Oscar nominee James Spione discusses his documentary about U.S. Army veteran Ethan McCord’s life-changing experiences at the scene of one of the most notorious events of the Iraq war: an American helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists, along with a group of mostly unarmed civilians, on the streets of Baghdad in 2007.

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Filmmaker James Spione: It was April 5th, 2010, and this group that I had never heard of at that point, called WikiLeaks, had released this classified videotape in which, unfortunately, two Reuters journalists were killed.

It’s an extremely disturbing tape to look at. As I was searching the Internet for more answers, I came upon this interview with someone named Ethan McCord, who claimed to be a soldier on the scene … 

Ethan McCord: I was dismounted that day, so I was one of the first six soldiers to walk up onto that courtyard.

Spione: … And is also, at this point, speaking out against the war. So I thought, “Well, that’s unusual.”

McCord: When I went around to the passenger’s side of the van, the soldier that I was with – who I had trained with, he was in my squad – he looked inside with me, turned around and started puking and ran away. He didn’t want to have anything to do with that part of what he saw inside, with the children.

Spione: It’s very much a one-character film. He started out as patriotically wanting to do right by his country, did what his country told him to do, and he found himself completely disillusioned and at odds with what the mission was. 

McCord: When I first pulled the girl out and I had her in my arms, cradling her …

Spione: He can’t turn off the empathy.

McCord: … It’s kind of weird to explain it, but I almost felt as if I was holding my own child.

Spione: That gets to him. He asks to see mental health, and he’s extremely discouraged and even ridiculed.

McCord: You just blow up at the smallest things. You can’t control your anger.

Spione: There’s this honesty in terms of the way he’s presenting himself. I think that’s a way in to people, to get them to hear things that are difficult is to have it be told by someone who has a lot of authority and integrity.

Independent film can go to those places that, you know, more mainstream, corporate-driven media is not going to go.

When Ethan handed me his trove of photographs, it was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as a filmmaker.

I mean, war is killing – intentional, organized, systematic killing. Telling this in a truthful way, but not putting so much in that you overload them or turn them off – this was a real challenge for me as a filmmaker. Literally and figuratively, my job with this film was to bring people out of that helicopter and down to the blood and the sand where people die.

There is a group of people in the military who are very upset about this film because really, at bottom, it’s because Ethan has stepped out of line.

I’m not certainly saying that every military engagement is necessarily bad or good, but if you’re going to have these, you should know what it is you’re talking about.

In a democracy, we are supposed to be the ones who are approving what our government does. I would hope that anyone seeing this film would just have their eyes opened a little bit, to see how one violent act in a war ripples out in so many destructive ways, no matter what side you’re on.

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Ariane Wu is Series Producer, Multimedia for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She is passionate about discovering new ways of telling stories visually and through sound. She was previously a Fulbright scholar based in Beijing, as well as a new media fellow at the Asia Society. Ariane holds bachelor’s degrees in film studies and political science from UC Berkeley.

David Ritsher is the senior editor for TV and documentaries for Reveal. He has produced and edited award-winning investigative documentaries for over 15 years, on subjects ranging from loose nukes in Russia to Latino gangs in Northern California. His work has appeared on FRONTLINE, PBS NewsHour, ABC News, National Geographic, Discovery, KQED and other national broadcast outlets. Before joining CIR, David was the coordinating producer for FRONTLINE/World for over six broadcast seasons and championed much of its experimentation with video on the web.