Why are all the Iraq movies really movies about making movies?

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Nov. 16 2007 12:05 PM

I Love the Smell of Celluloid in the Morning

Why are all the Iraq movies really movies about making movies?

Redacted. Click image to expand.
Rob Devaney, Kel O'Neill, Mike Figueroa, and Izzy Diaz in Redacted

The bloodiest consequences of the Iraq war are easier to find on the Internet than on broadcast television, and if you're a newshound who's also a digital native, the distinction is probably meaningless. But it sets off alarm bells for 67-year-old filmmaker Brian De Palma, who recalls that televised images of the American war in Vietnam sent him into the streets in protest. "I keep on saying all the time, 'Where are the pictures, where are the pictures?' " De Palma explained at last month's New York Film Festival press conference for Redacted, his grisly rant against American military involvement in Iraq. "We basically just want to sort of end this war, you know, by trying to show the reality of what this war is," he continued.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

A fictionalized account of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of her family by U.S. troops in March 2006, Redacted (in limited release today) is a patchwork of mostly invented reportage: It incorporates a faux French documentary, Internet sites, online video messaging, and a mujahideen assassination video, but its main thread is a video "war diary" by an American soldier and would-be film student, Angel (Izzy Diaz). "This camera, it never lies," Angel says, and Redacted is equally righteous. It's also crude and flat-footed, dominated by Angel's footage of his cartoonishly boorish colleagues. (The soldiers' dialogue and personality dynamics strongly echo another De Palma film, the Vietnam-set Casualties of War, which also examined the rape and murder of a civilian girl by American soldiers.) At times, the movie looks and sounds like something a group of anti-war teenage boys might put together, and perhaps this raw, homemade quality is intentional on De Palma's part—an embrace of the ruling YouTube aesthetic.

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Redacted is one of several current films about the war that are also, to one extent or another, films about making films about the war, each containing its own movie-within-a-movie (or a few of them). Paul Haggis' recent In the Valley of Elah, for example, hinges on the unscrambling of damaged images and video depicting American torture of Iraqis, stored on a dead U.S. soldier's cell phone. In Redacted and in two films currently on the festival circuit, Nick Broomfield's feature Battle for Haditha and Nina Davenport's documentary Operation Filmmaker, the war's participants—its victims and perpetrators, who sometimes seem one and the same—are also the war's chroniclers. They are often highly conscious of their roles as movie subjects and/or moviemakers, and of the dose of "reality" their participation brings to films about a surreal conflict. Events are constantly assessed for what kind of movie they will make. In a war that, at least in its early stages, was stage-managed as carefully as a Hollywood blockbuster (the "Shock and Awe" f/x extravaganza, the "Mission Accomplished" stage spectacular, the Jessica Lynch rescue drama),perhaps it was inevitable that actual movies about Iraq would begin to resemble "making-of" films—the DVD extras to accompany the feature presentation.

Battle for Haditha is a compelling re-enactment of the November 2005 Haditha massacre, when U.S. Marines shot dead dozens of Iraqi civilians in their homes, allegedly in reprisal for a nearby IED blast that took the life of an American lance corporal. Director Broomfield is renowned for his shaggily intrepid nonfiction features about larger-than-life figures (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac), and he brings a deep documentary component to Battle for Haditha, too: The Marines are played by actual Iraq war veterans—led by the excellent Elliot Ruiz—who perform their own improvised dialogue. The film rotates perspectives between the American soldiers, the doomed Iraqi civilians, and the pair of Sunni insurgents who plant the fateful roadside bomb and then watch from afar as the gruesome chaos ensues.

Though some of the American soldiers carry digital cameras, it is the Iraqi bombers who are filmmakers by any other name. One of them rarely puts his camera down, and Haditha becomes their own macabre film set, with the Marines and civilians unwittingly cast in pivotal roles. What's more, the bombers are working in an established genre: We see that a popular video circulated in Haditha is simply a clip reel of one IED explosion after another, all targeting American military convoys. The bombers' mission, it's clear, will be somehow incomplete if it does not produce a useful image: "The world will see today how the Americans behave" is their refrain. When the Marines' frenzied revenge on Haditha proves to be far more than the insurgents bargain for ("We are killing our own people," one laments), a local cleric reassures him that the filmed deaths of "martyrs" will be useful for the greater cause; so will a subsequent video of a little girl with a bandaged eye, her family's sole survivor.