The documentary No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq is that rarest of first films: a success. The Village Voice hailed it as “masterfully edited and cumulatively walloping,” and the New Yorker called it “a classic.” It won the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Its maker is Charles Ferguson, who has long been attracted to film and had wanted to make one of his own but had plenty of other things keeping him busy. After earning a PhD in political science at MIT in 1989, he spent a decade and a half publishing public-policy papers and consulting for high-tech firms such as Cray Research, as well as filling visiting appointments at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. He also founded and led Vermeer Technologies, a software company that Microsoft bought for $133 million in 1996.
In 2004, Ferguson had some riveting conversations with people who were interested or actively involved in the invasion of Iraq. His friend George Packer, a journalist and author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, “made it clear things weren’t as the policy people were making them out to be,” Ferguson says.
Further research convinced him he’d found a powerful, topical documentary subject within his area of expertise. But experienced hands tried to dissuade him from making the film. “Try something easier first,” Ferguson says they counseled, adding dryly that there was “some merit” to the suggestion.
There was also the question of how to persuade film veterans to sign on to what could seem like a neophyte’s vanity project. Ferguson’s share of the Vermeer sale allowed him to fund the entire film, all $2 million of it. One of his biggest challenges was “convincing other people in the film industry that it was worth working with a guy who’d never done it before.”
Convince them he did: Ferguson assembled a seasoned crew and production team, including Alex Gibney, producer and director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
While Ferguson’s lack of experience in the film business made for some tough going, his doctoral and postdoc work had given him an extended network of friends in political positions. Policy icons such as Richard Armitage agreed to be interviewed, and Ferguson suspects they were more forthcoming with him than they might have been with someone who’d never worked in their field.
Interviews with high-level policy makers form the core of the film, including the testimony of many people who were or still are in Iraq, such as General Jay Garner, the first American proconsul of Iraq. In fact, Ferguson says he still has more than 3,000 pages of transcripts from interviews that did not make it into the film. He plans to make some of the information available in a book.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq is as political, in every sense, as a subject can be. Still, Ferguson maintains that his work is meant less to argue a point than to serve as a vital piece of history. “I tried hard to make the film in a nonpartisan, nonideological way,” he says. “I just try to tell what happened.”