The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 
PHOTO COURTESY OF MORNINGLIGHT FILMS

Katonah resident James Spione, whose short documentary “Incident in New Baghdad” has been nominated for an Academy Award.

 
Oscar-nominated filmmaker takes personal look at a deadly attack

By JOHN ROCHE

In 2010, when Katonah filmmaker James Spione first heard through WikiLeaks about a controversial U.S. military attack in which Iraqi civilians and two journalists were mistakenly killed, he had no intention of making a documentary about it.

Now, two years later, Mr. Spione’s 22-minute film about the 2007 attack, “Incident in New Baghdad,” has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject category, and he’s working on turning it into a feature-length film.

“The initial details of the incident when they came out through WikiLeaks caught my attention, and as I looked into it a little more, what really intrigued me was why nobody seemed to be digging any deeper into it, including the mainstream media and the American public,” Mr. Spione said. “What began as mostly curiosity and concern on my part about this incident simply as a citizen led to disillusionment about how little discussion or follow-up, much less any real investigative or in-depth reporting, was happening about the incident itself, its context, the reasons behind it and especially the people who were directly involved in it. Then, the more I looked into it, the more I knew I couldn’t stop.”

The documentary takes a very personal view of the deadly attack that killed innocent civilians and two Reuter’s journalists after U.S. military helicopter pilots apparently mistook a photographer’s camera for a weapon. Central to “Incident in New Baghdad” is the firsthand testimony of U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord, one of the first soldiers to reach the scene on the ground. Mr. McCord rescued two children that day who were caught in the crossfire.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MORNINGLIGHT FILMS

The eyewitness account of an aerial assault that killed two journalists and unarmed Iraqi civilians told by U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord, above, is the central focus of “Incident in New Baghdad.”

 
“When the helicopter cockpit footage from the incident was made public by WikiLeaks, there seemed to be more opinionated debate about WikiLeaks, the fact that someone leaked the video and the war in general,” Mr. Spione recalled. “I began to poke around the Internet trying to find out more, and I came across an interview Ethan McCord did for a blog.”

Mr. Spione tried to learn more about Mr. McCord’s gripping account of what he saw and did the day of the attack, but couldn’t find anything further.

“That really got me,” the filmmaker said. “I mean, here was someone who was not just an eyewitness to this controversial incident, but actually saved lives in the course of it, and not one American TV journalist interviewed him, and the print media didn’t pursue his story either. That says a lot about the state of the mainstream media, and says just as much about us because we accept that kind of shallow discourse and reporting.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF MORNINGLIGHT FILMS

Army veteran and now antiwar activist Ethan McCord plays with his young daughter in the backyard of their Kansas home in a scene from James Spione’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Incident in New Baghdad.”

 

Two weeks later, Mr. Spione left his home in Katonah, where he’s lived since 2008, and flew to Wichita, Kansas, to interview Mr. McCord.

As Mr. Spione began interviewing the former soldier, he began to see Mr. McCord’s transformation from the incident as perhaps the real story that needed to be told.      

“Believe it or not, I’m still the only American film or television producer to tell Ethan McCord’s story,” Mr. Spione said the day he learned the documentary got the Oscar nomination. “Ethan went from a very patriotic soldier, a war hero really, to a member of the U.S. military and then a veteran who is completely disillusioned about the war, and finally to an antiwar activist. His is an amazing story set against the backdrop of this terribly tragic incident and this horrific war. The dramatic, profound transformation that Ethan undergoes is a story I just felt I couldn’t not tell once I stumbled across it.”

In addition to Mr. McCord’s eyewitness account, “Incident in New Baghdad” features incredible photographs that the soldier took that day, capturing some of the carnage and the aftermath. The short documentary also features much of the 39 minutes of the grainy but dramatic footage shot from the helicopter, which was dubbed “Collateral Murder” when it was made public by WikiLeaks.

Another major storyline in the documentary is Mr. McCord’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, since the deadly incident in July 2007 and continuing long after he returned home from combat. Mr. McCord was actually denied counseling while in Iraq by the U.S. military.

“What’s happening to veterans suffering from PTSD in this country is really as invisible to the general American public as the brutal realities of war that are happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe,” Mr. Spione said. “The suicide rate in the past several years for returning vets is about 18 per day. That’s an alarming statistic, but there really isn’t any real or widespread alarm about it. That’s because we’re blind to it, for the most part, just as we’re generally blind to the suffering, death and other horrors that are happening in these ongoing wars.”

Mr. Spione said he has a deeper understanding of what he views as the pervasive “psychic numbing” about the horrors of war, particularly in this country, for those who aren’t directly involved in it.

“In large part, the brutal realities of war are hidden, or at least invisible, to most people,” he said. “But even when we do hear the stories or statistics about the impacts of war, it’s usually just too overwhelming for us to embrace. It’s so horrific, so close to impossible for the human mind to comprehend that it has a numbing effect. Our mind usually has to block out the senseless brutality and the shocking statistics. But when it’s a personal story, or told in a personal way, as I think ‘Incident in New Baghdad’ is, perhaps it breaks through that numbing a bit.”

Working from his in-home studio on Sunnyridge Road in Katonah, where he lives with his wife, Pamela, and their two sons, Samuel, 12, and Galileo, 5, and where his production company, MorningLight Films, is based, Mr. Spione is already planning a feature-length documentary about the incident, telling the story from the points of view of others who were there that day. “I want to be able to share the stories of others involved in the incident — other veterans who were in Ethan’s unit, the families of the journalists who were killed, the two kids who watched their father die, maybe even the gunner who pulled the trigger,” Mr. Spione said. “I hope to capture an even deeper sense of what happened that day, and how so many lives were impacted, by putting together more eyewitness accounts and personal stories. I think by looking at this incident in particular, we can get a clearer look at war in general.”     

Early in his 27-year film career, Mr. Spione largely focused on creating suspenseful dramatic shorts, including his thesis film, “Prelude,” which won a Student Academy Award, and “Garden” and “The Playroom.”

An editor, writer and producer as well as a director, he shifted his focus to documentaries. In 2005, he made “American Farm,” a feature-length documentary that focused on the predicament of his family’s fifth-generation dairy farm in central New York State, followed three years later by “Our Island Home,” a historical look at the last surviving residents of a vanished settlement on the eastern shore of Virginia.

Now he’s anxiously waiting for the Oscars, which take place on Sunday, Feb. 26.

This week, he said he’s grateful to be sharing the excitement over the Oscar nomination with his family, friends and neighbors. “We held a screening for friends and neighbors at the Lake Katonah Clubhouse last week, and it was packed,” Mr. Spione said. “Our whole community is hugely excited.”

Although “Incident in New Baghdad” has won top honors at the Tribeca Film Festival and other film festivals around the country, Mr. Spione said he’s both humbled and thrilled to be up for an Academy Award.

“It’s a thrill to be nominated, if that’s not too much of an understatement,” he said. “Of course, I’m pleased that this will get the film plenty of attention, but it’s pretty cool to be up for an Oscar on a bunch of levels.”   



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FEBRUARY 10, 2012