Screenwriter Peter Bowker discusses his miniseries, Occupation, a gritty, street-level look at the war in Iraq that has been called one of the best Brit dramas of the decade.
The ancient Iraqi epic poem Gilgamesh, about a hero’s battle with mortality, hovers over the action of BBC America’s gripping miniseries Occupation, which airs in a four-hour block on Sunday evening. Taking a street-level view of the British and American occupation of Iraq, it offers a searing portrait of how the road to hell is indeed paved with good (and sometimes not-so-good) intentions.
Hailed by The Observer as “one of the very best—maybe even among the top three—British dramas of the decade,” Occupation comes on the heels of a slew of films that have sought to depict the Iraq experience but failed to capture much audience interest. However, Occupation, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-frontrunner The Hurt Locker, manages to make the Iraq War not only accessible, but painfully compelling. It fuses elements of domestic drama and suspense with military action, and focuses not on epic battles but on individual soldiers in the chaos. The result is an Iraq piece that explores the psychological and moral implications of war, rather than its political designs.
Written by Peter Bowker (author of the much-lauded musical-thriller Blackpool, also for the BBC) and directed by documentarian Nick Murphy, Occupation tells the story of three British soldiers who, having fulfilled their tour of duty in Iraq, each make the decision to return to Iraq for their own separate reasons.
“I suppose what I am interested in dramatically is how the decisions made at the highest echelons of government affect the most powerless people at the bottom of that chain, the people who have to enact those wishes,” said Bowker. “It’s far more interesting to write about the little guy than writing about the decision-makers.”
The men’s motivations for returning to war-torn Basra couldn’t be more different: Family man Sergeant Mike Swift (James Nesbitt) has fallen in love with married Iraqi doctor Aliyah (Lubna Azabal) and willingly returns to the combat zone to be near her; mentally unstable Corporal Danny Peterson (Stephen Graham) is lured back by the promise of easy riches by an American private military contractor; Lance Corporal Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) is drifting after returning to civilian life and wants to help the Iraqi people they left behind. Their stories are woven together, offering a complex view of the Iraqi occupation and capturing the perspective of the soldiers, the private military contractors, and the Iraqi civilians, as well as the soldiers’ families back home in Britain.
Peter Bowker, Occupation’s screenwriter, said, “People thought that Vietnam got blanket coverage but, my god, every nuance of the [Iraq] war has played out on our screens as it happened.”
It’s a unique take on a contentious war that’s played in our living rooms nightly since the occupation of Iraq first began. Given the pervasive nature of news footage from Iraq, it’s almost certain that many of us have been desensitized to the war, which Bowker said motivated him to write Occupation.
“Because of advances in technology and the 24-hour rolling news programs and the fact that you can film anything on your phone now, this is the most documented war as it happens,” Bowker said. “People thought that Vietnam got blanket coverage but, my god, every nuance of the [Iraq] war has played out on our screens as it happened… You’re not under-informed about this war, if anything you’re over-informed. But I believe that story at some level can touch an audience, can take an audience somewhere that news footage just [causes them] to turn over.”
The idea for Occupation stemmed from Bowker reading about private military contractors in Iraq. “In this country that we were told was impenetrably dangerous, guys were just turning up,” he said. “I wanted a story that was about character rather than war.”
To try to get inside the heads of soldiers Mike, Danny, and Hibbsy, Bowker spent time at a military counseling center called Combat Stress, where former servicemen receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions. “You are talking to people who have gone through the macho disguising of pain and mental anguish and have actually opened up at the other end,” said Bowker.
Occupation deals with that process head-on. Bowker himself said that he feels that the mainstream media doesn’t provide enough coverage of the psychological affects of war on the soldiers themselves. “They don’t over here, certainly, in that people are wary of what we might call ‘mental-health issues’ anyway,” said Bowker. “There are certain stereotypes we are used to with our armed forces and one is brave and plucky or it’s OK for a guy to have a breakdown if both of his legs have been blown off, everybody kind of understands that. But if physically there appears to be nothing wrong with you, I think people have a problem reading trauma as anything other than some sort of recent indulgence that’s been invented by the liberals to divide the military at some level.”
Those lingering effects of war are felt by each of the characters, but Occupation is at its heart about the consequences of each of their actions, even amid an uncertain war with no definitive outcome. Introduced to the epic poem “Gilgamesh” by his Iraqi lover, James Nesbitt’s Mike finds himself trapped between his battle-torn past and his duty as a father and a husband and discovers a universal truth in its pages: “Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand/Let a spouse delight in your bosom.”
It’s a commandment to live in the moment, something that’s lost amid the violence of occupied Iraq. And it opens a door within Mike that he didn’t know previously existed, even as he’s faced with the knowledge that what we seek to attain is forever out of our grasp. “It’s almost as though ‘Gilgamesh’ told me what I was writing about,” said Bowker. “It knew before I did.”
Despite “Gilgamesh” being a thematic influence, Occupation’s subject matter makes having an underlying political message unavoidable. “I’ve said that this isn’t a polemical piece but it can’t avoid being a political piece,” Bowker said. “Part of me wants to be undeclared on it and have people draw their own conclusions. But if it makes a political point, it’s quite straightforwardly that the lack of a plan—agreeing with the invasion or disagreeing with the invasion becomes irrelevant—has made Iraq such a tragic scenario for the last [six] years.”
Of course, the world has changed since the occupation of Iraq first began. Danny's quest within the drama to follow the money trail there takes on new meaning when one considers the larger scale of corruption in the era following the bank bailouts. “The one irony in it is that when I was writing [ Occupation], $2 billion or $4 billion went missing [in Iraq],” said Bowker with a wry laugh. “Now all of these banks have been bailed out with public money, of course. And you go, that’s nothing.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a Web site devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.