Before Fallujah fell

There are two kinds of documentaries. Some documentaries attack with a bitingly partisan edge, trying to sway the viewer to agree. The other is a neutral recording of facts, without an easy message, that demands the viewer make up their own mind.

The new documentary “Occupation: Dreamland,” which falls into the latter category, is one of the hardest documentaries I’ve ever watched

It follows a squad of soldiers around Fallujah in late 2004, just before the city was seized and besieged by the Marines. The filmmakers do not try and hammer home any points; they record what the soldiers do and interview them to find out how they feel about doing it. Some soldiers were fiercely Republican, some zealously partisan and others maddeningly depressed. But all of them shared an overwhelming sense of futility with their presence in Iraq.

These boys, most of them younger than 22, had been trained to fire guns and kill people efficiently. They were being ordered to foster public relations to residents in a culture that they knew nothing about. This incredible hybrid of goals, attainable only by extremely well trained military personnel, was the task of volunteer National Guard troops who had no interest or desire in accomplishing the impossible.

Frequent mission objectives were “Provide security and public relations during city council meeting.” Security, these boys were well equipped and trained for. But public relations were a joke. The soldiers would walk through crowds of Iraqis, and through a translator ask the assembled men what they thought about the occupation. This gave the pent-up frustrations of the oppressed citizens no more than an opportunity to vent.

“Why do we have no electricity? It has been months, and I have no job.”

“Where is the water?”

“Why do you kidnap our women? You can take our men, fine. But our women?”

“You come in here promising water, and electricity, and democracy, but all we get is guns. Guns and more guns.”

After a few minutes, the crowd gets worked up, and the soldier asks the interpreter to thank them for their time, and the soldier leaves.

This is what passed for public relations in Fallujah.

The city was destined to be overrun by war, and bombed into rubble by the Marines. The soldiers in “Occupation: Dreamland” were not contributing to any process that could have had a peaceful conclusion, and they knew it.

Reaching the end of the documentary, and finding a complete lack of solution, was hard as a viewer. But if you really want to know what the experience is like to be a soldier in Iraq, ending your viewing experience filled with an utter sense of futility is a good start.

It is not a documentary with an agenda; it shows the life of an enlisted man on the Iraqi sands. It is not glorious, like the “Army of One” commercials proclaim. It is also not horrendous, as many war hawks fear a documentary coming from Iraq would show life there to be. It is a futile, boring, dangerous existence that does not have any sort of productive ending.

It is difficult to describe the sense of loss, and inability to accomplish, that one feels at the end of the film. No questions were neatly answered. No solution presented itself. Nobody seemed to even know what the problem was. But the problem was growing, and everyone could tell.

Luckily, the picture-perfect ending was provided by the US military. A few months after the filmmakers left, they destroyed Fallujah. Many of the Iraqis in the film are dead. “Occupation: Dreamland” shows what it is like to do counterproductive work in a doomed city.

Army missions without productive endings spell disaster, as we saw with Fallujah. A documentary without a productive ending could be said to fail in its purpose – unless it is trying to convey what it is covering. If the filmmakers wanted the audience to react to the film as soldiers reacted to daily life in Iraq, they succeeded admirably.

“Occupation: Dreamland” runs until Sept. 29 at the Clinton Street Theatre.

Shows at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.