Mike Shiley used to work as a sales rep for Nextel. The Portland, Ore., native wasn't a trained journalist, wasn't a filmmaker, and he most definitely wasn't anything close to a certified machine gun specialist for the United States Army. But things change quickly when you decide to finagle your way into Iraq with little more than a video camera, some loose media affiliations and the gumption to insert your previously content couch-potato self directly into the sketchiest parts of a war-torn country just to check stuff out firsthand.
"When I watched the news I realized this was a historic event," Shiley said in a recent phone interview, recalling his impressions of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "I could begin to see the media spinning things, just how they were portraying the overall situation. I had this burning desire to go over there and see it for myself. I wanted to make my own film about Iraq."
Shiley's big idea was to approach his local ABC affiliate in Portland and inquire about covering the war for the station. "They laughed pretty hard," he says. "They thought it was funny since I didn't really have any credentials." Shiley, however, wasn't joking, and persistence paid off. KATU eventually offered him a letter of reference as a stringer for the station with an assignment to cover the Oregon National Guard in Iraq. He was also given the name and phone number of a "fixer" in Amman, Jordan, a local who helps traveling journalists once they arrive in the Middle East. Beyond that, Shiley had nothing. He packed one bag with his own gear and clothing, cashed in his own frequent flier miles to pay for an airline ticket, and slaved over a computer and lamination machine at a Portland Kinko's to create his own press pass. "I thought for sure I needed something that looked official to make this work," he says.
But he didn't. Upon arriving in Amman, Shiley connected with the fixer and then joined a convoy of ABC journalists making the perilous 12-hour drive across the Jordanian border to Baghdad. Much to Shiley's surprise, no one cared about his letter from KATU and no one even looked at his homemade press pass. All he needed to cross into Iraq was his passport.
"I was pretty disappointed about the press pass just because I spent so much time on it," he says. "I was proud of that thing."
While Shiley did file stories for KATU, the majority of his adventures are captured in a separate 85-minute documentary, Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories. The film includes footage shot during Shiley's two months in the country, documenting everything from his harrowing initial car ride over the border to his time entrenched with an Army unit along a remote and dangerous stretch of the Syrian border. The result is a fascinating, unfiltered look at the war from an Average Joe's perspective-devoid of any overt political stance and unbogged-down by talking-head analysis. Shiley simply followed his innate curiosity and let the camera record what he found.
"There's no way I could have done this film today," he says. "When I was there was when we had first occupied the country, there wasn't nearly the animosity that there is today. If I tried to make this film now I'm not sure the same people would talk to me."
The film's opening focuses on Baghdad. In one scene, Shiley has a guide take him to a back-alley market where pornography is peddled by and to locals of all ages-a new phenomenon previously outlawed under Saddam Hussein's regime. In another scene, while driving just outside Baghdad, Shiley passes an impromptu and illegal assault weapons market. Because his driver is related to one of the sellers, he's allowed to record the cache of guns and ammunition piled upon folding tables-for , anyone can purchase a rocket-propelled grenade and grenade launcher.
"Say hello to America," Shiley says to one customer at the market. The customer cocks his newly purchased AK-47, waves his hand and then points the assault rifle at the camera.
The second half of Shiley's documentary focuses on American military operations. In one particularly revealing segment, he travels to the largest military base in Iraq and spends time with personnel in charge of the facility's dump site, a place where an alarming amount of useful raw materials and unopened food is inexplicably thrown away. The dump's barbed-wire perimeter is lined with Iraqis who steal the trash at the risk of being shot-a commentary on the military's wastefulness as well as the desperate circumstance of the country's largely unemployed population.
When Shiley later gains access to an Army unit patrolling a remote Syrian border town, he's allowed to ride along in a controversial "harass and intimidate" mission that includes firing all of the convoy's weapons down a dry riverbed in a show of force. Shiley fired a machine gun from a million Abrams tank during the mission, but only after completing a one-hour "weapons certification program" earlier in the day.
"It's incredible that they would allow a journalist to wear a uniform and join a tank troop and fire a tank during an actual mission," says Shiley now, adding that the unit awarded him a citizen's combat medal for riding along. "I was shocked...The whole mission was pee-your-pants scary, and here I was in the middle of it holding a gun."
Part of the financing for Inside Iraq came from a grainy, night-vision video that Shiley received anonymously during his travels. The video, which appears in the film, shows an Apache helicopter crew gunning down suspicious but unarmed Iraqis. The video fetched Shiley ,000 from ABC News (and was later featured on "Nightline"), which helped him cover costs and self-release his film last year.
Since then, Shiley has continued to tinker with the editing-the fifth and final version, which includes "a new hair-raising scene," will be screened in Missoula Monday, Nov. 21-and struggled to find a nationwide distributor.
"I've had interest in the film, but many don't like it because it doesn't take a hard political bent," he says. "They're all looking for the next Fahrenheit 9/11, and that's not what I wanted to make."
Instead, Shiley's decided to distribute the film on his own, booking a 60-show national tour. The DIY role is one Shiley sells well-he no longer works for Nextel-and he hopes it will lead to a new career.
"Here I am, just a local yokel with a video camera," he says. "I went from that, and now I'm a journalist and a filmmaker. It's pretty wild."
Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories will be screened at the Wilma Theatre Monday, Nov. 21, at 5:30 and 8 PM. Director Mike Shiley will speak with the audience following both shows. Tickets are for students, for the public, and proceeds benefit UM's Students for Peace and Justice and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center.