Monday, August 06, 2007

PRI: To The Best Of Our Knowledge

Boots On the Ground - Stories From Iraq
Part Five: Coming Home

"Anne Strainchamps talked with Colby Buzzell over 4 years ago after he returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq... He and Anne talked again."

091122A Coming Home


President Obama says our combat mission in Iraq will end by August 31, 2010. This leaves many unanswered questions. What was our mission in Iraq? Did we succeed? What will become of the country we invaded? Whatever the answers, our troops are coming home. But what are they coming home to? In this hour of To the Best of Our Knowledge, we'll talk with Iraq War veterans about the challenges of coming home. And, what about us? Are WE ready for THEM?

Digging A Hole All The Way To America

New article on page 108 about Shenzhen, China in the August 2007 issue of Esquire magazine.

Inside Capitalist China: A Tour de Force Travelogue
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; C01

So Colby Buzzell is standing in the underwear aisle in a Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, China, one of the nine Wal-Marts in the city, minding his own business and shopping for socks, when suddenly this guy with rotting teeth taps him on the arm and shows him a cellphone picture of a cute, smiling Chinese girl.

"You like?" he says. Then he types into the cellphone the price of a night of bliss with this woman -- 1,200 yuan, or about $150.

Buzzell shoos the pimp away and chooses a five-pack of white socks, but the pimp returns with a special sale price -- 800 yuan.

"I looked around for security or maybe somebody else who thought it was a bit odd that some stranger was approaching me inside a Wal-Mart trying to pimp out this Chinese girl," Buzzell writes in his weird and hilarious article on Shenzhen in the August Esquire.

But nobody else in the packed store seemed to think pimping in Wal-Mart is the least bit odd. Perhaps that's because nearly everything in Shenzhen is completely bizarre, as Buzzell demonstrates in this deadpan comic travelogue.

Buzzell is not a China correspondent. He's not really even a reporter. He's a 31-year-old Californian, a former stoner and skate punk who joined the Army and served as a combat infantryman in Iraq in 2003. He started blogging about his experiences in Iraq. The blog attracted a lot of attention and became the basis of Buzzell's widely praised book, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq." Now, Esquire periodically sends Buzzell out to some interesting part of the world to wander around and report what he sees in a style that could be described as "chatty, with attitude."

Shenzhen is a perfect topic for Buzzell. In 1979, it was a tiny fishing village near Hong Kong. Then the Chinese Communist government decided to make Shenzhen an experiment in its new policy of no-holds-barred capitalism. Now, the place has 11 million people, many of them working in foreign-owned factories for a couple of dollars a day, and others working as hookers, dope dealers, pickpockets, beggars, McDonald's fry cooks, Starbucks baristas and the "second wives" of rich Hong Kong businessmen who still have first wives back home.

It's also "the world capital of faux merchandise," Buzzell writes, a place where "everything is bootlegged" -- clothes, sneakers, iPods, PlayStations, movies and millions of T-shirts. Many of the T-shirts bear slogans in English, sort of. Buzzell saw shirts that read, "Who The Wish Are Blackwire" and "Bizarre Must Awesome Want."

He also saw boxes of tea inexplicably decorated with a John Deere logo.

"Those Che T-shirts are made here, too," Buzzell writes. "Shirts made in a communist country by workers who make $1.50 a day, shipped to slackers in a rich country who'll pay twenty bucks they got from Dad for a T-shirt. I'll bet that's just the way Che wanted to be remembered."

Buzzell doesn't act like a reporter, interviewing officials and experts. He just sort of wanders around until he runs into people who speak a bit of English and then he asks them to show him their world. Through this method, he ends up singing a karaoke version of a Celine Dion song in the tiny high-rise apartment of a Chinese Starbucks barista, then climbing up to the roof of the building and gazing out at the Shenzhen skyline "with its hundreds of construction cranes staking the landscape like dinosaurs."

At one point, Buzzell ends up drinking beer with young businessmen, two Brits and one American, who explain the brave new world of globalization.

"Back home, there's this place that used to make these tile bricks," one of the Brits tells Buzzell. "The problem was, they lasted for 80 years. The Chinese make their bricks for cheap, and theirs last only 18 months, which means in 18 months you have to buy more bricks, thus it's good for the economy because it keeps everybody with a job."

"Is that why everything I buy from China falls apart so fast?" Buzzell asks.

"Exactly!" the Brit says. "It keeps everybody with a job."

"It's the finish of one historical cycle," adds another businessman as he chomps into some ribs, "and the start of another."

San Francisco Chronicle Magazine

Getting By in the Tenderloin
by Colby Buzzell

This article appeared Sunday, August 5, 2007 on page CM - 19

2008 Oscar Nominees

A complete list of nominees for the 80th Academy Awards, announced Jan. 22:

Best Documentary Feature: "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," "No End in Sight," "Sicko," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "War/Dance."

"Former military blogger Colby Buzzell's high-octane tale of a street shootout is accompanied by still-frame, comic-book-style animation, while Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl's simple story about escorting a dead Marine's remains back to his Wyoming hometown is set against peaceful, unpopulated footage of the locations, ending with the dead soldier's grave. On the evidence, I'd guess that Buzzell is a war critic and Strobl is a gung-ho patriot, but I can't be quite sure and it doesn't much matter. Hearing their stories in their own words -- something few of us, pro- or antiwar, bother to do -- is the entire point. (The material is read aloud by various actors, including Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart and Blair Underwood.)"

"Several cinematic techniques are employed to realize these tales beyond straight-ahead re-creations. The most distinctive is “Men in Black” by Colby Buzzell, which utilizes a kind of animatic process to present a harrowing street fight, with animated bullets and spent cartridges flying out of the weapons of still illustrations. It's the most vulgar of the lot, with plenty of profanity to heighten the intensity. Most distressing, though, is that after he returned home, he stopped telling people he was in Iraq, because they didn't seem all that interested."
-the Trade, OR

"One of the best segments, a stark comic-style animation that accompanies Colby Buzzell's piece, "Men in Black," actually adds to the experience of the reading. Actually, an entire documentary about Buzzell, who wrote a popular anonymous blog from the frontlines before his commanding officers found out about it, would have been interesting. "

"Some passages are more effective than others, and none is better than the one from army specialist Colby Buzzell, who discusses manning a Bradley vehicle through an ambush in Mosul; Robbins tells his tale through a series of comic-book-like graphic sketches."

-the Onion A.V. Club

Movie synopsis:

OPERATION HOMECOMING is a unique documentary that explores the firsthand accounts of American soldiers through their own words. The film is built upon a project created by the National Endowment for the Arts to gather the writing of soldiers and their families who have participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through interviews and dramatic readings, the film transforms selections from this collection of writing into a deep examination of the experiences of the men and women who are serving in America's armed forces. At the same time it provides depth and context to these experiences through a broader look at the universal themes of war literature.

The writing in OPERATION HOMECOMING covers the full spectrum — poetry, fiction, memoir, letters, journals and essays. The stories recounted here are sad, funny, violent and uplifting. Yet each one displays an honesty and intensity that is rarely seen in explorations of the war. Through an extraordinary group of men and women it presents a profound window into the human side of America's current conflicts.

At the core of the writing in OPERATION HOMECOMING is a deep desire by all those who have served in war to come to terms with their experiences. Throughout the film the soldiers, young and old, express a profound hope that people will listen to their stories and try to understand what they have seen.

Gloom dominates tight Oscar documentary race
By Mary Milliken
Monday, February 18, 2008

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Viewers may think some of the nominees for best picture at next week's Academy Awards are dark, but they pale in comparison with the movies competing for the coveted Oscar for best documentary.

War, torture and sickness are some of the topics explored by the nominees. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

Unlike last year, when "An Inconvenient Truth" about Al Gore's slide show on global warming was the favorite and duly won, industry watchers say this year's contest is wide open.

Just as Oscar voters chose the Gore film to signal defense of the environment, this year they may decide the time is right to draw attention to the Iraq war.

"From the short-list to the nominees, the Academy voters were very interested in films that were about Iraq," said documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack, who writes the film blog "All these wonderful things."

"No End in Sight" documents how the military strategy of a few powerful men led to a deepening conflict, while "Operation Homecoming" puts soldiers' poignant writings about combat and loss on film.

"Taxi to the Dark Side" laments America's use of torture in prisoner interrogations at Guantanamo Bay prison camp and in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore's "Sicko" looks at the failure of the United States to provide health care to millions, including one man who must decide which of two severed fingers he can afford to have reattached.

"War/Dance" follows war-weary children in northern Uganda, describing how they rebuild their lives through music and dance. This film, a favorite with audiences, may be the most upbeat of the nominees.


Schnack said that "each of the topics could be something that the Academy wants to rally behind." Health care reform, for example, is a top issue in the U.S. presidential race.

"Sicko" is by far the most successful of the nominated documentaries at U.S. box offices, grossing $25 million, the third largest ever for a documentary of its kind.

But the Academy may overlook Moore since he won the Oscar for 2002's "Bowling for Columbine" about a tragic mass shooting in a Colorado high school.

"No End in Sight," directed by Charles Ferguson, is second at the box office among nominees, grossing $1.4 million.

Alex Gibney's timing with "Taxi," which has just been released, could not have been better with public debate raging over "waterboarding" -- a simulated drowning technique the CIA admits to having used during interrogations after the September 11 attacks.

Gibney persuaded several high-ranking officials to talk in his film about the use of torture in U.S. detention centers.

"I think they were motivated to speak out because they felt their voices weren't being heard in the corridors of power," said Gibney, also executive producer of "No End in Sight."

As is often the case in documentaries, normal people -- not stars -- get a platform to make themselves heard, like the soldiers in Richard Robbins' "Operation Homecoming," based on a writing project by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Colby Buzzell wrote his vignette, "Men in Black," after living through an horrific Iraqi street battle. "We watch the news and hear talking points like 'We shouldn't be there,' and people are sick of that," he said. "Richard's movie with soldiers telling stories hits home hard."