The Iraq Diaries

All most people ever see of the war in Iraq are brief film clips on TV news. For Santa Barbara filmmaker Gordon Forbes that just wasn’t enough.

“When I saw clips of the Battle of Fallujah, it was absolutely compelling, and I knew I had to go… That’s when I realized it was a real, hand-to-hand war,” said Forbes, a Santa Barbara native who has been making mostly documentary and underwater films out of his local office for 30 years.

Forbes’s previous films include three one-hour programs called “Beating Vegas” (on MIT students who won millions from the world's biggest casinos by perfecting the system of card counting), “Primal Scream,” (on being lost at sea and survival from shark attack in the Galapagos), and “Spring Break: The Money and the Madness” (on the economics and college student activities during spring break in Texas and Florida), as well as several documentaries on subjects ranging from a prison riot, a trip to Antarctica, an Emmy Award-winning look at the Navy Seals, and “Top Gun,” about the Navy’s F-14 fighter pilots, which Forbes said inspired the Hollywood blockbuster fictional film of the same name.

All in all, he estimates he’s created more than 60 hours of television in the last 10 years. But nothing moved him like this new assignment.

“I decided if I’m going to call myself a documentary filmmaker, I’ve got to go where the issues of our time are taking place,” he said. “Spring break was fun, the FBI was interesting, and I enjoyed myself diving with sharks, but you’ve got to go and take chances. The Iraq war is defining our times. I had to tell it from a ground level.”

So two summers ago, Forbes spent three months embedded with the U.S. Marines’ 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion during its deployment to the Sunni Triangle. He captured the daily grind of the men in Alpha Company as they attempted to root out insurgents responsible for IEDs and other acts of terrorism – from helicopter raids and mounted patrols to everyday interactions with the people of Iraq.

The footage was edited into three segments collectively called “Alpha Company: Iraq Diary Film Series” that clock in at just under an hour each. Shown last year on the Military Channel, the films will be screened over three Thursdays in August at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; attendance is free.

“Strangers in a Strange Land,” which aired Thursday, August 2, found the troops in the midst of blinding sandstorms and severe temperatures trying to identify an enemy who hides among the local populace. In “In the Wilderness of Zaidon” (5:30 pm, Thursday, August 9), the company learns the insurgency operates more like organized crime than a religious jihad. And “The Rules of Engagement” (5:30 pm, Thursday, August 23) covers the company as they carry out a plan to capture the head of the insurgents with the help of some local Iraqis.

Forbes rode along for all the operations.

“At first I got scared,” he said. “I realized how little I knew about surviving in 130-degree heat in a desert, or how to get along with guys 20-30 years younger than me. But I had to experience that danger firsthand in order to explain it to everyone why the military were doing such a toe-to-toe job. Being out there with them with no agenda earned their respect, and they took care of me.”

If the whole thing sounds like a bunch of government propaganda, Forbes took pains to distance himself from right-wing politics.

“I’m not a war dog at all,” he says. “I hate war, although I’m fascinated by it. And I’m not a Republican. I think they lied to get us into this war in the first place. I want to get a shirt that says ‘Impeach Cheney first.’ But terrorism is a real serious problem. The die-hard guys over there are trouble. They have a fanatic mentality. They’re like the Crips and the Bloods. There are so many sects and power groups who have an attitude toward life that couldn’t be more impersonal. I needed to show that.”