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Interview with Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill

Horses pull casket through cemetery

HBO

Your previous film, 'Baghdad ER,' was a gut-wrenching look at the human cost of the Iraq war as seen through doctors and soldiers who served there. Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery brings the war experience back home. What inspired you to make the film?

Jon Alpert

I think we have to credit (HBO's) Sheila Nevins who was haunted by her personal contacts with people from the films we've made. In this case it was Paula Zwillinger, the mother of the Marine who dies at the end of Baghdad ER. Her son is buried in Arlington Cemetery. And Sheila called Paula who was at Arlington Cemetery on the second anniversary of her son Bobby's death and found Paula in Section 60. And Sheila could feel the emotion. And the next thing Matt and I knew we were standing in Arlington Cemetery with Paula. And the same type of deep, haunting emotion that we tried to capture is what we felt that day. That's really the genesis of this film.

All the families at Arlington Cemetery want the memories of their loved ones preserved, and want their heroism and sacrifice known to other people. They were all our allies in helping to tell this story.

Matthew O'Neill

And it's different from 'Baghdad ER,' because all the action and visceral pain that you feel when you are thrust into 'Baghdad ER' is uniquely different than the overwhelming sense of loss, love, and yearning in Section 60. It's a totally different emotional place. And yet both relate directly to war.

Jon Alpert

And as reporters and citizens, we look for ways in which we can communicate something about war - and very specifically about the wars that we are involved in right now. There isn't a lot of war coverage anymore on TV or even in the general conversation right now. It's been wiped out by the sort of war on Wall Street. But people are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we're trying to help people understand that.

Matthew O'Neill

It's important to remember that there are many, many families out there that continue to confront the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a concrete reality that they are dealing with on a daily basis. And you see it in Arlington Cemetery, and you see it at military bases across the country. These families are largely invisible to most Americans.

HBO

The film doesn't take a position on the war, or have an agenda. Was that a conscious choice?

It's important to remember that there are many, many families out there that continue to confront the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan... you see it in Arlington Cemetery, and you see it at military bases across the country. These families are largely invisible to most Americans.

Matthew O'Neill

Actually, I think we do have an agenda, because we've had an agenda with all of our films, which is to bring awareness and to raise people's consciousness about what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and what's happening here at home as it relates to the wars. You know, you never see the faces of the fallen in the film because we're paying attention to the faces of everyone who is left behind. And whether you fall on the "right" side of the war or the "left" side of the war, or someplace in between, everyone needs to understand in concrete terms what war means, its ramifications, and how it affects Americans and American families.

HBO

What did you learn from them? And how did the making of the film evolve as you began capturing their stories?

Matthew O'Neill

Well, we really became part of the cemetery. We got there first thing in the morning when the groundskeepers were arriving, and we left as they were locking the gates, almost every day for four months. We became part of the community and were accepted by the community. We never pushed in with our cameras when we weren't wanted. But when appropriate, we did become part of those intimate, sacred moments. You know, there has never been anything like Section 60 at Arlington before, where the people who are recently killed overseas are all being buried in the same place, and it's created a community of Section 60 families who can lean on each other and support new people that come into, as they call it, "the club that no one ever wants to be part of."

HBO

What can viewers learn from these families, and the film?

Jon Alpert

I think there's something quite important, which is: if the sacrifice of these families goes unknown, and if the cost of war goes unknown...that to some degree we are all dishonoring these families and the soldiers. Because it's really, really important that the American people think about who pays the price when we wage war. We shouldn't go to war if we are uneducated about that cost. We shouldn't let people make decisions for us. And we should think about the people who sacrificed, and the fact that it could be your next door neighbor or your son or your daughter someday. But you shouldn't have your eyes and ears covered.

Matthew O'Neill

Of course many of these families have political opinions, some are against the war - and some for the war. But they do not want to put their kids' service and sacrifice - nor would I - in a political context, or use it for political gain. All the families at Arlington Cemetery want the memories of their loved ones preserved, and want their heroism and sacrifice known to other people. They were all our allies in helping to tell this story.

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery