When No End in Sight premiered at the Sundance Film Fesitval in 2007, it quickly became one of the most buzzed about films of the fest. The film continued to play well and to generate discussion, culminating in the film's nomination for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards. Cinematical talked to director Charles Ferguson by phone recently about the film, the United States government's policies in Iraq, his thoughts on what the next Adminstration needs to do, and whether we'll ever see an end to the US occupation in Iraq.
Cinematical: Let's start with what inspired you to make No End in Sight.
Charles Ferguson: The idea for the film came from my background in Political Science and policy analysis, and from talking to a number of people who were studying the Iraq war and writing books -- books like Losing Iraq, Squandered Victory, and The Assassin's Gate. In a sense I was stealing from them in that I was doing something similar to what they were doing in terms of wanting to make a film about the decisions that had been made about the war and their consequences.
I found it a little strange -- and frankly still do find it strange -- that no other film like that had been made. There were other films about Iraq but they were about very specific things -- one group of GIs, or one family, or one institution. And some of them were excellent films, but I find it really astonishing that no one else had made a film asking,"How did this happen?" span style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">Cine: Can you talk a bit about your background prior to starting work on the film?
CF: I'd wanted to make films for a long time. While I was doing other things, I'd come to the point in my life where I had the freedom to think about making a film like this. My background is poli sci and mathematics. My PhD thesis adviser was Carl Kaysen, who was security adviser under Kennedy -- a great guy with the most wicked sense of humor I've ever encountered. I took a detour into business and made some money -- built and sold a software company.
Then I went back to policy analysis again, and then I'd kind of come to a natural end to that period. I was looking for what to do next, and then along came Iraq. I wasn't interested in focusing on why the decision was made to go to war, but on what actually happened. What were the critical policy decisions that had been made, how they had happened, what the consequences of those decisions were.
CINE: One of the strongest points of your film is the type of people you were able to interview for it. How did you get that access?
CF: Most of the people I talked to were very open to talking about it. They were fairly open to the idea from the first time I approached them. Getting them to speak so openly on camera, well, really I think it was two things. First, my background -- they could tell that I had a serious background in the subject area, and that I wasn't going to make a silly, superficial film. Most of the interviews were very long, two hours,even as long as three or four. I behaved as if the camera wasn't there, I just wanted to sit down and have a conversation with them about whatever they had to say for as long as it took. And I think that helped relax people and helped them open up to speak more directly than they otherwise would have.
CINE: Did you know what approach you wanted to take from the start, or was your approach more to talk to the interview subjects first and see where it led you?
CF: I'd read a lot already, and I had ideas about what the structure of the film was going to be. I certainly didn't know everything, and in a number of cases they told me things and my jaw dropped to the floor.
CINE: Could you give me some examples?
CF: Well, for one thing, that they didn't have access to telephones or access to email.
CINE: The Iraqis?
CF: No, no. Our people over there.
CINE: How were they communicating?
CF: For the most part, they weren't. I was talking to Ray Jennings (Chief of Party in Iraq, for the United States Institute of Peace), and he said, 'well, I had to be outside the green zone to do what I was doing, and that was a huge problem, because I couldn't get to lunch in the green zone mess.' I asked him why that was a problem, and he told me that because they didn't have telephones and email, the only way to even set appointments with people was to meet for lunch and set appointments there. And then there was the 12 billion ... do you know about the 12 billion?
CINE: The missing money that nobody can account for, yes.
CF: There were two separate sources of reconstruction funding for Iraq. Eighteen billion in congressional appropriation, the official US Government effort administered by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). But there was this other effort called the Development Fund for Iraq. Iraqi assets in foreign countries had been frozen by a UN order and held in the custody of the central banks of the various nations. In 2003 immediately after the war the US got the United Nation's permission to stop the sanctions, to stop the embargo against Iraq and to unfreeze those assets, which had grown to something like 14 billion at that point. Paul Bremer (head of the CPA) ordered the federal reserve to ship planeloads of hundred dollar bills to Iraq with virtually no accounting for the money.
So they shipped 12 billion -- billion -- in hundred dollar bills, and they would literally go around giving truckloads of hundred dollar bills to ... whoever -- the Iraqi defense minister, the guy running a power plant. With no accounting at all for what it was spent on. Nine billion is still unaccounted for. Defense Minister of Iraq Hazem Shaalan personally stole over a billion dollars and is now peacefully living in Jordan. The Iraqis started getting upset with him before the Americans did, so he flew to London where he lived openly for months before leaving for Jordan. And he's been living happily in Jordan for more than two years. It's amazing what happened over there. Just amazing.
CINE: One of the jaw-dropping moments at the Sundance panel discussing your film was the part about the report that filled several binders, and President Bush didn't even read a one-page summary of it. Can you talk about that?
CF: Yes, Robert Hutchings is the chairman of the national intelligence council -- a 12 person committee in charge of integrating strategic intelligence assessments. These guys have access to all the raw intelligence from all national security agencies like the CIA. All of it. They produce assessments which they then report to the administration. Before that structure existed it was the director of the CIA they reported to. One of the first things that Hutchings told me that was astonishing is that no one in the administration asked for any intelligence on the insurgency. None at all.
So Hutchings took it on himself to make the NIC prepare such intelligence and present an assessment for the administration on the growth of the insurgency. It was very disturbing and alarming as to what it said -- and it was in direct contrast to what the administration was saying publicly about the insurgency at the time. Someone leaked it to to press and at a press conference someone asked Bush about it and he just dismissed it. Shortly thereafter it turned out that Bush had not read it -- not even the one-page summary.
CINE: What did it say?
CF: That the insurgency was already substantial, organized and growing and that contrary to the administration's statements at the time, it was not composed merely of remnants of the old regime, but had a lot of people and was quite broadly representative of the Iraqi society. And that it was continuing to grow as a result of increasing resentment over the occupation of Iraq. It presented three possible scenarios -- the least of which was that it would grow and continue to be serious, the worst being total collapse into civil war for Iraq.
CINE: Did the administration ever come back and acknowledge that report?
CF: The Bush administration has never admitted to any serious errors regarding the occupation. But then there was this other document: Beginning in 2002 to State Department began a project called the "Future of Iraq Project." It was run by the US, but the people who participated came from a number of nations. A lot of Americans, a considerable number of Iraqis and others from the Mid-East region. They produced a lot of material, to be honest, of mixed quality, but a lot of it was very good.
It was a comprehensive summary of what the issues facing post-Saddam Iraq would be. That study was completely disregarded by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and Jay Garner -- the Administrator of Iraq at that time --was specifically told by Rumsfeld not to hire the author of this document. When Garner pushed back he was told that the no-hire order came from "a level such that it could not be changed."
CF: Cheney. Only he or the president could give that order, and it wasn't Bush.
CINE: Can you talk about Alex Gibney's involvement in your film?
CF: I'd seen a couple of his films -- Enron, Lightning in a Bottle, which he produced -- When I started getting ready to make the film, I called up various eminences in the documentary world, and asked if they'd be willing to look over my shoulder and give me advice. And Alex was willing. He's a great guy, a very smart guy.
CINE: What do you hope results from people seeing your film?
CF: Well, two things: One which is immediate and specific to Iraq, that they would understand that this is a really important and messed up situation, one for which the US bears a lot of responsibility. Second, more generally with regard to the future, that the next time the leader of the US proposes that the US go to war that we think about it and examine it a little more carefully than we did this time.
CINE: Can you talk about the book?
CF: I'm happy with how it's come out. There's much more detail about the same issues the film addresses, and there are three chapters at the end of the book about the current policy situation and what to do now. There are comments with a number of different people from a number of points of view.
CINE: Have you gone on record with supporting any of the political candidates for the presidency?
CF: I've very deliberately stayed away from that. I'm not completely delighted with any of them, what they've had to say. Clinton, Obama and McCain, while I don't necessarily like everything they have to say about Iraq, they're all intelligent people, and any of them sitting in the Oval Office would be tremendously sobered, and they are going to have to think very carefully about what to do next. Senior people in the Clinton and Obama camps have seen the book and the film. I know senior people in McCain's have at least seen the film.
CINE: Do you think it's realistic for any presidential candidate to say we can just pull out of Iraq?
CF: Most policy people I've talked to seem to think that if we just pulled out it would be a bloodbath over there. That there would be a worsening of the situation in Iraq, and many people think that would pull in elements from other countries that could increase the instability of other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia. So it might be a good idea to start withdrawing a little at a time and see what happens. So far most of what we've done has worsened the situation -- we've done very little to improve the situation. For the first three years of the occupation we just made things worse. Now at the margin, we're probably making things better but only marginally so.
CINE: So will we ever really see an end in sight to the occupation of Iraq?
CF: By the end of the next president's term, not realistically, no.
CINE: Just to be clear -- you're saying that you think that it's going to take longer to get us out of Iraq, then, than the American people really want to hear right now?
CF: Yes, absolutely. There will be an end eventually, all things come to an end, but it's not going to happen overnight.
CINE: Do you have your speech ready for Oscar night, with the message you want to give the American people?
CF: I'm working on it, it's not quite there yet, but it will be.
CINE: Did any of the people you spoke to for the film fear repercussions for being so open about the Iraq situation?
CF: Yes. There were also several people who declined to be interviewed on the record, because of fear of repercussions -- that it would make them unemployable. Two quite senior people who would not speak to me on camera, both were retired from the government but are now government contractors and were afraid they would not get further work if they spoke on the record for the film.
CINE: Has there been any response to the film from the current Administration?
CF: (laughs) No, no one has ever responded.
CINE: Have they seen it?
CF: Yes, I know they have.
CINE: Does it anger you that the administration hasn't responded to the film?
CF: It makes me angrier that they've killed over half a million people.
Want to learn more about No End in Sight? Read our review of the film from Sundance 2007, our writeup of the panel discussion at Sundance, and check out Charles Ferguson's book, No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent into Chaos.