in the rear. The unilaterals know that recycling such information is no way to build a career as a war correspondent — or to get at the truth of the war.
They are soon on the road in rented cars following uncertain maps, trying to cross into southern Iraq while avoiding both U.S. military checkpoints and lurking Iraqi combatants. Success is quickly followed by new challenges. Areas behind the fast-moving armored columns are lightly guarded and remain dangerous. Reliable information on conditions ahead and even behind is difficult to come by. The unilaterals have no armed protection, no combat gear, and little access to medical aid. American soldiers encountered on the way are friendly but make it clear that these reporters are on their own.
Seemingly condemned to trail the news-breaking combat reports of the embeds, the unilaterals find themselves falling into the stories left behind: stories that begin to emerge as more revealing of the ultimate stakes in the war. The unilaterals report civilian deaths and injuries, the extent and severity of which are absent from many embedded reports, putting a tortured human face on the military’s “collateral damage.” They discover a surprising amount of chaos behind the invading columns, a fact whose significance only grows in the days ahead.
They also discover a more complex and ominous response among Iraqis to the American troops. Numerous, noisy protests, far larger than the crowd that attended the famous fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue, equate President Bush with Saddam. “We are Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Kurds! This is our capital!” demonstrators chant at the Americans in the newly conquered Baghdad.
Along the way, War Feels Like War gives riveting vérité portraits of the journalists themselves, whose conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion to combat mirror the ambivalence of their audiences over modern-day “war as spectacle.” The journalists are alternately cynical about human motives and seduced by the romanticism of being war correspondents. Thoughts of self-importance are punctured by the grim realities of war. Their daring is in constant tension with the impulse for self-preservation.
“This is the story of journalists caught up in a new era in war-reporting,” says director and cameraman Esteban Uyarra, “and of a media world now divided in two camps — ’embeds’ and ‘unilaterals’ — and what that means for how we see and feel about war.”
For more information about Uyarra Films, visit uyarrafilms.co.uk.