Scholar's first film captures Iraq

by Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

13 August 2007


“I’ve wanted, semi-secretly, to make films for a long time,” confesses Charles Ferguson, the 52-year-old political-science scholar, information-technology author, and software developer.

And a decade ago, after he sold a little Web development tool called FrontPage to Microsoft, Ferguson became a millionaire. He had the financial wherewithal to pursue his semi-secret desire.

cover art

No End in Sight

Director: Charles Ferguson
Cast: Chris Allbritton, Richard Armitage, Linda Bilmes, Barbara Bodine, Gerald Burke, James Fallows, Gen. Jay Garner, Ann Gildroy, Hugo Gonzalez, Col. Paul Hughes, Seth Moulton, George Packer, Samantha Power, Nir Rosen, Walter Slocombe, David Yancey

(Magnolia Pictures)
US theatrical: 27 Jul 2007 (Limited release)

Review [1.Sep.2008]

It’s taken him a while, but the result, “No End in Sight,” which emerged from the Sundance Film Festival in January with a special documentary jury prize, isn’t merely an impressive screen debut. It’s an important historical document, a clear-eyed account of everything that has gone wrong in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, interviewed high-ranking officials and former officials in the Bush administration, the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as military on the ground in Baghdad, Iraqi government and religious leaders, and Iraqi citizens.

Ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Gen. Jay Garner, Bush national security adviser Walter Slocombe - Ferguson conducted more than 35 on-camera interviews, amassing more than 250 hours of footage.

The novice filmmaker spent a month in spring 2006 in Iraq, traveling with a small team of interpreters, cameramen, and private security personnel, moving from the Kurdish enclaves in the north to the IED-dotted roadways around Baghdad, researching, reporting, interviewing, filming. “No End in Sight” - with a budget of about $2 million, funded by Ferguson himself - reveals how decisions by top officials in the Bush administration and the Iraq reconstruction operation have led to the unraveling of the social order in Iraq, collapse of the country’s infrastructure, the rise of the insurgency, and the state of chaos that exists there today.

“I tried to make the film in such a way that it would be of interest to people regardless whether they had been in favor of the war or not,” says Ferguson, who lives in San Francisco and says he was initially very much in support of the invasion of Iraq.

“This was about how policy was made, and how policy was implemented - primarily occupation policy. It’s not about whether there was a good case or not to go to war against Saddam Hussein. ...

“I wanted to convey what a horrific mess this has become, but I wanted to avoid something that seemed strident or ideological,” he explains. “That’s not what the film is, and it’s not the way I wanted the film to be seen. I tried extremely hard to make a film that was about politics and policy but which was itself not political, or partisan.

“Just, here are the facts, here’s what happened.”

Ferguson’s film, with its meticulously laid out, inside view of reconstruction planning and policy, should be required viewing for politicians on both sides of the aisle, and for military strategists and historians. In fact, one of the things Ferguson is trying very hard to do is have “No End in Sight” shown at military education institutions such as West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He has also sent copies of the film to “all the senior members of the administration” and to President Bush. Of course, he has no idea if Bush has watched it.

Ferguson, who has degrees in mathematics (UC Berkeley) and political science (MIT), says he’s been in love with movies since he was a child. He’s a film-festival junkie, a regular at the Telluride and Tribeca fests. He has a number of friends in the business. But he knows that watching movies, and hobnobbing with Hollywood types, is an altogether different thing from making movies. So, as he was beginning to formulate his ideas for “No End in Sight,” he sought out a mentor, and found one in Alex Gibney, the Oscar-nominated director of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

“I had seen his films, and liked them a lot,” Ferguson says. “I saw Enron, which is a political documentary, but he’s made other films, about other things, that I liked a lot. He made a documentary about the blues called “Lightning in a Bottle.” ... It turned out that he and I had a couple of mutual acquaintances. So he took my call, and I persuaded him that although I had never made a movie before that there was some possibility that I could walk and chew gum at the same time. And he took me on, we made a deal. Alex was great. ... He was just incredibly helpful.”

Although Ferguson says he had moments of doubt and fear along the way, “I hope it’s not arrogant to say that mostly I thought that I was capable of doing this.”

That capability shines through in “No End in Sight.” The experience has reinforced his desire to continue making movies.

“I have many ideas for films that I would like to make,” he says with a chuckle. “I spend 1 percent of my time right now thinking about them. Because, right now, I’m focused very intently on launching this film, and making sure it’s seen as widely as possible.

“But I loved the process of making the film; I found it one of the most rewarding, fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life, and if the world lets me, if people are willing to back me, invest in me, work with me, all that, I would love to keep making movies.”

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