Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The War Tapes

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The War Tapes

"I'll take out some pictures and I'll start to show them, they'll yeah yeah yeah yeah...You asked me to look at them, give me the goddamn respect of looking at my pictures. You have any idea what I've done? If I gave them ten minutes to feel that fear, that loneliness, and that sacrifice they might pay a little bit more attention." - Mike Moriarty

There has not yet been a definitive Iraq documentary, at least not one that I've seen. Why We Fight (which I reviewed here) tries and fails, but most other docs (perhaps wisely) focus on one aspect of the conflict. So you get No End in Sight, a masterful if dispiriting look at how horribly the occupation was run, full of talking heads, detailed and illustrative anecdotes, and an extreme focus on a specific period, described in precise chronology. Or Gunner Palace, the self-consciously stylish work of an embedded filmmaker, attempting to show daily life for the grunt. Or Iraq in Fragments, whose extraordinarily impressionistic vision of Iraqi life leaves American soldiers and tanks as foreboding spectres in the background, focusing on the lives of a Sunni orphan, a Shiite religious fanatic, and a Kurdish farmer. Iraq in Fragments may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it certainly does not offer a totalistic vision, nor does it attempt to illuminate life for an American in that country.

The War Tapes shares Gunner Palace's grunt-eye view, but with a notable difference: here we don't have a filmmaker trying to understand and portray the soldier's perspective - the soldiers themselves share and often dominate filmmaking duties.


As the opening quote shows, Moriarty and his fellow soldiers - not to mention credited director Deborah Scranton (who conceived the idea of sending video cameras with a New Hampshire National Guard unit, then supervised the editing of the footage, and shot interviews with the soldiers upon their return) - hope that their recording will open new eyes and perhaps lead to a greater understanding of what U.S. soldiers are going through. Apparently this is not as worthy a goal as it seems. Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice sniffs that the film only shows "concern for the feelings of tremendously sympathetic American grunts as they bulldoze through the Arab landscape and disdainfully observe the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veld." He labels it "ethnocentric, redneck, and enabling." A scroll through imdb comments reveals a similar attitude: veterans defending the film and the war hand-in-hand, while armchair antiwarriors defend their right to disrespect the troops and dismiss the movie as propaganda.

Did these people see the same film I did?

If anything, I thought Scranton's film leaned slightly to the left, though she obviously makes a conscious effort not to judge or take cheap-shots. Most of all, her subjects come off as a human beings, complex and conflicted but also professional and determined not to crack. Still, we can see they're troubled and they often give voice to political frustrations. In fact, one of the soldiers is vocally anti-Bush (he's also Lebanese by birth and constantly criticizes the way his comrades dehumanize the Iraqis - so much for Atkinson's "enabling" theory). Even the generally right-wing soldier Moriarty, quoted above, expresses frustration at the administration's head-in-the-sand mentality and disgust with the greedy contractors. Which brings us to the Guardsmen's mission: escort trucks full of food, oil, and consumer products, for which KBO-Halliburton gets paid quite handsomely. The grunts, patriotic and stoic when the occasion calls, but not without a sense of humor, call it "the war for cheese." Atkinson dismisses The War Tapes as propaganda - propaganda for what exactly?

Apparently what ruffles some feathers (and to be fair, the film seems to have received generally positive reviews) is the documentary's focus on Americans and their grievances instead of the Iraqi perspective - and without a smug, finger-wagging Good Liberal standing in the corner telling us what to think about these ignorant "rednecks." Disregarding the ludicrous latter formulation, we no doubt need more works that open up an Iraqi-eye-view of the conflict. But to ask for that first, as Atkinson seems to have been doing, is to put the cart before the horse. The War Tapes is an American film, by an American director, designed for an American audience. Considering the cardboard-cutout image we generally get of "the troops" I'd say it's an essential priority to get a fuller, more humanized vision of "our guys" and their experience over there (and like or not, they are "our guys" - sometimes it seems like urban elites seek empathy with anonymous, distant victims to avoid the people they don't understand much closer to home.)


Still, The War Tapes seems to me more of a signpost than a destination. Its portrait of warfare is somewhat diffuse, with the perspective split up amongst several people - an interesting approach in its breadth and contrasts, but it leads away from a cohesive sense of day-to-day life in the country. For my money, Scranton had more success with her follow-up "Bad Voodoo's War," an episode of "Frontline" aired on PBS this past spring. The story is streamlined, there is an ominous sense of the clock ticking slowly while the deployment grinds on, and the convoy sequences have an overpowering dread that is a bit lost in the chaos of The War Tapes. It will be interesting to see if this "genre" develops further. While I eagerly await an Iraq documentary that can make sense of the big picture, there will always be a need for films that show us, from one person's perspective, what it feels like moment-to-moment in Iraq.

Of course, the power of film, be it the raw delivery of verite, or sophisticated manipulation through editing, can only go so far...gruesome as it is to see a dead body captured on video, it will never be anything like seeing it in person, not to mention knowing you're responsible for it. I'll let Mike Moriarty's wife have the last word on this:

"What him and I struggle with, is he so badly wants me to understand what he went through. I will never understand." And ultimately, as filmmakers and audiences unfamiliar with the situation, trying to get a handle on it from the ground level, neither will we.

1 comment:

cinexcellence.com said...

Sounds intriguing; I'll have to check it out.