EXCL: No End in Sight ‘s Charles Ferguson

ON

The war in Iraq has been a much-debated hot topic in the four-and-a-half years since it began that it’s not surprising that the debate has carried over to film with dozens of excellent documentaries. The latest one to join the list is No End in Sight, the first film by author Charles Ferguson, who has used his Ph. D. in political science to explore the world of information technology and foreign relations. His film is a meticulous dissection of the months following the invasion of Iraq by American troops on March 19, 2003, and how decisions and actions (as well as inactions) by the current administration made a potentially volatile situation even worse. It’s a grim documentation of how what was once thought to be a magnanimous move to fight terrorism and save a country from its despotic leader turned into a bloody debacle of civil war and insurgency.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to briefly chat with Ferguson before he had to run off to catch a plane, trying to fit in as much press about his movie as possible into his normally busy schedule.

ComingSoon.net: There have been a lot of really good Iraq documentaries in the last two years… “Why We Fight” and “The Ground Truth”, etc… so what was the seed that got you started on this particular path?
Charles Ferguson: Dinner with George Packer in 2004. George had just come back from Iraq for the second or third time—I’ve known George for quite a while—and he made it extremely clear that things in Iraq were not as the administration was portraying them as being, to put it very mildly, and indeed not even as the media was portraying it as being. This was really a very, very broken place where a lot of serious mistakes have been made, and those mistakes were so serious that in his view, the situation was going to get dramatically worse, which proved entirely correct.

CS: Was he the first person you interviewed or did he put you in touch with other people?
Ferguson: He was kind of the first serious person with whom I spoke at great length and who really knew what he was doing. I’d spoken with other people in a semi-serious way, but that evening, spending three hours with him, and knowing what he was doing made it clear that he knew that something was going on here that was important.

CS: At what point did you decide it was going to be a documentary?
Ferguson: That decision came to me immediately. It was clear by late 2004 that there were going to be a lot of books about Iraq, which is a great thing and some of those books are extremely good including George’s, but people in America don’t read books. The total circulation of all the books that have been written about the Iraq War and occupation is maybe a million at most. Even if this film is only modestly successful, several million people will see it and if it’s quite successful, I hope that maybe 10 or 20 million people will see it, so the medium has a broader reach. I’ve wanted to make films for a very long time. It’s not that I can’t write books. I’ve written three books, but I’ve wanted to make films for a very long time and this just seemed so obvious, so important, so perfect.

CS: How did Alex Gibney get involved and what kind of involvement did he have in terms of getting things together?
Ferguson: He got involved because I called him up. He agreed to speak with me and we spoke and after a few conversations, I guess I was able to persuade him that I could walk and chew gum at the same time. Then even though I was completely unproven and never made a film before, I had some chance of getting this right or at least of doing a reasonable job, and he agreed to basically consult for me and be available to me. And he was absolutely fantastic. Every time I had a question, he gave me his time. Whenever I needed to hire somebody, he gave me a list of the six best people for this function in New York City. I can’t say enough about how helpful Alex was. He was great.

CS: How long ago did you start the movie and when did you know that you were done in terms of having all the interviews you needed so you could start editing and finish it up?
Ferguson: I started making the film in mid-2005 and made it in almost exactly 18 months. Two things happened, and luckily, they coincided well: one was that deadlines were looming and the other was that it seemed that we’ve reached a point at which we really had what we needed. It just seemed kind of obvious actually.

CS: I like the fact that your movie fills in some of the blanks of those other Iraq docs. Did you watch any of them or did you try to avoid them?
Ferguson: Oh, no, I’ve watched a number of those films. I’ve seen “Why We Fight.” I’ve seen “War Tapes.” I didn’t think much of “Why We Fight” actually. I thought “The War Tapes” was a good film. I had two goals in making this film. First was to tell the story in a comprehensive way on a large scale, and the second was to be completely un-ideological, un-partisan, to just (say) “This is what happened. These are the facts.” I’m not an ideological person. I think that ideologies tend to blind you. I think that that’s the problem that Dick Cheney has, and I think that people on the left can have that problem just as severely. I tried very hard to avoid all that and to make a film that wasn’t partisan, wasn’t political, wasn’t ideological that was very straight.

CS: Do you think documentaries like this are the last independent venue for sharing opinions and that they can have an effect on how the public views things?
Ferguson: Well, for whatever combination of reasons, the media has certainly been falling down on the job, that’s true. There are still lots of good books, but as I’ve said, people don’t seem to be read books very much, but they do go to films. There is that. We won’t know what effect a film has and how many people will see it until it’s released of course, but the early evidence is very encouraging. Our screenings have been extremely well attended and very enthusiastically received. The trailer for the film was posted on the internet three weeks ago, posted on a number of different sites, one of which was YouTube. In the first two weeks that it was up on YouTube, 20,000 people watched the trailer. In third most recent week, 170,000 people watched the trailer, over 60,000 of them yesterday alone. That suggests a very high rate of growth in interest, so I’m optimistic that in fact, the film will be widely seen and will have an effect.

CS: Why do you think the CPA and ORHA (the two organizations put in charge of rebuilding Iraq after the invasion) are left out of the equation so much when it comes to the media? We see and hear a lot about the after-effects, the bombings in Iraq, etc. but on the news, we haven’t seen a lot about why all of this is happening. Why do you think that is?
Ferguson: I think it gets back to this mysterious question of why the media doesn’t cover things anymore. I don’t think that it’s so much a matter of corporate interests actually in any straightforward way in the sense of “it’s not in my economic interest to cover this subject.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on, because coverage of the war now and of administrative policy is certainly becoming quite critical. It’s not that the media are still a lapdog for the Bush administration, it’s not that way, but coverage is still quite superficial. It seems that there aren’t that many places in the American media anymore where people do long-form, serious investigative research and go into things in any depth. I regret that a lot, and I think that the increasing popularity of documentaries is to some extent a response to that condition.

CS: Do you think there are people who are real villains in this story?
Ferguson: Yes, depending on your philosophical outlook on what it takes to make a person a villain, but I think that the arrogance and the irresponsibility and dishonesty of some of the people that have been involved in this are extraordinary and I would say that unfortunately of the President, of Vice President Cheney, of Secretary Rumsfeld, of Paul Bremer, yeah.

CS: Is it ignorance or hidden agendas that’s led them to do what they’ve done? It’s amazing they can be as ignorant as they are with decisions they’ve made that anyone with a shred of logic might not make.
Ferguson: Ignorance, blindness, arrogance, ideological rigidity, some combination of those things. I don’t know. I can’t get inside the heads of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, so I don’t know how their minds work, but I agree, it’s astonishing.

CS: Unless Cheney really thinks the Iraqis were going to fall down, throw their hands in the air and declare us their liberators.
Ferguson: Well, I don’t think that that was necessarily a foolish thing to believe. There was great joy in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was deposed. He was not liked. To put it very mildly, he killed millions of people, but the Iraqis had very, as it turned out, exaggerated and erroneous expectations of how the United States would behave and the United States unfortunately squandered its good will in a very extreme and horrific way.

CS: Have there been any avenues made to show the movie in Washington and get some of the people you mention to see it and get some sort of response or feedback? Have you gotten any responses to the movie from the administration yet?
Ferguson: The film has been sent to all senior administration officials and I know that a number of senior people in the administration and congress have seen the film. I know that Walt Slocum has seen the film. He actually Emailed me asking for a copy and we sent him a copy, and I know that he has actually seen it. He has my Email address, he has not responded, nor has anybody else in the administration.

CS: Are you at all worried about what happened with the Michael Moore movie being leaked to the internet? He’s hinted that maybe someone in the government (or for the current regime) might have been responsible to try and hurt the movie’s success at the box office.
Ferguson: No, I’m not very worried about that. In the first place, I don’t think this administration is very interested in having lots of people watch this movie.

CS: They may not be that tech-savvy either.
Ferguson: Maybe that, too, but also at a certain level, my distributor would kill me to hear me say this, but the more people that see the film the better, but I’m not worried about it. I think that economics is not very much of a barrier to people seeing films these days. Film tickets aren’t expensive. It doesn’t cost very much to rent a DVD. It’ll be out on DVD in six months, nine months, whatever. That’s not my decision, that’s the distributor’s decision, but at some point fairly soon, it will be very easy for people to see the film. I think it’s more a question of whether there’s interest and in that regard, as I said, I’m encouraged. We’ll see.

No End in Sight opens in New York and Washington DC on Friday, July 27. Thanks to Brad Balfour of TimesSquare.com for his assistance with this interview.