Screening the Iraq War
From The New York Sun.
February 18, 2005.
The children of Turtles Can FlyMovies like Turtles Can Fly (see review) are routinely labeled "anti-war." In a way they are, too, for at their best they show the human costs of war without blinking or pretending they can be avoided. Any film which leaves out politics and tells the story of war from the point of view of its victims is bound to be anti-war. But it doesn’t follow that political anti-warriors are entitled to enlist such movies on their side. They tend to assume that there is always an easy alternative to war in simply refusing to fight, and they rarely trouble to ask the hard question of when it is possible to say that the human cost of not-fighting is even greater.
In Turtles, for instance, all the crippled, orphaned and martyred children suffer their injuries during the time that — and as a result of the fact that —America thought it not worth the fight it would take to rid them of the brutal dictator who made them refugees. And the children are among that dictator’s luckier victims in still having their lives, stunted and miserable though they be. Looked at in that way, the film is at least as pro-war as the Kurdish refugees who obviously see the coming of the Americans as good news for them. That opinion remains unaffected by the fact that it is too late for good news for some people, whose scars from the pre-war war will never go away. It is just a bit misleading, then, for Bahman Ghobadi, the film’s director, to make as much of a point as he does of the disillusionment of its hero, a pro-American teenager, at the end.
Yet he clearly recognizes that there is an international language of the cinema that even outsiders like him have to learn to speak if they are to gain the hearing on the international stage that they crave. That language is always and everywhere opposed to authority of all kinds, but especially American authority — partly, as in his case, just so as to provide the movies with the luxury of being able to attend only to the much more dramatic and emotional human side of war while pretending that politics are irrelevant. Try, for instance, to think of the last time you saw a movie in which a representative of official Washington or the armed forces — as opposed to the low-level bureaucrat or officer who is heroically bucking "the system" — was sympathetically portrayed. That the top guys are cowardly, feckless, out of touch or corrupt, or some combination of the four, is practically taken for granted.
That’s why last year’s re-make of The Manchurian Candidate didn’t even try for coherence or truth-to-life. How, you might wonder, is it possible to make a film about terrorism in the post 9/11 world and never even mention Islamic jihadism? But the film-makers knew that they could rely on their audience to fill in the yawning gaps in their ludicrous story. Like Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 and others of President Bush’s detractors, they simply found it natural to assume that the only villainy that counts is to be found in the military-political establishment. In order to maintain that imposture, Moore himself was reduced to the pretense that everything in Iraq was hunky-dory until the blundering boob Bush came along to wreck it. He certainly didn’t want to know anything about the Kurdish children of Turtles Can Fly. Yet he was speaking another dialect of the same cinematic language spoken by Ghobadi.
Movie-goers will want to remember this over the coming weeks and months — and, probably, years — as the movie business really gets down to work on the Iraq war. Ghobadi’s is the one of the first, as well as one of the best, films to come out of the war, but it will hardly be the last. A Harrison Ford project called No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah is in the works, for example, and even Roberto Benigni is doing an Iraq-war comedy — after his Holocaust comedy, Life is Beautiful, this almost makes sense — called The Tiger and the Snow. In addition there is to be a movie version of Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s controversial memoir of the Gulf War, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as well as lots of shows due to run on the History Channel and elsewhere and a dramatic series by Steven Bochco called Over There, to run on FX this summer.
I’ll be very surprised if any of these takes up a positively Bushite point of view, though all, with the possible exception of Jarhead, are equally sure to be more or less sympathetic to the ordinary American soldier. There’s no money to be made out of making him into a bad guy. The cinematic left, however, sees this as evidence that the movie business is, in the words of David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, "embedded with the military." But the lefties have their movie-spokesmen too in documentarians like Moore, who of course did make a lot of money, and Eugene Jarecki, whose Why We Fight — ironically named after the Frank Capra movie made during World War II — won the American Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival last month. It’s only right-wing, pro-war movies, if any, that don’t show up on any cultural radar screens.
Jarecki’s film reportedly attacks that old left-wing favorite, the military-industrial complex, in specifically Orwellian terms as a self-sustaining system built on the need for continuous warfare — which it then becomes the job of politicians to supply as needed by creating phony crises like Iraq which call out for military intervention. Michael Moore suggested something similar with his invocation of Orwell in Fahrenheit 9/11, but the paranoid left can never have too much confirmation of what it already knows. Talk about self-sustaining systems! Talk about Orwellian! Here is a political Newspeak which, by starting from the assumption that all wars are undertaken to keep the military establishment in business, comes close to making it impossible to think that any war involving that establishment could ever be justified.
Nice to have all the hard work of argument in any given geo-political situation already done for you!
But documentary-town is pretty much a one-party state these days. Perhaps there was a time before politics went cultural when it was possible to make a film weighing up the arguments pro and con and come to some kind of balanced conclusion, but if so that time has long gone. Now most documentaries are not only parti pris but increasingly resemble those of Michael Moore, in which the only permissible attitude to the other side is scorn, ridicule and the assumption of bad faith. That is why, presumably, a documentary like the up-coming Gunner Palace by Michael Tucker and his wife, Petra Epperlein, although it is very sympathetic to the American soldiers with whom it really is embedded, nevertheless speaks with what has become the standard documentary vocabulary when it comes to movies about the war, especially in seeking to drive a wedge between the soldiers and their commanders.
The film is punctuated, for example, by the voice of Donald Rumsfeld talking about the war on Armed Forces Radio in terms meant to take on ironic freightage from the pictures being juxtaposed with his words. The job is not very well done. In one instance Rumsfeld speaks of about things getting better in Iraq and how "Baghdad is bustling with commerce," whereupon we cut to — Baghdad bustling with commerce! Oops! Still, we get the idea, an acceptable one in the documentary vernacular, that the men are being sent into battle by people who are, at best, out of touch with the realities they face. That’s why the film virtually has to end as it does, with the most sympathetic of the grunts from the 2/3 Field Artillery living in Uday Hussein’s palace in Baghdad saying: "If you see a politician, tell him we’re fighting not for a better Iraq but just to stay alive."
Well duh! That’s what all soldiers are fighting to do — and what most of them throughout history have complained to their superiors about, when they have been able. The fact that it is above Sgt Wilf’s pay-grade to decide whether or not the job he is doing is likely to make a better Iraq — or a safer America — is of no more relevance to the movie-watcher than President Bush’s reasons for going to war are to the children of Turtles Can Fly. And in both cases, there are good cinematic reasons for the film-makers to ignore them. Audiences should be aware, however, that what makes for good cinema does not amount to good politics. There are too many realities which the contemporary language of the movie is simply not up to expressing. That’s why I thought the most indispensable of the movies about the war was last year’s Voices of Iraq.
It’s true that this, too, was stitched together by its authors, the editors, Robin Russell, Martin Kunert and Stephen Mark and the producers Eric Manes and Archie Drury, with the help of ironic quotations, just like Gunner Palace. But I liked Voices’ use of the device better — perhaps just because the target of the irony was journalists rather than politicians, soldiers and high administration officials, and I am more willing to believe that the former are deluded and partisan than that the latter don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, to quote that universal genius, Senator Joe Biden. But Voices of Iraq also gives us a uniquely unmediated cinematic experience by putting 150 video cameras into the hands of ordinary Iraqis and asking them to film anything they want. The editors have of course had to make a pretty rigorous selection from a huge volume of material, but the format makes them comparatively free of the need to speak the documentary language as it has been honed by auteurs such as Messrs Moore and Jarecki.
The result is a movie that conforms to nobody’s political prejudices and has the power continually to surprise. It doesn’t set out to make any argument for or against the war, but by showing us the human reality — mostly not so grim but equally authentic as that in Turtles Can Fly — it allows us to make up our own minds.