Bad Voodoo's War

Q&A With Director Deborah Scranton

More on the making of Bad Voodoo's War

photo of deborah scranton

How did this project come about?

We were about to premiere The War Tapes at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we were doing various community outreaches to potential audiences, one of which was the "milblogging" or military blogging community, which is a very tight-knit group. Sgt. Jean-Paul Borda, of was at the top of our list, along with others like Matthew Burden of Blackfive. Through conversations online, J.P. and I established a virtual friendship. He was generous and blogged about The War Tapes. That was in March 2006.

Fast forward to March 24, 2007. I got an e-mail in my inbox from J.P. saying that he was being called up again, this time to go to Iraq (his prior tour was in Afghanistan). J.P. wondered if I would be willing to help tell his unit's story. After talking it over with him, J.P. put me in touch with his platoon sergeant, Sfc. Toby Nunn. Of course, Toby had some questions as to what my intentions were, and if I would be true to their experiences, so I got on a plane and met with him and some of the guys face-to-face. At two in the morning, we decided OK, let's go ahead and make this happen.

What was their response to The War Tapes?

Toby and the guys felt it was an honest portrayal, and they believed that I had upheld my word to the soldiers, which was that we would tell the story wherever it took us, no matter what. It is about really amplifying their voices and using my skills as a filmmaker to tell the story from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

Truth resides in contrasting ground-level narratives. I want to crawl inside the experience: to see it, hear it and smell it. In documentary film, very often, there's the director and the subjects. For me, they're not subjects; they're colleagues. We're doing this together.

What were your initial impressions of Toby?

Within an hour of meeting Toby, it became apparent to me that I was in the presence of a really remarkable, compelling human being. He has such charisma, combined with strength, wisdom and compassion. I knew that a lot of this film was going to be about his journey.

Toby is confident without being arrogant, plus he has a great sense of humor. You know without fail, that he would always be there. He is definitely one who would hold your hair back while you're throwing up. He has so much life experience -- he comes from pretty tough beginnings and has really tried to better himself, and, along the way, be as kind and loving a human being as you can imagine.

Why did he want to be involved in the film?

When I first met Toby, I asked him, "Why do you want to tell your story?" He told me that because of the disconnect in our society -- where most people don't know soldiers or Marines -- they operate often in anonymity. He told me an incredibly moving story of the last time he was in Iraq, in 2004, with a Stryker brigade. He had a soldier, Sgt. Jake Demand, who was killed while saving his fellow soldiers' lives, and no one had told that story. So, Toby felt compelled that this time he really wanted to document their stories so that Americans would have the opportunity to get to know soldiers in a personal way and share in their legacy.

What about Spc. Jason Shaw?

How many 20-year-old guys will move halfway across the country, after their best friend loses his life, in order to help out that friend's young widow with her new baby? Jason didn't want to lose any of his friends again, and he was willing to return to a war that he didn't particularly believe in, in order to help his friends come home safely.

Jason is an incredibly warm, funny guy. You could see him being the life of the party and playing some pranks while also being the gentleman that would always bring flowers to the hostess.

One thing that really struck me about Jason was when I asked him where he was when 9/11 happened. He said he was a freshman in high school. When you have a conversation with him, it's hard to remember how young he is. He's mature and has wisdom beyond his years.

How did you decide who would be involved in the film?

After working with soldiers in one unit for The War Tapes, I thought it would be interesting to follow just one platoon this time and see what and where story strands intersected. A platoon consists of approximately 30-35 men, and in the end, as far as who ends up on tape, it's self-selection -- it comes down to who was interested in telling their story and was willing to spend some of their time doing it. For Bad Voodoo's War -- Sfc. Nunn, Spc. Jason Shaw, Sgt. J.P. Borda, Spc. Jonathan Serbellon, Spc. Bryan Hamlin, Ssg. Ben Nievera, Sgt. Jake Sidwa, Ssg. Richard Thomson, Spc. Ramon Quezada and Spc. Jeffrey Meier all made a real contribution to the film.

How easy or hard is it to keep in touch with them in Iraq?

Our contact ebbs and flows depending on their mission tempo. Tapes, on average, take a week to arrive from Iraq to our office here in New Hampshire. However, with IM and phone calls, there's a pretty constant flow of conversation so that I know where they've been, what's happened and what to expect on the tapes.

My computer's on 24/7. I resurrected my son's baby monitor so it could be next to the computer. That way, when I get pinged when the guys come online, I can hop up and be able to talk with them if they are on IM. It is very important to me to be able to be there for them.

How has that level of communication, and the technology behind it, shaped the film?

This film isn't about the Internet, but it could never have been made without it. The Internet allows Toby and me to talk about what happens and examine how best to tell the story as it unfolds.

For example, when they got hit with the night IED, I got a ping, and Toby was able to tell me within 24 hours. My first question is always, "Is everybody okay?" Then, I go into my other mode: "Okay, what was on tape? What have we gotten?" Moments like that are powerful. I'm compelled by what is, within the military, called a "hot wash." I'm fascinated by those interviews done within 24 hours of something happening.

A film can be so illuminating when you construct it in a multifaceted framework: You see something unfold in real time through their eyes; you hear their reflections and their perceptions of what that experience was like for them within 24 hours of it happening; and then also you hear their words after they've had a few months to sort of process it and time has weathered around the raw edges. So often, war films or stories are told after time has worn away and smoothed the edges, and I really want to be sure to capture some of those jagged edges as well.

Why didn't you go to Iraq to make this film?

It was a very conscious decision not to personally go to Iraq to film this because I felt that it would have taken away from what Toby and his men were doing as far as telling the story through their eyes.

My motivation is to amplify the soldier's voices because so often we don't hear them. We hear from generals; we hear from policy wonks; we hear from academics; we hear from reporters. We hear from critical thinkers, which obviously is important. But I want to make up my own mind. I want to hear these ground-level narratives, to get a better feeling of what the truth is on the ground. Hopefully audiences feel the same way.

I was just thinking about the level of exhaustion that we see in the guys. It seems like their desire to tell their stories is so strong that they'd take on a project like this on top of everything else that they have.

First and foremost, they are soldiers on the front line. Second of all, many of them left families at home who take priority. Third of all, is this film project, sharing their stories.

These guys are running missions constantly. If they're not on a mission then they're trying to grab four hours of sleep, and that's it. I think it's really a testament of wanting to share their story that they're willing to forego some of that sleep in order to set up the cameras, to do a self-interview in an ASV when no one else is around, because that's the only space they can find where there's not ambient noise and they have a bit of privacy.

How hard is it for them just to keep the equipment running in this environment?

The first phone call that I got from Toby from Iraq was to tell me that they'd lost a camera. It was shot off their ASV. This is not a controlled filming environment. Stuff goes awry all the time. These cameras get blown up; they go missing; they stop functioning because of the dust. There are a lot of challenges that go along with trying to tell the story from within the war zone but we are constantly trying to come up with solutions to keep the story coming.

How many cameras are the soldiers using?

We have up to four cameras mounted in each vehicle. There's one on the dashboard; there's one in the gun turret. There's another one a little lower than the dashboard to give the viewer that spatial experience of what's happening, and then throughout the convoy there's other vehicles that also have cameras.

What were other technical hurdles you faced?

For security reasons, there're some things that the soldiers can't film. They can't, for instance, film themselves leaving a base or coming back into a base because if we were to show that, then potentially, the insurgents could use that video as a training tool to know where the security is to then take advantage. So, in this whole project, we have to keep in mind the operational security or the safety of the troops.

Do you think technology is changing the way we see war?

Absolutely -- the way I look at the technology right now is basically we can't put a genie back into the bottle. So, now that we have the Internet and we have camera phones and small hand-held video cameras, these stories from the front lines are going to get out.

If you go back to the first Gulf War, it was the first televised war to be broadcast in real time. CNN broadcasted it live as it happened. Whereas now with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, you could say that there is a "YouTube effect," where soldiers are sending their clips, posting them themselves, so we, the public, could see their experiences.

This is the new territory of communication and of storytelling. If you go back in time to World War II, people have said, "Well, with the invasion of D-Day, if photos had come out, what would we have thought?" Those were times of tightly controlled photos and stories.

Do you think it's a double-edged sword to a certain extent, that's it's great that we get to see into their lives and we can really empathize with them, but is it something that the general public should be seeing?

There's an oft-quoted saying that "war is hell." I think that we can all agree on that. But, I do believe in bearing witness to, and alongside of, the soldiers who serve in our name. We are a country at war -- it is important that we as citizens understand what that means and be engaged, not switch the channel.

In this country, there's such a divide right now between those of us who know a soldier and those who don't. Less than 1 percent of our nation knows someone who is in the military. Whereas in World War II, there was a home front and there was a war front. More than 12 percent of the population had someone who was involved. These days you can go for days and not really know there's a war going on, and that the war is being essentially fought by a warrior class in our country that is being asked to serve again and again and again.

What do you want the audience to take away from this in the end?

I believe in the power of empathy. To make people feel something, to know that it's not "the other." I think that there's a big disconnect and there's an "us" and a "them" and it's about bridging that. Until we are a "we" and we see things in those terms, we're bound for danger and misconception. As Brandon Wilkins, one of the soldiers with cameras for The War Tapes, once said when asked what Americans could do to help soldiers, "Get to know one." I can't say it any better than that.

Deborah Scranton can be contacted at: deborahscranton at or through her MySpace page.

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posted april 1, 2008

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