Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story does more than connect the dots from simple AP press releases, it sheds light on Pat Tillman from a more detailed, personalized, human perspective. For those living under that rock, Tillman was a professional NFL football player who passed on the opportunity to make millions by playing with a pigskin, by joining the army to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately the uniqueness of this story had more to do with how the Bush administration took it upon themselves to cover-up the circumstances of his death and essentially spin it as a propaganda tool — essentially pouring more salt on the wounds of the Tillman family.
Bar-Lev along with the Tillman family and other witnesses depict the fallen soldier as a complex human being and try to illuminate the circumstances surrounding his death while paying tribute to a hero who’s remarkable life was cut short by tragedy. An utterly compelling and heartbreaking film about the causalities of war that is both timely, and relevant.
Yama Rahimi: First off, congratulations on your film. I have been wanting to see it ever since I heard about it because I actually had the chance to meet Pat Tillman. Back at a wedding in San Jose that I was bartending in 2000, he was hanging out at the bar and from what I gathered, was beyond small talk, there was a curiosity when he asked questions. I was startled because the waiters knew him and wanted to know what he talked about. I didn’t know who he was except for being nice and inquisitive and was fascinated that I was from Afghanistan. I think you point that in your film.
Amir Bar-Lev: That’s fascinating. You have to put that in your story. I’m gratified to hear that the film resonated to you. Maybe you haven’t tapped into Pat’s public persona as I have in the last three years but if you did, you would find he was turned into opposite of that and his inquisitiveness has been taken out of the story and replaced with the idea that he was a guy with determination and single set of beliefs. You know what I mean?
Rahimi: Yeah. Well it comes with creating the hero myth with simplified approach with a basic set of beliefs where in actuality human beings are more complex.
Bar-Lev: Well you have seen it in person as did most of his family and friends where we see it as second hand. They all say he wasn’t like that but a more complex person.
Rahimi: So how did you get involved in this project?
Bar-Lev: Well I knew about Pat Tillman what everybody knew from the news and the basic facts. Somebody told me to look into his story a little deeper and didn’t take long to see that there were two interesting parts to the story for a filmmaker. One that there was a high level cover up, and another part which we already touched upon who he really was as a person that was subjected into myth-making same as his death. So once we understood that the military lied about his death, the media lied about his life that got me very interested. That’s the kind of story that any filmmaker would be drawn to.
Rahimi: How did you get the family’s approval?
Bar-Lev: The family didn’t want to do it and they were very resistant because they are very private. They have also been very disappointed to this point to the media’s treatment of their son. So we spent a long time working on convincing them to trust us. In my last film (My Kid Could Paint That) I was pushed out by the family at the end of the film which was my calling card as I sheepishly handed over a DVD to them and told them don’t worry.
Rahimi: I was amazed how politically balanced the film was. I mean you could have gone after some culprits, specifically the military, in a more aggressive way, but it was even handed.
Bar-Lev: Well there’s a reason for that. Pat has a very wide appeal and people who admire him come from different parts of ideological spectrum. So we didn’t want to alienate a part of our audience because the film is about Pat more than anything. So we wanted to invite everybody to the dialogue of what actually happened to him and the country at the time. We will see how the dialogue goes once the film is released. I want to see the people’s reaction whether they admire somebody that doesn’t exist or don’t admire him anymore. Maybe it will ignite a dialogue about who Pat actually was.
Rahimi: What were the challenges of making the film while working along with the family?
Bar-Lev: Well the family was a challenge but a great one because all they wanted us to do was if you are going to make the film, go deeper and don’t go for the obvious aka close up of us crying or the myth. The wanted us to elevate the story to the level it deserves. So it was a good challenge. The other big challenge was that there’s no answers yet. Any audience who looks into this, will expect to be told how exactly Pat died or to be told exactly why Pat enlisted in the first place. Those answers are not in our film for obvious reasons but it has been frustrating to me that some reviews mention that Amir Bar-Lev sheds light on the Tillman matter. It’s not accurate. Hopefully we illuminated to some degree but don’t want audiences to expect to walk out with all the answers because the family doesn’t have all the answers yet. The hope for the film is to put the audience in the shoes of the family and the family doesn’t have all the answers and how Pat died remains a mystery to anybody who looks into it.
Rahimi: I noticed that…because you have got everything up to the minutes before and after but not the actual shooting itself.
Bar-Lev: Because it’s actually very hard to understand how those soldiers could have fired on his position for as long as they did and as close as the distance they were without slipping into one of two mistakes. One mistake is that it was the fog of war and it was so confusing because they were attacked from all sides. That’s the mistake the military and government wants you to believe. On the other side there are people who believe he was assassinated but there’s no evidence to support that either. The truth might be in the middle of those two. There’s no simple answer. The soldiers testimonies state that they were hyped up. I think it causes us to re-evaluate combat…that combat is terrifying and so are the psychological aspects on the soldiers. There’s a side of combat that’s exhilarating and a great story to tell your family and friends. Nobody wants go home without some kind of action. These are some of the aspects that could lead to understand what the soldier went through at that given moment.
Rahimi: Did you try to approach the soldiers in question?
Bar-Lev: Of course but they didn’t want to speak to us.
Rahimi: A thought that I had was, because he was a football star among common people, there might have been some animosity towards him among the soldiers but that’s going into conspiracy theory.
Bar-Lev: Have you read the book “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles?
Bar-Lev: All I can say if the soldiers deliberately fired at Pat Tillman, knowing it was Pat, they did it on deepest of unconscious levels. I don’t think anybody could have done it on a rational level.
Rahimi: Another disturbing fact for me, was this notion that if the soldiers are gun crazy, they’ll fire at anything. It explains the high level of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, which in turn has caused the opposition to grow stronger.
Bar-Lev: Right. What about the compound? They run out of bullets firing which is a violation of the Geneva Convention to fire at the civilian houses. In my mind what this film is about is the myths we tell ourselves to make war more palatable. One of the myth that has been around, not so long ago was the myth of precision warfare since the last Gulf war. This smart bombs that go into a window and killing only the terrorists. You can sit back and blame the government for it but they tell us and we want to hear it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s part of the story that it’s a myth.
Rahimi: What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Bar-Lev: It wasn’t the money. (Laughs) I don’t know if I can answer that but studied religious studies in college. A lot of those ideas I find myself drawn to creatively. In all of the three films you see that my interests are about the way human beings project meaning onto the world around them. Certainly the Tillman story is about religion in my mind. It’s not accident to my mind when you see at the end of the film drilling into his sculpture. It’s resonating image like a crucification. So this is how I came to film this not because of the production but because of the philosophy.
Rahimi: I know there was the Sundance premiere, but had the family seen the film? How was their reaction?
Bar-Lev: We were very nervous to show it to them and it’s very gratifying to us that they approve of it. We showed them the film and the youngest brother who’s in the film who initially didn’t wanted to be involved called us and said he regretted for saying no to us. We told him if he could get on a red eye flight from California to New York and that’s how he ended up in the film. He wasn’t initially in the film.
Rahimi: What about Kevin? He never wanted to be in the film?
Bar-Lev: We got involved at the moment when he made a statement in front of the congress. So we were there. He was disappointed by the failure of the congressional hearing and investigation that he didn’t want to do anymore. Of course he helped us, but he didn’t want to be in front of the camera.
Rahimi: Any films or filmmakers that inspired you?
Bar-Lev: This film was inspired by John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” I’m no different than anybody else I watch films like everybody else.
Rahimi: What can you tell us about your next project which will be your first fiction?
Bar-Lev: I’m going from one hero to another.
Rahimi: Did you want to go into fiction?
Bar-Lev: I love films. I love to do more documentaries. If some films allows you cross the genre, then so be it. The way I got into the film was by trying to make a documentary about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for a long time. I have been talking about it for so long that the word got out to the producers of the fiction film. To their credit they said here’s a guy who’s interested in the story and knows a lot about the story and approached me. When I saw the script it was very exciting because it stays away from a lot of the fictionalization on this type of stories whether it’s Pat Tillman or Rock’n’Roll biopic where the cookie cutter cliches are applied. The writer and producer were aware of that and that’s what’s exciting about this project. I really responded to this.
Rahimi: How advanced are you?
Bar-Lev: I’m about two weeks into it. I just got the job. I read the script a month ago and they gave me the job two weeks ago.
Rahimi: Well Jerry Garcia had a long life and no two hour film can do justice to it.
Bar-Lev: Well the writer was aware of that and has a narrow focus.
Rahimi: I like that.
Bar-Lev: Me too.
The Weinstein Co.’s The Tillman Story is currently in theaters – check your local listings. Visit the official website.