Making a film can take you to strange and wonderful places; so can screening it. Each year Watson’s Choices Program invites high school teachers from around the US to their Summer Institute on global affairs. I cannot say no to its indomitable director, Susie Graseck, who asked if I would screen Human Terrain for the group. I thought it might also be a good opportunity to get Human Terrain out into a younger demographic. Which did happen, judging from the follow-up requests; but one stood out from the rest. It came from Lisa Carter, a public high school teacher from upstate New York who asked if I would come up to screen the film for a more mature audience, the Salisbury Forum. I’d not heard of them but they are one of many uncelebrated non-profit groups started by local ‘graying’ communities seeking to understand and respond to global issues pressing hard on their good consciences.
Several emails and six months later I was driving through a beautiful stretch of the Berkshires en route to the Millerton Moviehouse, run by a dedicated husband-and-wife team, Steve and Carol Sadlon, who had bought a former Grange Hall, turned porn film house, into a fully digitized, first-rate, first-run cinema with thrsee good-sized theatre –in a town of 900 souls. I was amazed to see so many folks show up for the Sunday 11.30 AM screening (moved back from the usual 11 because the local clergy had complained about empty pews). The main theater upstairs filled up quickly with the Salisbury crowd, and the downstairs one was opened up to accommodate some local families that showed up late.
I had decided on the drive down to try a different intro, not to say what the film was – or was not – ‘about’, but to address what Michael Bhatia asks in the opening minutes of the film: ‘What’s the “why”?’ Just what was the ‘why’ behind Human Terrain the program, but also Human Terrain the movie? Origins are always dubious, subject to the allure of ‘presentism’, in which the past logically and neatly adds up to the moment at hand. I wanted to highlight the function played by accidents, coincidences, unforeseen tragedies, and yes, synchronicities, that made not just the history of the Human Terrain program but also the making of Human Terrain so different a film than what Michael, David, and I had first envisioned.
I re-counted that first moment, when I thought there might be a film here. In March 2005, I had been invited to ‘Defense: Models/Strategies/Media’, a crit-lit conference at UC-Irvine, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to investigate an effort by the Marines to apply lessons after the insurgency went full-bore in the streets of Fallujah. At a time when the Human Terrain System was still only a gleam in the eye of Montgomery McFate and Steve Fondacaro, the Marine’s War Fighting Laboratory had already taken over an abandoned part of the March Air Reserve Base outside of Riverside, California, filled a couple of trailers with desks and Soviet-style armaments, imported a handful of Iraqi-Americans from LA to play bad guys, draped some female Marines in green sheets (‘burkas’), and produced a laundry-list of bad stuff to rain down on Marines who were there in prep for deployment.
The guy in charge, (then) Major Patrick Kline, who would go on to become director of the Urban Warfare Training program at Twentynine Palms, said he’d take me through the exercise. From dawn (literally) to dusk (figuratively), I was able to observe and shoot with my trusty Panasonic EZ50 eighteen different scenarios, ranging from IED’s to suicide bombers to mortar attacks to abductions. That night I went back to my motel, physically spent but psychically juiced by what I had seen; using the much-maligned iMovie, I edited it down to a 15-minute clip that I screened the next day at the Irvine conference. The reaction, dare I say ‘shock and awe’, of that hard-to-please audience convinced me there was something happening here. I decided to follow-up on Kline’s invitation to come see what they would soon be cooking up in the Mojave Desert.
Back at the Moviehouse, after one of the best Q & A’s ever (capped by an intervention by a Navy Lt. Commander who took me and the crowd to task for failing to support the war effort), we spilled out into the lobby of the Moviehouse, which doubled as an art gallery. It was then that I fully appreciated the photographs on the walls: they were of the young Bob Dylan, taken by the remarkable Don Hunstein who now lived just down the road, and at 83, was in the mid-stage of Altzheimers. Back in the ‘60s he had been the official photographer and designer for Columbia Records, where he took the iconic images of Dylan that would grace his first album covers. One photo stopped me short: Dylan in Ray-Bans, tight black suit, white button-down shirt, and pointy boots, face uplifted to sing into a boom mic. What caught my eye were the guitars. There were two acoustics, one was lying on the ground and the other propped up on the wall. He was playing a Fender. It was 1965. Dylan goes electric.
After a short, friendly negotiation, I swapped my honorarium for the photo. Hustling home to make the Oscars, I put on the CD from the live 1966 Manchester concert, where after an acoustic set Dylan straps on an electric guitar. A guy in the audience cries out ‘Judas!’ Dylan retorts ‘I don’t believe you – You’re a liar’. And then, barely audible (he must have turned his back to the mic), you can hear him say to the band (not yet ‘The Band’ but the Hawks): ‘Play it fuckin’ loud.’ Which they did – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – and I did, bringing it all back home.