An examination of how the Iraq War went so wrong, Charles H. Ferguson’s documentary No End In Sight is by turns forensic and surreal, a synthesis of devastating facts, damning archival footage, and poignant interviews with well-placed Iraqis and Americans who tried in vein to keep catastrophe at bay. It’s an unusually ambitious film for a first-time director, but Ferguson’s background suggests that he isn’t the type of guy who lets obstacles or conventions stand in his way. He earned a doctorate in political science from MIT, then worked in government and the private sector for a few years before founding Vermeer Technologies, a pioneering Web software company that was acquired by Microsoft for $133 million in 1996. After that, Ferguson was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He wrote several books on technology (serious books with titles like The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma), and nurtured an interest in film. In 2005, as the Iraq War spiraled out of control, he founded Representational Pictures and began work on No End in Sight. The film debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize, and has lately been named the best documentary of the year by the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco film critics groups. And now, on January 28, Ferguson is publishing a book by the same name that includes material originally collected for the film, as well as new information that he has gathered from sources who contacted him after they saw No End in Sight. Ferguson recently discussed the film, the book, and the war with The Independent’s Mike Hofman.
The film has been a critical success, so congratulations. How is it doing commercially?
Well, thank you. The film has been somewhat of a commercial success in a difficult environment for documentary and independent film. I was talking with someone recently who told me that documentaries’ share of total U.S. box office revenue for the year declined to 0.8% this year, down from 2.5 % in 2006. I certainly hoped the film would do well, partially for financial reasons and because I want more people to see the film. I was talking with the president of Magnolia Pictures, our distributor, the other day, and he said the film was doing very well on DVD. That’s good news.
You’re the author of three books, and this is your first film. Why did you decide to tackle this issue through a film rather than another book?
I decided to make the film for two reasons. When I started working on the film, there were already a half-dozen good books available about what went wrong in Iraq, but there had not yet been a film about this aspect of the war. So I recognized that the incremental contribution that I could make by producing a book relative to producing a film was much smaller. That was one reason. The other reason was that, for a long time, I wanted to make a film. This seemed like an opportunity that could not and should not be passed up. And as I was making the film, I gradually came to realize that I was learning things and obtaining material that was not included in those books.
Now you’re working on a book related to the film. Did the idea of a companion book come at the beginning of the film project, or after the fact?
I realized I had extra material that I couldn’t get into the film. It runs an hour and 42 minutes with credits, and an hour and 39 minutes without them, and people already were telling me that the film was dense and that I shouldn’t try to cram too much more into it. Then, after the film came out, a couple of publishers approached me about writing a book, including Peter Osnos of Public Affairs, the one who became the publisher of my book. As we started talking more, he proposed doing the book fast, on an accelerated schedule, incorporating not just existing material—meaning the interviews I conducted for the film—but new material as well. So I have done 25 new interviews for the book.
Are these new interviews follow-up conversations with people who are in the film, or with people who had turned you down before but who were willing to talk to you after seeing how well-researched the film was? Or were they with people you didn’t know about who just came out of the woodwork?
They were in most cases people I hadn’t know about—military and intelligence officers involved in the events covered in the film who came out of the woodwork. And they were people who had very interesting things to say. There was also among the new interview subjects a group of people whom I sought out because I wanted to talk about what our policy should be going forward. I wanted to talk about Iran, and so forth.
Did you come across any new information in those interviews that challenged something that you believed before, or something that contradicted what was in the film?
No, not at all. The film was screened at Sundance last year and opened in theaters on July 27th and, in the time since then, nobody has said that anything in the film was wrong. It has stood up well. Everything in the film is basically right.
One of the big events related to the war is the surge of troop levels, which happened after the film came out. Was part of your reason for doing a book some frustration that the surge happened after the film, and you wanted to talk about it?
Not really. The last ten minutes of the film are by implication predictive about the present and the future in Iraq. I don’t think anything about the surge contradicts the film.
I know we should read the book to get many of the answers to the questions we have about the war, but what do you make of the surge and the success it is credited with having in reducing violence in Iraq?
Well, this is not principally my own personal opinion, but the aggregated views of many people with whom I spoke: The policy has produced a sharp decline in the level of violence in Iraq, with the number of incidents falling by as much as two thirds. That’s a very significant thing. But the surge’s success is limited by three caveats that are in the end more important than the surge’s temporary success.
The first caveat is that though the decline in violence is a good thing in and of itself, it was the result of some unsustainable and undesirable actions. Yes, the number of troops helped the situation, as did the way troops were deployed—General Petraeaus should be credited with superior management. But the decline in violence is partly the result of very severe restrictions that have been placed on the Iraqi people, such as shutting down vehicular traffic in all the major cities, and that is an undesirable, unsustainable policy.
The security that has been brought about because areas are policed by Sunni militias—that’s another undesirable thing. Many of these people who are helping to reduce the violence now are really not nice, not nice at all, and probably should be in jail rather than out policing the city.
The second caveat is that while there is less violence today because of the surge, the country’s infrastructure is collapsing. The electricity system, the water system, the sewage system—all of these are breaking down. Fuel is scarce. The refugee situation is bad and possibly getting worse. Refugees account for about 20% of the Iraqi population.
The third caveat is that the principle purpose of the surge was to create a temporary lull in the violence during which time the government could gets it act together and establish order and security throughout the country. And today, even with less violence, nobody has anything good to say about the Iraqi government. It is just filled with self-interested, corrupt, ineffectual people.
Many people celebrated the film for taking a cool-headed, dispassionate look at the war. Given that the book looks to the future and talks about policy, is it more of an opinion piece than the film?
No, not at all. If anything, it’s even less of an opinion piece than the film. It contains excerpts of interviews from the film, and those new interviews. And it exhibits, with regard to those policy questions and predictions, a wide array of views. Some people say pull out now. Some people say give the Iraqi government one last chance. Some people say stay. Some people say negotiate with Iran. Some people say Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The views I take into account are really all over the map.
Do you think the audience for the book will be different from the audience for the film?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure honestly. The publisher thinks that, in addition to the normal, general reader, there are two other significant potential audiences the book may attract. First, it is a presidential election year, of course, and the book will be coming out in primary season, and the publisher seems to think that many people will be interested in the book because they want to make a judgment about where we are in Iraq so that they can make a judgment about who to support for president.
Second, they think there may be a significant educational market for the book, among high school and college students taking courses on the war. And there has been some indication that that market is interested in the film. I understand that there have been a number of inquiries from high schools, universities, and other educational organizations for screenings.
Making a film tends to be a collaborative experience, while writing a book is an individual project—one person is solely responsible for the finished product, more or less. How was the experience of writing the book, for you, different from the experience of making the film?
Well, it certainly was interesting to write the book and also in some ways a difficult emotional experience. I went back to a number of people I had previously interviewed, including Iraqis, journalists, and American military personnel in Iraq. And from the time in the late summer of 2005 when we first started filming until now, it’s clear that things in Iraq have gotten much, much worse. My interpreter in Iraq told me that several members of his family have been killed and then he named all of the members of his family who were now refugees in Damascus. An Iraqi journalist who appears in the film is now living in the U.S., but he told me he had recently been in touch with his family, and they hadn’t had running water for the previous two months.
Since you brought up your interpreter, let’s take a minute to talk about what it’s like to shoot in Iraq. You shot there in 2006, I believe, and I know you have said that you spent $6,000 a day on security. What was that like?
Iraq is certainly a dangerous place, there’s no question about that. There are basically two security strategies in Iraq: high profile and low profile. With low-profile security, you try to blend in, you dress in local clothing, some people even dye their hair and grow beards. You drive around in beat-up, old “soft” cars that have no armor. Your Iraqi body guards wear plain clothes and carry no obvious weapons.
Low-profile security reduces the likelihood of attack by something like 95%. On the other hand, if you are attacked or—as happens in Iraq all the time, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time—you are much more vulnerable.
High-profile security, in contrast, involves a convoy of cars that are protected with armor. Your bodyguards, at least a half-dozen of them, wear body armor and carry automatic weapons. It makes it obvious that you are somebody important from the West. You draw a lot of attention, which makes an attack more likely. But if an attack does come, you are more likely to be shielded from it.
Which did you use?
I went low profile whenever I could, but that wasn’t very often. As soon as somebody saw our cameras and mics, it was obvious that we were from the West, and that was that. So we tended to go with high-profile security when we had equipment with us. We had three armored cars and eight guards supervised by a former Special Forces guy.
How did you select a security firm to work with?
I talked to a lot of private security firms and ended up going with a Kurdish firm, headquartered in Kurdistan. The firm’s guards—their families were safe in Kurdistan, and that’s important because when you work with a firm with Iraqis on staff, the guards’ families are sometimes vulnerable to being kidnapped and held hostage for information about your whereabouts, which can compromise your security. The company also had Kurdish staff in Baghdad and had cordoned off an entire neighborhood with its headquarters inside a ring of heavy security. It’s like a mini-Green Zone. I think there are some 50 of these areas in the city now that private security companies maintain. The neighbors can go in and out pretty freely, because the firm knows them, but anybody else is searched at various checkpoints around the block.
For the new book, you mentioned that you also have interviewed military people who came forward after seeing the film. What have you learned from them?
The thing that has been interesting about those interviews with military and intelligence people is that they have confirmed and extended the sense and the view that I had that, in March, April, and May of 2003, the decision making process with respect to post-war planning really was that bad. In fact, it was worse than I knew.
For example, I was working at my desk one day and my cellphone rang and it was a very, very, very senior military officer who said he was willing to talk to me for the first time. You would instantly recognize his name if I told it to you, and there are probably only a half-dozen people like that. Anyway, we talked for four hours. He would not permit me to quote him or to use his name, but I could use the information he gave me in the book. And it really was extraordinary, from what he told me, how little conversation and how little discussion there was among the key policy-makers and the people in the military who would have to carry out those policies.
As we say in the film, there was a nine-day period between May 1 and May 9 of 2003, during which time Ambassador Paul Bremer met with some key people like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, before leaving for Iraq for the first time. He arrived in the country on May 12. This small group made some very deeply important decisions about the nature of the interim government, the policy of de-Baathification, the decision that the Iraq Army would not be recalled, and the plan to disband the security infrastructure of Iraq.
And as the film points out, a lot of people had not heard that these decisions were even being discussed let alone being made. And this senior military officer confirmed for me that he didn’t know about these plans. Bremer showed up in Qatar on May 11 en route to Iraq, and that day was the first time that this officer spoke with Bremer and it was the first time that Bremer said anything about his plans to him. So very senior people were cut out of the loop on these very important decisions that ultimately had tremendous consequences.
Bremer comes off—and this is my word, not yours—as one of the main villains of No End in Sight. I realized as I was watching the film that I didn’t know anything about his background. Where did he come from?
He came from a very Waspy upper-class family, did his undergraduate at Yale, was a career foreign service officer, typically doing staff work for more powerful people. He was on Alexander Haig’s staff when Haig was Secretary of State. He was for a short time the Ambassador to the Netherlands. He worked for Kissinger and Associates and for a division of Marsh, the insurance company. In the foreign service and afterwards, he was involved in counterterrorism work. He was part of a presidential commission on homeland security. But he had no relevant background when it came to Iraq. He had no experience in post-war conflict or with a humanitarian reconstruction effort. He had never run a large organization. He had never served in the Middle East or in the Arab world. I don’t believe that he had ever visited Iraq before he arrived on May 12.
Was it always intended that he would usurp General Jay Garner, who was interviewed by you for No End in Sight, and who was running things up until that point? Garner, as the film notes, had the kind of experience that Bremer lacked.
Well, Bremer seems to have had the idea instantly even if others didn’t intend for him to replace Garner. It is clear that he wanted to take charge. One of the first things he requested and that he got was complete authority and autonomy to run the country, which he maintained to an astonishing degree for a while at least. Within the first week to ten days that he was in Iraq, he decided to do very sweeping things.
In contrast to Bremer, there’s a man in your film named Paul Hughes, an army colonel who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and who really comes off as the hero of the film. He seems almost like a Jimmy Stewart character. Did you start to think about him as the film’s hero as you edited the film? Were you nervous that he was almost too good to be true?
Some people have said that, but that’s not how I met Paul or experienced him. He was the guy who had the job to act as a liaison between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Army, so of course I wanted to talk to him. He was a natural person to talk to, and I felt it was essential to show what he knew and what he had seen. I interviewed him two times over two hours each time. These were long, detailed interviews and they were at times emotional. Some of that is visible in the film, and some of that is not. To me, it was so clear what he had lived, and I don’t know what to say beyond that. There was no more complexity than that in terms of my decision to use him in the film. I didn’t think he was a good movie character, although in the process of editing the film, we noticed that and we probably discussed it briefly at some point.
I want to take a moment and ask you about the film’s website, which is very elaborate and very interesting. Did you have a lot of input into its design as a result of your business experience developing Web technology?
Thank you. I’m glad you like our site. I don’t have anything to do with it though. Magnolia Pictures put it up and maintains it. It was a rather inexpensive site to put up, as far as I know. I think it cost less than $15,000. A couple of times the distributors did things I didn’t like, like putting up an ad for one of their other films, and I told them about my objections, and they took the ad down. But basically, they handle it. Soon, the publisher is going to create a website for the book, and the publisher and the film distributors are going to coordinate their efforts. The sites will have transcripts of my interviews, all of which are already in electronic form. So it’ll be an archive of the material.
What’s next after the book? Do you want to continue to concentrate on foreign policy?
Topics like the Iraq War don’t come along every day. And in a perfect world, I would also like to make feature films, so if the world of filmmaking and the audience let this occur, I would alternate between fiction and non-fiction.
And what was the most surprising aspect about making your first film, and having it turn into such a phenomenon?
I found the process of making this film remarkable in so many different ways. It was an amazing, incredible experience. The biggest surprise about the process would probably have to be how absorbing I found it, especially the editing process. I used two first-time young editors and they did an incredible job. I ended up being there with them for six to eight hours a day for six to eight months, and it was never for a moment boring.
Watch the film’s trailer.
No End in Sight is one of 15 films short-listed for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar. To learn about the other films, check out this blog post.
Visit the film’s official website.