- Greetings from Anbar province: A Humvee humbled in Shawn Bronson's Team Predator.
It's a feature-length documentary about U.S. soldiers in Iraq, it's called Team Predator, and it opens with a series of voice-over quotes from President George W. Bush -- lofty words meant to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Yet Shawn D. Bronson, the Pennsylvania National Guardsman who served as a gunner stationed at Camp Habbaniya, says he wasn't thinking politics when he made Team Predator. And indeed, the Bush soundbites are unexpectedly colored by the accompanying images: grainy video of the cramped interior of a Humvee that's rolling down a tight Anbar province alley. And then Bush's voice ceases, and the sounds of Company A 1-110th Infantry undergoing its first attack are punctuated by an unseen soldier exclaiming "Holy shit!"
Western Pennsylvania's entry in the digital-era genre of war documentaries by soldiers makes its Pittsburgh premiere at the Tue., April 10, installment of the Film Kitchen series.
Bronson, a native of Indiana, Pa., is a junior majoring in Cinema and Digital Arts at Point Park University. He started classes there in August 2004; the call-up came in December. While his company's year in Iraq began in July 2005, the inspiration for the movie came when he was on the ground -- partly from video other soldiers shot, partly from Michael Tucker's 2004 soldiers-in-Iraq doc Gunner Palace.
Bronson shot half of Team Predator's footage, some with a side-mounted helmet-cam; much of the rest came from Victor Schwartzmiller, of Carlisle. Bronson edited on his laptop and was done before returning stateside.
Team Predator -- titled after an old nickname for the company -- is meant as "Iraq for Dummies," says Bronson, who's 22. He divides the 100-minute movie into chapters on such subjects as training, in-country accommodations and "Iraqi People."
As a gunner, Bronson manned the roof port of a Humvee. He stood behind a 50-caliber machine gun, watched for threats -- and shot back. He also spent a lot of time on foot patrol. But while Team Predator records its share of IED explosions, and night raids in search of weapons caches, Bronson emphasizes that even in a war zone, life in a military camp can be as uneventful as it's depicted in another film he admires, Sam Mendes' Jarhead. One of Bronson's subjects says he might spend all day snacking on Gatorade and chips. At one point, soldiers break the barracks boredom with a cheese-eating contest.
While the military code of conduct prevented Bronson from depicting some aspects of his experience -- casualties and detainees were off-limits -- Team Predator suggests the psychological fallout for occupiers in a country where, as one soldier says, the locals might feed you one minute and shoot you the next. Meanwhile, while his subjects' frequent usage of f-word derivations prompted Bronson's on-screen warning about offensive language, some viewers might be more offended when a soldier cheerfully lists his gripe with Iraq: "Not enough hajis dying. I'd like to shoot some hajis, and steal some stuff from hajis."
Bronson -- whose friend Randy McCauley was the company's lone member killed in action -- says he felt obliged to simply show the soldiers as they were.
A similar sense of obligation had driven him to join the National Guard after high school: His family has a military background, he says, and "I'm a firm believer in paying respects to people who did it for me." (Indeed, Bronson, who lives in Mount Washington, combines full-time studies, free-lance video work and a media-production-company internship with another kind of service: a weekend EMT job, in Indiana.)
Yet at heart, Bronson adds, "I'm not a military guy at all." And he disavows ulterior motives, even in those Bush quotes. "I didn't want to hit any kind of political agenda," he says.
"I kind of look at it from the perspective of how I was thrown into it from the whole big loop of things," he says. "It didn't matter whether we [soldiers] agreed or disagreed with [the invasion]."
Bronson acknowledges that "I'm very confused as to what the exact purpose to initially invading Iraq was." But, he adds, "We need to finish this before we pull out. ... I think we need to come to some sort of a resolution."
Team Predator screened last summer in Indiana; in November, excerpts comprised two episodes of the Military Channel's show My War Diary, and aired on The Discovery Channel. But with cinematic inspirations including Martin Scorsese, Bronson ultimately wants to make not documentaries, but narrative fiction films. "I like to work with actors," he says. "That's my passion."
Film Kitchen 8 p.m. Tue., April 10 (7 p.m. reception). Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $4. 412-316-3342, x178 or www.filmkitchenpgh.org