Interview with Amir Bar-Lev, part 2


In which Pvt. Tillman Meets Pvt. Lynch and Bar-Lev sees religion in everything. (Read Part I of my interview here.)

PK: Also, military service was a tradition in his family.

ABL: Yeah, part of my reading list was stuff about Wittgenstein. It's not uncommon that people who live very safe lives volunteer to fight because...

PK: Wittgenstein was in the army when the Austrians...

ABL: Right, which was kind of crazy. I mean, WWI, people were dying by the millions.

PK: He wasn't in the trenches.

ABL: No, he wasn't. But if you read about his reasons for enlisting, he talks about hoping to find himself. And I think there is a sense that people have that they will confront themselves in a way that is impossible to do outside of a life or death situation. That's in the film, I think it connects with parts of Pat's reasoning. But I mean, really, I don't know.

PK: I mean, this guy was reading Noam Chomsky, that was one of the big revelations for me. I mean, I don't even read Chomsky.

ABL: Yeah, I don't either.

PK: One of the things that was also very striking to me was that there was this conjunction between him and the rescue of Jessica Lynch. It's like these two fictional narratives colliding.


ABL: It was a happy coincidence for our film because you could almost tell a mini-story that is really talking about Pat Tillman in a lot of ways. There were quite a few of those. Great little loop-d-loops, for lack of a better word, that we had while making this film, because we worked on it for three years. So it's not necessarily surprising that we started to draw all these connections. WWII was a big part of it, in a way, because, and a lot of this ended up on the cutting room floor, if you read the way people talk about Pat Tillman it's almost invariably they liken him to a figure cut from the greatest generation. So then I started to do Lexus Nexus on transcripts of television in the 3 months after 9/11 and where the words greatest generation were mentioned. You find that that was a big part of the discourse, that we have returned to a time of moral certitude and collective purpose that we had lost in the Clinton years.

PK: For about two weeks.

ABL: Yeah, and in the earlier cuts of the film we had this great footage. We had a line from Boston Public Radio or something, it was a guy saying "For years we have been living in what has loosely been called the ‘postmodern' era in which nothing really matters, there is no truth, everything is morally relative. Suddenly a plane flies into the World Trade Center and people say ‘Yes! There is truth.'" But it's such a great Freudian slip to go, "and people say ‘Yes!'" Like if you cut it there it's like, there it is, right there. The joy, the gratification that certain people took at returning to a time of meaning.

PK: It's like at the beginning of WWI when everyone was jubilant. You mentioned it was 3 years that you were making this movie. So you started up right after you finished "My Kid Could Paint That?"

ABL: Yeah, I think we started in October 2007. It was a slow beginning, because it was a lot of courting of the family, so it wasn't like we began shooting. So we weren't shooting and cutting for three years. But the cutting did take a year actually.

PK: It sounds like you're the kind of filmmaker that immerses yourself in a lot of material and then try to find what it is you're trying to say.

ABL: I do. I've made only three films, but on all of them, the use of archival has been a pleasurable and improvisational thing where you kind of pull archival material together and it gives you new ideas.

PK: It's like doing a term paper almost.

ABL: Yeah, it's like a scavenger hunt. It scares the shit out of my producers. Because he'll sort of overhear me talking to the archival producer. "I need all the red carpets of the WWII movies of the late 90s, like "Saving Private Ryan." And he's like "I thought we were making a movie about Pat Tillman." For a long time we wanted to talk about the ground from which Pat Tillman sprung. And I don't mean Pat Tillman himself, but our idealization of Pat Tillman. It had a lot to do with the fact that 9/11 ushered in this time where we could be the greatest generation. There's a great Chris Hayes essay called "The Great War on Terror." And he talks about how the late 90s our nostalgia for WWII and the greatest generation laid the foundation for our response to 9/11. But none of this made the film.

PK: It seems like, in "My Kid Could Paint That," the story is in medias res, that there's something going on that you become involved in and then actually become personally involved in the story. Is that going on here?

ABL: Umm I think not actually, if I understand correctly.

PK: You're picking up the story after the congressional hearing and at the point where she says she's done everything.

ABL: That was where we started. That was one of the reasons that, visually, we felt it had to be more polished because there wouldn't be much action taking in place in front of you. So we lugged around a dolly.

PK: So you don't actually see the story unfolding in front of you.

ABL: It already happened.

PK: So what did happen?

ABL: That's the big challenge for the film and for audiences, that there are no two people who agree on what happened that day. You know, Dannie Tillman, who studied this more than anybody still doesn't feel that she understands what happened that day. Which leads to conspiracies that he was assasinated, which I don't believe. But it's very hard to understand how these soldiers on this vehicle could have fired between a minute to two minutes.

PK: So they're 40 meters away and he's yelling at them in English who he is. And they already shot the Afghan guy.

ABL: And 40 meters is nothing. But two others in the platoon were hit.

PK: I'm just wondering if they shot him, realized they screwed up and decided to clear the evidence by killing everybody.

ABL: Again, this is speculation. The closest thing in my mind to an explanation is that these soldiers were extremely keyed up and that there is a catharsis to using these weapons. To me, the kind of clue to beginning to understand this is when Dannie found those statements "I wanted to stand and firefight." Those statements are little signposts that challenge the Tillmans and audiences to broaden their understanding of what combat is. Not to say combat isn't terrifying and horrible, it is all those things, I've never been in combat...but these are mostly 19-year-old kids, they don't want to go back and say "I didn't see any combat, I didn't see any action." They don't want to tell their grandkids "We just hung out around base." And when this opportunity arose, there were possibly a couple of people shooting at them, and then they ran away, and these soldiers basically became irrational.

PK: Was it General Sherman that said "There's nothing deadlier than a 19-year-old kid with a gun?" Or maybe it was Glenn Beck.

You said you got degree in comparative religion. Can you, like, marry people and stuff?

ABL: No it's just philosophy.

PK: Do you have a favorite religion?

ABL: I had a focus. I focused on Zen and Taoism.

PK: How did you go from getting a BA in comparative religion to making films?

ABL: Well, I also studied film at the same time. I knew I wasn't going to continue with religion as a profession.

PK: Really? Religion is hopping these days.

ABL: Yeah, I guess I took the wrong path. It's a great foundation though. It's a great paradigm to see the world through. A little bit philosophy, a little anthropology and a focus on how people find meaning in the world. A little bit of psychology, too, I guess. It's a rut that I can't get out of, I see it in everything.

PK: The world can't get out of it.

ABL: Yeah, and it's not just religiosity. But the way they talk about Pat Tillman is religious. So, yeah.

NEXT: Interview with Amir Bar-Lev, Part III: Why does it always end up on a discussion about Werner Herzog? And the Grateful Dead?

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