Reality Show

Balancing boredom and tragedy in portraying the troops.

RETURNING TO the city where he lived during the 1980s (he currently resides in Berlin with his wife, Gunner Palace co- director Petra Epperlein), Michael Tucker recently sat down to discuss the film with Seattle Weekly and one of its subjects, former Capt. Jon Powers, now retired from the Army and a high-school teacher in New York. They described how Tucker, a former Army reservist, lived among the troops in Uday Hussein's old digs while they played video games, strummed guitars, improvised raps, and otherwise tried to blow off steam between dangerous patrols through Baghdad.

Seattle Weekly: How did you hook up with the gunners? Did you approach them as a journalist?

Michael Tucker: I'm not a reporter. I'm not a journalist. My roots are more in photography. I'd been there in May of 2003, and June and July, making another film. At that time, [the war] was not on the front pages. It was out of sight, out of mind. It wasn't really an embedded relationship. Embedded reporters have to sign a contract. They agree to let their film or tape be inspected. There's all kind of ground rules.

Were there other news crews around the palace?

Jon Powers: Before Mike came, we had [media] at least once a week. So the soldiers were pretty used to it. He just became part of the unit. I'd say it was pretty unique. In our experience, the amount of access that Mike had was unparalleled. He was able to shoot us the way we were.

Tucker: I was by myself. That definitely reduced any barrier. You can't go on a raid with two or three guys [in a TV news crew]. You can make yourself small, make yourself invisible.

Did this make the gunners less self- conscious about being filmed?

Powers: With a lot of the other press, you'd have a warning they were coming. You had your CNN, your Fox, your Al-Jazeera. With [Mike], it was just part of the game. You're doing your day-to-day business. And if you were caught on film, you were caught on film; you didn't know about it.

You show a lot of downtime at the palace; was it intentional not to emphasize raids and action and IEDs exploding?

Tucker: If they didn't go to that explosion, I didn't go with them.

But it's not like the gunners spend all their off time watching DVDs, making music, or playing video games or chess, right?

Tucker: A lot of those young guys . . . they just like what any 18- or 19-year-old would be entertained by. They're finding coping mechanisms. They're trying to keep morale up.

Powers: I wouldn't even say playing games or playing chess. That kind of free time was so minimal. If there was time away from the violence . . . you use that time to go to the orphanages, or you're using it to rebuild the school or to re-establish the propane shop that hasn't been running in months. People have no real concept of what Iraq is.

Michael Moore wrote recently that troops were watching Fahrenheit 9/11 on bootleg DVDs. Did you see any evidence of that?

Powers: I don't think any more than any other film. I actually haven't watched that film yet. I purposefully haven't. The focus we had was on . . . the job we were doing and not so much on the political debate. The war to us wasn't a debate; it was what we lived.

But it's not like there aren't political debates among the troops?

Tucker: There's so many other people telling these other parts of the story. We tried to, I wouldn't say depoliticize it, but keep it for what it is. Do they talk about politics? Yeah, I think somewhat. Their worries are very different from what my worries are. They're worried about survival.

What are the media stereotypes about the war you'd like to dispel?

Powers: Number one is that there was a violent firefight for us all the time. I spent more time organizing the neighborhood advisory council or collecting shoes to pass out, things like that, than under fire.

Tucker: At the same time, you lost four people and had 60 wounded. This is all mixed in together.

Powers: It's not that 30-second clip. With TV, you get that little window. It was 360 degrees [in Gunner Palace]. There's hours and hours of stuff leading up to and after that suicide bomber you see in the news. I think it's important that the guys who have been there and seen it are . . . [telling] what is really going on.

Tucker: People think it's like another war, and it's not. It's not your grandfather's war. It's probably the most screwed-up war we've ever been in.

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