In 2003, Australian journalist Michael Ware found himself in Iraq in the midst of the complex, multi-sided conflict that broke out following the events of September 11, 2001. Holding a camera for the first time, surrounded by gunfire and explosions and no doubt missing his home, Ware showed a remarkable amount of boldness and managed to attain some of the most shocking and illuminating footage to come out of the Middle East in the past decade.
Only the Dead presents Ware's rough footage, as well as an ever-present voiceover delivered by a more grizzled Ware than the one we see on-screen. Throughout, Ware remains a largely objective observer, not only as he tags along with American soldiers, but also when he comes up close and personal with the guerilla fighters opposed to both the U.S. presence in Iraq and the incumbent Iraqi government. Some of the footage shown in this movie is so frightening - from the hooded figures planning an ambush, to the grisly scenes of death - that you will want to look away.
But it's important that we look. It's important that we're aware of what happened in Iraq at that time. Wisely, Ware keeps the distinction between extremism and Islam completely separate, but he still remains non-judgemental. Ware tells a story of dizzyingly complex morality and confronting gravity with a steady and controlled hand. The film is not even 90-minutes long, but by the end you will feel as if you too experienced the near-decade that Ware spent in Iraq.
Moments of levity turn would could have been an apocalyptic journal of ruin turn this into a profoundly emotional experience. Ware helps us to understand that everyone involved in the conflict - no matter where their loyalties lie - is a human being. In sharp opposition to the popular "Us vs. Them" dichotomy that dictates many war narratives, Ware urgently wants us to understand the why of the war, and not just the what. On that count, he does a spectacular job.
There is no hero worship in this documentary - it does not glorify war in any way. Ware remarks at one point that in war there are no winners; only the dead truly see the end of war, he says later. The film is a thought-provoking evocation of the long-lasting effects of war - the trauma and destruction to people and their homes that is still being healed and rebuilt to this day. In the beginning, Ware sees war as an adventure of sorts, though he is aware of the danger. By the film's end, there is a clear sense that something of himself has been lost to the war.
You can see Only the Dead in a special screening at Palace Verona, which will be followed by a Q&A with Michael Ware.