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A Salute to Garrett Scott (1968 – 2006)

Photo by Christian Parenti

Independent Spirit Awards, March 4, 2006. Presentation of Truer Than Fiction Award
by Willem Dafoe and Lili Taylor

Dafoe: This year’s winner, according to the committee, displayed humor, compassion and clear-eyed artistry in creating an intense, riveting documentary. The Truer Than Fiction Award goes to Garrett Scott and Ian Olds for Occupation: Dreamland.

Acceptance by Ian Olds: I may have a hard time getting through this. I don’t know how many of you know but two days ago my filmmaking partner Garrett Scott died of a heart attack at the age of 37, so I’m just trying to get through today and go from there. I didn’t want to come but I came for him to honor the work he does, the work we did together. When I think of him I think of his powerful and unique mind, I think of his sense of humor and his warm heart. We spent two months together in Iraq and had a sort of heavy time over there and we came back and we were editing this film and still we somehow ended up laughing all the time while we were editing a war film about Falluja. I don’t know how that works but it’s a testament to him. One of the soldiers in the film called me last night and said “we were taught not to trust anyone with a camera and a microphone.” This was a guy who had politics far different from Garrett and myself, and he said “But I knew I could trust you guys and I could trust Garrett.” That would mean a lot to Garrett, probably more than this award in fact. He was an honest man.

Who I am as a person and a filmmaker I owe in great part to him. So I accept this award on his behalf and his honor. I loved him like a brother. I miss him already. —Ian Olds

Garrett Scott was one of the best filmmakers of his generation, though he only got to make two films. I met him in California when he was still a waiter. We both moved to Brooklyn around the same time and we traveled to Iraq together. It’s hard to know what to say about a young dead friend. Our time in Iraq together was often stressful. Along with the violence and fear, there was the pressure we each faced to produce our work despite the heat and later the cold, the question of logistics, money issues, etc. It was taxing.

I remember the first time I was ever in combat was with Garrett, and it was also his first time. He was very brave in a sort of checked-out SoCal way—sort of like “don’t sweat the little stuff.” I both loved and hated that attitude. At times it made me feel safe to be with him, like nothing could happen to a dude this collected. At other times I worried that his disregard of the risks was a challenge to the gods of random horror, one they might notice and punish.

On the day of our Baghdad firefight, Garrett wore his trademark square blue sunglasses—I always told him they made him look like a pilot in the hipster air force. As bullets hissed by, Garrett shot video and smoked bad Iraqi cigarettes. He was unnervingly calm. As the firefight ended (the US won the engagement, but, as you can see, not the war) a BBC crew in flack vests and helmets waddled up to ask Garrett if he would sell his footage. We had been first on the scene and closest to the action. Garrett was now Steve McQueen, if anyone ever could be. “What’s up buddy?” said Garrett, a smoke hanging from his lips, the world a cool blue haze from behind those hipster air force shades. The Brits seemed so pudgy, soft and lame while Garrett, Mr. All-American freelancer, with no vest or helmet, seemed so damn hip. And we were elated to be alive. That evening as the sun set through the filthy Baghdad air we stood on the narrow balcony of our hotel, drank beer, and filmed a military raid and sweep on the streets below.

Garrett wasn’t just a brave Californian; he was also a very serious intellectual. He was of the don’t-tell-me-what-you-think, tell-me-what-you-know school. Every time I saw him he seemed to have just read a good or at least useful article or book. That too was very inspiring and comforting. And his mind worked in bizarre, roundabout ways that were at first obscure but ultimately brilliant. He kept Rube Goldberg-like chains of causality running in his mind. And the stories in his films were deceptively subtle but always quietly informed by these elaborate, deliberate, and intensely thought-out ideas.

Garrett was headed off to Afghanistan next and he also had a historically-based project underway in the Bay Area. I wish I could have seen those films. —Christian Parenti

The day after Garrett passed away all of us at Rumur put a notice up on our web site. A few hours later I got a call from a soldier who was one of the subjects of Garrett’s film Occupation: Dreamland. He was extremely upset and expressed his great admiration and respect for Garrett: “Being a soldier in the Army we knew not to trust anyone with a camera, but we immediately trusted Garrett and Ian.” I can’t remember the rest of it verbatim so I won’t transcribe it, but I will say that he went on to let me know how much he appreciated the film and Garrett. What’s significant about this is that Occupation: Dreamland takes a very hard look at the conflict in Iraq, and the results aren’t pretty. At the same time, the soldiers in the film are treated with great respect. That was Garrett, a filmmaker who took on difficult subjects about people that were in somewhat vulnerable situations, and then treated them with enough respect to show them warts and all in a manner that they could accept and appreciate. It’s hard to describe the kind of tightrope act it is to pull this off, but Garrett (and Ian) made it look easy. —Mike Galinsky

Some time ago, a guy called from California wanting advice on a rough cut of his first film. Initially annoyed about being called out of the blue at home, I got curious when he told me what it was about. With some hesitation, I told him to send it and I’d see if I could give some advice. It turns out I couldn’t: I loved Cul de Sac, and there was virtually nothing I could suggest that he change. I couldn’t believe it was his first film. We became friends from then on. When my film Little Flags opened for his at the New York Underground festival, we finally met. Shortly thereafter, I got a long missive from him about my short film—one of the most provocative, brilliant, occasionally dizzying takes that anyone has ever had on my work.

Garrett and Ian made films together that are indicative of what documentary can be: where unfolding events in the real world becomes jumping off points for a mode of open inquiry. The films are enthralling without the cheap grasping for “marketable entertainment” that increasingly infects even non-fiction filmmaking. As a “cinema essay,” Cul de Sac spins out from one sad incident to a universe of connected but hidden histories. Forgotten speed freaks become actors in an American tragedy whose broader stages are the entire military industrial complex and the invention of the Suburbs. The movie is funny as well as incredibly sad, but its characters are listened to, not laughed at, even when they step off the deep end. It’s a deeply humane film and an important touchstone for understanding recent American history. It’s no accident that Chris Marker loved it. Occupation: Dreamland is also vital for letting its subjects speak, for serving as an act of witness rather than hammering at us with foregone conclusions (even those with which the Left is comfortable). We need more of that kind of filmmaking, and these films live on as fine examples. I miss Garrett as a comrade and a friend. —Jem Cohen

Since my sons Jonas and Oliver were born in 2003 and 2005, it’s been a little more difficult to socialize as much as I’d like. Which has made any kind of solid or affecting interaction that happens when I do make it out all the more important / welcome / appreciated / special…

I wish I could have seen him more, because Garrett was one of those few friends with whom I could always pick up exactly where I left off—with whom I could get in and go deep, right off the bat. Any time. No matter how long it had been…

The first time we met I felt like I’d known him forever. Maybe that’s why I still can’t remember when that was exactly. I don’t have a lot of people like that around, and it’s now getting a little easier to see people more often. If there’s anyone that I was looking forward to spending more time with, it was Garrett. We’d been talking more often, trying to make plans.

He felt closer, but I still missed the last chance I had… —Braden King

Photo by Christian Parenti

Garrett struggled a lot. It can be tempting to gloss over that once someone dies. Garrett worked hard to make his films. I met him in San Francisco just after he finished Cul de Sac. He was applying to festivals and trying to get screenings, while researching what he thought would be his next film, about urban renewal in San Francisco. He was working as a waiter. A year after I moved to New York, he and his girlfriend Rachael moved here too. Cul de Sac had recently sold for television, but the deal fell through. Then someone else bought it, but there were strings attached. He had money, but it wasn’t his yet. Later, we talked about the importance of generating “facts on the ground,” whereby you make your film/book with all the commitment a serious piece requires, creating a situation in which a producer/foundation/publisher can’t ignore your work.

Garrett went to Iraq twice. I never heard him complain about fear, only about logistics, only about trying to get his work done. He was often open about the stresses, frustrations and disappointments he experienced. He felt these things deeply. Once he returned, he wrestled with finding the story in what he’d shot, and securing enough funding. All the time Garrett studied the news, theory, history. After he and Ian finished_Occupation: Dreamland_ we talked about how fleeting the gratification is once a project is complete; compared to all the labor and heartache that go into the making, the happiness of success seems so brief. For every step forward, there were many other steps Garrett took that might now go unnoticed. But it’s all of these steps that have helped me learn. And I learned a lot from Garrett, not only from talking to him, but from watching him, from listening, as well as from the exceptional storytelling in his films. There is much more I wanted to talk to Garrett about, much more I wanted to observe, but these were things that could only emerge over time from the complicated process of working and living. I miss my friend and fellow maker. —Heather Rogers

I miss him and I miss what else he would surely bring into this world. The two films Garrett made with Ian Olds exemplify one of the most important aspects of documentaries: they take an incident or a character that is easy to stereotype and unwrap it, showing the profound complexity and crucial context. In Cul de Sac, it was the image of a hijacked tank in suburban San Diego that was played constantly on World’s Wildest Police Videos or whatever. In Occupation: Dreamland it was the stereotype of a one-dimensional gung-ho soldier. In a cultural landscape of unending pablum, such contributions cannot be underestimated. But the effort comes with a price and Garrett was always challenged, sometimes bitter, but, most impressively, always driven forward in the face of an adversarial environment. He struggled just as most people do who put their sights on trying to reveal something that is not the status quo. Even more impressive is that he was fulfilling this ambition without the pettiness and self-aggrandizement that such a mission often fosters; rather, he was a sweet, open, and positive person with an easy West Coast flow. New Yorkers often look on this quality with suspicion—you know, the over-ingratiating Californian thing—but with Garrett that was not the case. He was purely magnanimous and interested and that’s what got not only the subjects of the films, but alos most people he met, to open up to him.

I recently had a son. I will be proud to show him Occupation: Dreamland to help him understand the war in Iraq. I will be even more proud to tell him that the filmmaker was a friend and someone I looked up to. —Williams Cole

In January of 2003, Williams and I first hung out drinking beers with Garrett and Rachael in San Francisco, at the Uptown in the Mission. Afterwards, I knew that I liked him, but couldn’t exactly say that I knew him well. Later that year, Heather hosted a screening of Cul-de-Sac at Galapagos here in Williamsburg. When this soulful, empathetic and brilliant film about the human dregs of SoCal military culture ended, I felt like I knew Garrett’s true spirit pretty damn well. Soon thereafter, Garrett came to Brooklyn. I remember standing outside with him at Iona drinking beers and talking about Cul-de-Sac late into the night. Garrett seemed moved that I was moved by the film, which further showed me how genuine of a storyteller he was.

I think that viewers of Occupation: Dreamland can share a similar sense of knowing Garrett. In Garrett and Ian’s film, a powerful sense of humanity and compassion for both Iraqi civilians and U.S. foot soldiers shines through. The film is told through the eyes of the American grunts, who are stuck in a horrific, chaotic situation, with no right moves to make. Unlike the politicians who sent them there, the soldiers—flawed, but thus fully human beings—are stuck in a genuinely tragic situation. And so are we, his many friends and future audiences, now that Garrett is no longer here to help us find a way out. —Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2006

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