Edet Belzberg discusses how she made her recent documentary about recruiting for the military.
Question: Why did you make the documentary The Recruiter?
Edet Belzburg: It was 2004, and I was really just not satisfied with what I was reading about the war and, in particular, about the soldiers. I felt that, you know, in every paper, there would be a list of the soldiers who died, which is their names, the town they were from and their age. And sometimes there would be a photograph. And I felt very disconnected from what was happening and from the people who were serving. And when I did find out any information about them or who they were, why they joined, it was once they had been killed. So I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at first. But I started getting subscriptions to all sorts of magazines and newspapers. One of which was the Army Times. And I was reading that for a few months, I think, until I read an article about Sergeant Usie. And he had just won the Army Times Soldier of the Year award, in part, for being one of the most successful recruiters in the United States. There was a picture of him, you know, leading, like, running with a group of high school students who were his new recruits. And they were so young. And I thought, wow, I want to know why he’s so successful, who these kids are before they join, before they become soldiers, while they’re still in high school. And so I gave him a call. He got on the phone. I told him that I was interested in doing a documentary film. We spoke for a few minutes. He agreed. And then I said, “That’s great.” And, you know, we hung up. And then about ten seconds later, the phone rang again and he said, “Well, you know, this is going to have to actually go through Army chain of command.” And I said, “No, I figured that.” And then a process began really for me to get access and get approval from the Army.
Question: How did you get permission from the Army to film?
Edet Belzburg: It actually was remarkably, I don’t want to say easy but, uncomplicated. They just asked me to write a letter. I did. I wrote a very short letter just explaining what I wanted to do, that I wanted to follow Sergeant Usie and a few of his recruits. They did a background check on me, which I learned later, after people, you know, people who called me and told me that they received phone calls from the Army. And that was it. And then I signed a contract with them, which I have to say was one of the most filmmaker-friendly contracts I’ve ever received. And it really gave us an enormous amount of flexibility and control. It ultimately became, I think, based-- it was based on my relationship more than anything, because the Army gave me the approval. But at any point, any of the soldiers or the recruiters could have said, no, we don’t want to do this anymore. But I think I built a good relationship with them. And then, also, when I was at basic training, again, it was at the discretion of the drill sergeants and the public affairs people there, at the different bases, to decide, you know, how long we would stay, what we would do. And so that’s what happened.
Question: Did you know you wanted to film young recruits?
Edet Belzburg: I really, you know, he had a number of recru-- when I arrived, there were a few recruits who were already shipping off to basic training. There were a number of kids, and they were in the group that would be there for another year before they shipped. So that was one reason. It really just happened. I was looking, you know, they all had different reasons for joining. And to me that was interesting, you know. Their backgrounds were all varied. And so it just really fell into place that way. And I found them all very compelling.
Question: Does filming young people create unique challenges?
Edet Belzburg: If anything, it opens things up. Because you really, you know, I mean, specifically to this film, I mean, they’re at such a specific point in their life. Who can’t remember being 17? You know, and college seemed so distant. And leaving home and kind of the vulnerability and fear and excitement of that age and everything is in front of you. And I think that was what was interesting. I think, you know, to be with them before they actually went through basic training, went from civilian to soldiers and made that transition, I wanted to be with them at the point in their life before that so we could know who they were before and why they made those decisions.
Question: Was filming in boot camp intimidating?
Edet Belzburg: No, it was incredible. It was really incredible. I mean, that was-- it was really unbelievable on so many different levels. But, one, you know, it is this incredibly stimulating experience, which I didn’t really anticipate. But, you know, it would take me, like, a week to get over a week to be there because you’re just so charged after being there. But it was, you know, the first few weeks of boot camp, the kids go through a tremendous amount. It’s really that transition from civilian to soldier, where it’s the total control period, where they can’t do anything. They can’t read anything. It’s the very stereotypical scene of the sergeants yelling at you and being treated inhumanely. And then that slowly changes. They have the red and blue and then white phase of boot camp, which they go through. And the red is the really intense one. But boot camp was, you know, what they go through-- the different trai-- it seems so distant now, my god. The different training for-- infantry training’s very different than just combat support. And so Fort Benning and Fort Jackson all ha-- you know, are very, very different. And the training is very different. But it was a very intense experience, and seeing what they went through was incredible. So yeah.
Recorded on: 07/16/2008