In director Deborah Scranton’s film The War Tapes, which won the award for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, New Hampshire National Guardsmen were given digital cameras and told to record anything and everything about their lives as soldiers in Iraq. The film, which focuses on three in particular, was edited and co-produced by Hoop Dreams director Steve James, who chatted with us about the soldiers, the rise of documentaries, and where his Hoopsters are now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the process work?
STEVE JAMES: The guys sent footage back on a regular basis. First, the tapes would go to the New Hampshire National Guard Public Affairs Officer, then they would get passed on to Deborah. It was all very spread out. Deborah was in her New Hampshire farmhouse, the soldiers were in Iraq, and we edited it in Chicago. I spent an entire year editing this film, which may seem like a long time, but for something with this much material, it’s not that long.
Were you concerned about the National Guard censoring anything?
When I got involved, I just assumed they would censor stuff. How could they not? But they didn’t, which I think is a testament to the Guard. The only incident of censorship in the material is what you see in the movie itself, when [soldier] Steve Pink films those three dead insurgents in Fallujah, and he tells us how he filmed them and addressed remarks to them. His lieutenant heard about that footage, took a look at it, and decided that he didn’t think that footage should go back home. But we went and anonymously got photos of those dead insurgents to stand in for the footage, because we felt it was important for the audience to see that stuff.
Was there anything in the film that surprised you, in terms of what you saw, or the soldiers’ attitudes toward war?
The big thing I learned from working on this film and dealing with this footage was just how much they think about and wrestle on a regular basis with what they are doing. They struggle with many of the same contradictions that much of America has struggled with regarding the war. The difference is they are fighting it as well.
I thought going in that these soldiers put everything on hold, that they just try to focus on the mission and not analyze what they are doing. War movies have probably led me to that impression. Even movies as recent as Jarhead, where one soldier says, ”There’s no more politics; we’re here.” That is definitely not what real soldiers do.
What are the differences in documentary filmmaking between now and 1994, when you made Hoop Dreams?
When Hoop Dreams came out, there were maybe one or two documentaries a year that got theatrical distribution in the United States. Last year, there was something like 80. We’re in a golden age of American documentaries — there’s been an absolute explosion. It’s easier to make a documentary now because of there being portable and inexpensive gear that still is able to produce good picture quality. But at the same time, there are so many more people now fighting for the limited funds to make documentaries. [A few years ago], no documentary did more at the box office than Hoop Dreams. Then Bowling for Columbine came and smashed that record. And then, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11. Who would have thought five years ago that a documentary could gross $100 million at the box office?
Do you ever talk to the two guys from Hoop Dreams?
I still stay in contact with them. Arthur Agee lives in Chicago. For a number of years, he kicked around various semi-pro basketball leagues trying to make it. He eventually gave that up, though. His big focus now is trying to launch his own Hoop Dreams clothing line. William Gates is a pastor in Cabrini Green, which is where he used to live. He’s married to Catherine, who was his girlfriend in the film, and they have four children.
Both families lost people in the film. William lost his older brother, he was murdered. And Arthur, just within a year and a half, lost his father, who was murdered. Neither of them live in the same neighborhood anymore, but sometimes you can leave the neighborhood, and it still follows you out.