Telluride: In 'Only the Dead,' Michael Ware descends into the heart of Iraq darkness

The Australian journalist Michael Ware remembers the moment war changed him. He was in Fallujah, embedded with the U.S. military when one night he decided to follow a soldier into a house, despite the likely prospect of a half-dozen jihadis waiting to greet them with gunfire.

Ware quickly lost track of his armed compatriot and found himself lacking weapons or even a way to see. “Without night vision,” he recalls, “ I was suddenly alone in a house full of death.”

Though standing near enemy gunmen at point-blank range, Ware managed to escape as the U.S. soldier killed many of the attackers. When he emerged, Ware said, something in him was different. “What I found inside [that house] is that I no longer cared about dying,” he said.

Ware makes his comments in “Only the Dead See the End of War,” a new movie he co-directed that has its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday night. His footage heightens — perhaps even changes — the language of the war documentary.

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An on-the-ground diary with narrative shape, “Only the Dead” follows Ware from his early days in Iraq during a brief period of 2003-era optimism, after the deposal of Saddam Hussein, to the increasing chaos and violence over the years that followed, the journalist staying in the country nearly continuously for seven years. Backed with an almost-constant stream of narration by the baritone-voiced Ware, the footage places the viewer uncommonly -- often uncomfortably -- in the middle of battle scenes, thrusting in front of us the region's daily confusion and fear.

Many films have been made about 21st-century conflict in Iraq. A number of them contain heavy amounts of verisimilitude (“The Hurt Locker”) while plenty more show gritty footage of the nonfiction sort (“No End in Sight” and a bevy of others).

But few offer the kind of harrowing access or in-your-face immediacy of  “Only the Dead,” a film that is likely to be heralded in many quarters for its courage to go behind enemy lines -- and, in other quarters, criticized for its willingness to show that enemy so explicitly, especially in situations involving the brutal killings of Americans.

No matter your feelings about these issues, it's hard to deny the documentary's timeliness, or even prescience. With the emergence of the Islamic State and its ruthless tactics in the past few years, "Only the Dead" feels like a particularly chilling type of origin story.

Serving as the audience's eyes and ears is Ware. A brazen type with a poetic streak, the reporter embedded himself with U.S. soldiers, Iraqi insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, first as a correspondent with Time and then as an on-air personality with CNN. He was the rare reporter trusted by multiple sides, and put himself in grave danger even by the standards of wartime journalists.

“I should not be sitting here alive in front of you,” Ware said with his mixture of frankness and swagger as he ordered a beer at a downtown restaurant one afternoon this week. "I couldn't really tell you why I am."

He explained battlefield situations in which he turned away from a Marine on one side of him to talk to another, and then turned back to find the first had been killed in the interim. "It's the randomness. Why if you turn left you die and if you turn right you lived? I've driven myself mad asking these questions," he said.

Ware, 46, had a low-budget hand-held camera from pretty much the moment he arrived in Iraq for Time, and soon after began shooting footage wherever he went. He would dump the tapes in a bedroom in his mother’s house in Australia when he returned there for short breaks every year. He had no intention of making a film, but when he began sifting through them several years ago to jog his memory for an as-yet-unwritten book, he thought there might be a cinematic story to tell.

Together with the Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag ("Twin Towers," "Nanking"), Ware crafted them into this film. Keeping a loose chronological structure, the directors construct the movie as a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress," only the religion its protagonist finds is not faith but the brutal truth of battle.

“There are a lot of newspapers that did a good job covering the war, but you didn't always see it through the eyes of a character, and that's what Michael is,” Guttentag said by phone. “He really saw the whole war, and he saw both sides, which allows us to truly experience it as viewers.”

Ware soon became a trusted emissary for Abu Musab Zarqawi, the infamous late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who turns into a Kurtzian obsession for the reporter. Zarqawi would stage and then film beheadings and suicide attacks on Westerners, and when he wanted the world to see his handiwork, he would often deliver footage to Ware. The journalist, for instance, was given a DVD of the 2004 beheading of the American radio-tower operator Nicholas Berg, a snippet of which is shown here in a brief but highly discomfiting moment.

CNN came under fire, particularly by the right, for furthering extremist aims in showing footage of this sort, including U.S. soldiers' deaths at the hands of Iraqi snipers in 2006 filmed by Ware.

In the interview this week, the journalist waved aside the idea that this kind of material shouldn't be shown. "We have to know how all sides are operating," he said. "It's that simple." 

A number of such scenes appear in this film, with "Only the Dead" frequently showing militants as they plan attacks and lay out their motivations while Ware is embedded in their ranks, and it remains to be seen what reaction the movie's stark candor will elicit when it eventually airs on HBO.

If Ware's pronouncements can go toward the purple -- e.g., "certain dark chambers of the heart, once opened, can never be closed again” -- the movie also potently suggests the risks soldiers and reporters take.

In the fraught city of Ramadi, Iraq, Ware's camera is right there as heavily outmanned U.S. soldiers are basically used as bait to draw out Zarqawi's fighters.

And for his part, Ware was under constant surveillance by Al Qaeda in Iraq, his staff often kidnapped and tortured to find out if Ware was CIA.

In one scene, narrated in the film, Ware himself was stopped on a road in Baghdad and threatened with death by Al Qaeda in Iraq militants. It seemed to be heading toward tragedy, but Ware's staff threatened the militants, prompting a reluctant release.

"The thing is we sit here and take the exact same risks as these guys," Ware says in the movie. "We can be journalists, we can be non-combatants, but that matters nothing to these mortars."

Asked in the interview if he ever picked up a weapon to defend himself, Ware replied, "I'm a journalist," with a big knowing smile, repeating it several times.

Ware left Iraq for good around 2009 and, after other reporting stints around the world, left CNN, too, shortly after that. (The grind, among other things, became too much, he said.)

He now hopes to tell stories in a more Hollywood context via documentaries and dramatized versions of military stories, he said. It has not been an easy adjustment. Ware endured a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned, undergoing a fair amount of therapy.

He said he is doing better now, having married again (his first marriage ended under the strain of the war, though it did produce a child, now 12). Ware's new wife is an American journalist and the couple have a baby, nearly 1 year old, as they split their time between Australia and New York.

In the film's conclusion, a scene shows just how much of a quagmire the war was when an Iraqi militant is shot and then allowed by soldiers to bleed to death over more than 15 minutes. Ware stands by filming the scene and declines to say anything or urge help, a decision he later harshly questioned.

“We all have a dark side inside of us," he said in the interview. "You have a heart of darkness, everyone has one. I've seen mine, I can guarantee that I can show you yours," he said. "There is light and dark in all of us." He added, "This is a film that's about a war in Iraq. But it's also about something much larger."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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