In 2004 the New Hampshire National Guard asked filmmaker Deborah Scranton if she wanted to "embed" as a journalist with a unit headed for Iraq. She decided to sleep on it. That night, at her home in Goshen, N.H., "I literally sat up in bed," she says, when a different idea struck her: Give video cameras to the soldiers and let them tell their own stories.
The result is "The War Tapes," a documentary shot and narrated entirely by American soldiers in Iraq in what its promoters call "the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves."
The film centers on the lives of three men - Sgt. Steve Pink, Sgt. Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty - as they take and return enemy fire, try to make sense of what they're experiencing, and eventually return home, changed in many ways. Their unit, Charlie Company, would conduct 1,200 combat operations and 250 direct engagements with the enemy during its tour of duty.
In all, 17 soldiers shot 800 hours of video for the film, mostly using small consumer-type video cameras. Ms. Scranton and a stateside crew contributed 200 more hours shooting their families and their return. In March, "The War Tapes" won the best documentary feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
It also may be the first movie edited using instant messaging (IMs) and e-mail. The film "couldn't have been made without [the Internet]," Scranton says. After battles or other major incidents, the soldiers sent short video clips and photos to her through cyberspace "so I would have an idea pretty quickly what had happened."
The IMs became "intensely personal," she says. What could have been dry exchanges about camera angles and story arcs "really became a conduit for friendship and empathy," she says.
Before agreeing to participate, the soldiers grilled her. Was she going to twist their words? What was her agenda? Was she against the war? "They wanted to know why I deserved to tell their story," she says.
The film isn't intended to take a point of view about the Iraq war but tell the story of what it's like to be a soldier from the inside out, Scranton says. Filmmaking always took a back seat to soldiering.
"They were soldiers first," she says, "and their safety was paramount." The men were "ingenious" in coming up with ways to place cameras to catch the action without endangering themselves or the mission, such as mounting them on the dashboard or gun turret of their Humvee or on their helmets or vests, where they could be operated "hands free."
Documentary filmmakers often worry about how they might influence what happens through their presence. Because these cameras were small and wielded by soldiers themselves (many other soldiers had personal cameras with them, too), they weren't as intrusive. For Scranton, that adds to the authenticity of what viewers see. "I really wanted to crawl inside of the experience of being a soldier on the ground," she says.
Where and when the men shot was up to them. "I think there is something profoundly powerful about giving ... soldiers the power to press the record button," Scranton says.
Only one piece of video was censored by military officials, a scene shot by Sergeant Pink showing a group of dead insurgents. The film substitutes other still shots of the bodies.
The film depicts the soldiers as complex individuals, whose musings on war can be profound. At one point, a US military vehicle in a fast-moving convoy accidentally hits and kills an Iraqi woman crossing a street. "I'll remember that for the rest of my life," says one soldier. "That guy, rolling the body onto the body bag and zipping her up. The Iraqi people are who we are there to help, and we just killed one of them."
"I love being a soldier," says another. "The only bad thing about the Army is you can't pick your wars."
In the end, "The War Tapes" tells "one of the oldest stories in the book," Scranton says, the same story told thousands of years ago in the Greek tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
"We're all flawed heroes on a journey," she says. "We all have battles. And we all try to make it home."
• "The War Tapes" opens Friday in New York; June 30 in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, and nationwide after that. Visit thewartapes.com