Why are Iraq war films flopping?

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Oct. 12 2006 3:25 PM

Yanks Nix Iraq Pix

Why haven't war films found an audience?

Book cover

"Oh, not another Iraq movie."

That's the response Patricia Foulkrod received after sending an early version of The Ground Truth, her documentary about Iraq war veterans, to distribution companies in 2005. "I remember a development person from Miramax who came back from Sundance and said, 'We just saw Why We Fight. [A historical chronicle of America's war machine] It's been done.' And I said, 'You're kidding me? We're in a war and it's been done after one movie?' "

Foulkrod, of course, is just one of several independent filmmakers who have focused on the conflict in Iraq with the hope of capturing overlooked stories. After Michael Moore's docubuster Fahrenheit 9/11 opened the floodgates with its $119 million in ticket sales, offering solid proof that political docs could make waves in the marketplace, a litany of films has arrived in its wake: Gunner Palace; BattleGround;Occupation: Dreamland; Voices of Iraq; About Baghdad; Confronting Iraq; When I Came Home; The Blood of My Brother; My Country, My Country; Home Front; The War Tapes; Iraq in Fragments; etc. But none of these films has made any significant impact, at least not yet. With the war in Iraq becoming an increasingly hot topic to Americans,why aren't these films finding an audience?

If you examine the top 10 documentaries ever released in America, they have a few things in common: Michael Moore, animals, and the backing of major publicity machines. The companies that released the recent nonfiction hits March of the Penguins (Warner Bros.) and An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount), for example, spent millions of dollars pushing those movies to the masses. But the Iraq docs are receiving no such boosts. Focus Features bought Foulkrod's The Ground Truth, and while the company is owned by Universal, its release strategy has been low-key. The one-week theatrical run for the documentaryon Sept. 15 yielded meager box-office returns of $20,000, and little media impact. Focus is currently holding an estimated 1,000"Ground Truth Gatherings," nationwide free screenings and house parties timed to the anniversary of Congress' authorization to use force in Iraq. Such a ground-roots gambit guarantees a sizable number of eyeballs and helps promote DVD sales, but it doesn't launch the movie into the public consciousness in the same way that a well-funded theatrical release would.

Historically, the conventional marketplace has never welcomed political nonfiction. Peter Davis' seminal Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds, for example, failed to generate much business in U.S. theaters, despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1975. Although the Academy Award gave the film an initial boost, that quickly subsided;  Hearts and Minds would only later find its audience over the years in noncommercial venues such as schools, colleges, and community centers. A similar fate awaits many of today's war documentaries.

On television, where one would expect newsy chronicles of the war to flourish, filmmakers face a similar cold shoulder. In the case of The Ground Truth, Foulkrod says that HBO, which has a relationship with Focus Features, had reached its fill of Iraq material. The lack of TV time may also stem from the dampening effect of the Federal Communications Commission's new anti-obscenity standards, which have only made it more difficult to air these films on public and standard broadcast television. Ken Burns' latest exhaustive doc, The War, recently made headlines after it was revealed that crass words spoken by World War II vets was deemed in violation of new stricter regulations.

Because of the sheer number of Iraq docs, they also risk cannibalizing one another's audiences. Focus's community-based distribution of The Ground Truth happens to collide with the release of Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, the latest doc from Robert Greenwald. Greenwald pioneered the "peer-to-peer" release strategy with popular grassroots efforts for his Outfoxed and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which used organizations like MoveOn to spread the word. This is a clever way around the feeble traditional media support for these movies, but what happens when Ground Truth and Iraq for Sale events take place during the same week, on the same day? America's liberals are in danger of house-party fatigue.

In a similar instance of overexposure, Gunner Palace, the first portrait of a U.S. platoon's exploits in Baghdad, was moderately successful last year, making $607,000 in theaters and buckets more on DVD, while Occupation: Dreamland was released six months later and suffered from an inability to distinguish itself from Palace: It made only $8,018. That's not to say the film—an excellent, more reflective look at U.S. soldiers in post-invasion Iraq—shouldn't have been made. But in the eyes of the consumer, one Iraq doc looks very similar to the next Iraq doc.

The jadedness of Americans as movie watchers may bear the most responsibility for Iraq docs' failures to break out. Especially for films about Iraqi civilians, from Voices of Iraq to About Baghdad to The Blood of My Brother to My Country, My Country, American audiences have shown very little interest in the plight of their Arab counterparts. "I think there is a kind of apathy," says Laura Poitras, director of My Country, My Country, which follows a Sunni doctor during the Iraqi elections and has made only $25,000 after eight weeks in release. Having shown her documentary in Berlin and then at film festivals in the United States, Poitras admits, "It was clear to me that there is a lack of engagement from the American public."

Oddly, as Poitras points out, there has been no shortage of interest in books about the Iraq War. Despite Americans' apparent disengagement and the glut of products that cover related territory, tomes such as State of Denial, The Looming Tower, Fiasco, and The One Percent Doctrine have all climbed the nonfiction best-seller lists. Unlike books, suggests Poitras, documentaries may circulate more as "commodities" than "in the realm of ideas." Or to put it more simply, people watch movies to be entertained, not illuminated.

Even so, as a greater portion of the population becomes disillusioned with the war and as the conflict rages on unabated, these documentaries may have more time to reach wider audiences. Jeff Lipsky, a distribution consultant on The War Tapes, an Iraq doc about three National Guardsmen who videotape themselves on the frontlines, believes the movie could play in theaters for "the duration of the war." And how long might that be? He's expecting an extended run.

Anthony Kaufman is a freelance film journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other publications.