Fighting the Iraq War in California


That's how Karen Cooper, the director of Film Forum, an independent theater in New York City, sums up how most films about Iraq have fared on the big screen.

Nevertheless, when she saw "Full Battle Rattle" at the Berlin Film Festival, she couldn't help but offer filmmakers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss a two-week run.

Theirs was a different take: Instead of cinema verite from a war-torn country, embeds with the Army, or an inside-Washington's-corridors-of-power, Gerber and Moss had traveled to Fort Irwin, in California's Mojave Desert. Two hours from Las Vegas, the Army has built a 1,000-square-mile simulated Iraq — complete with 2,000 role players, mock villages and Iraqi-exile actors — to train troops about to deploy.

"Iraq is like the sun, you can't look directly at it," Moss told "When Tony and I talked about the war films that had influenced us, they were the films that were unexpected in their approach — 'Doctor Strangelove,' 'Mash.'" Making a film about Iraq in a simulated Iraq, in much the same way Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' is a fake news show, but a real news show," he added, would be "like a funhouse mirror reflection of the Iraq War."

Like Alice in Wonderland, "we took a leap down the rabbit hole with cameras in hand," added Gerber. "At first blush, Fort Irwin exists for logical, practical reasons: training soldiers going to Iraq. But as you begin to fall down, you end up in an absurd place."

It is, he added, an allegory for "our nation's journey into this war."

The film takes place over a three-week period; Gerber was "embedded" with the troops, Moss in a village called Medina Wasl. "The core narrative," said Moss, was "the Army's efforts to win the hearts and minds of this village."

"What struck us both immediately," said Moss, was that on the one hand it "seemed incredibly complicated, sophisticated, there were Iraqis running around, speaking Arabic. On the other hand it was totally fake, there were American soldiers cast as insurgents, wearing dishdashah, traditional Iraqi dress, and they were barbecuing. And the materials [to build the villages] were purchased from Home Depot."

Cooper told that she thinks "Full Battle Rattle" is "a very human story. The filmmakers don't demonize the military personnel, or those in training, or the Iraqis who are there. It's not a hit-you-with-the-hammer movie, but you'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to come out of it feeling that this war is anything but a disaster."

If The War's a Disaster …

Why do you need a movie to tell you that?

"I believe there is the feeling that we know all there is we need to know," Errol Morris told Morris won an Academy Award for "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," but even so, audiences failed to turn out in big numbers for his "Standard Operating Procedure," about Abu Ghraib, the site of sexual perversity and torture of Iraqi prisoners.

"People like redemptive stories, the light at the end of the tunnel," added Morris. "There is great difficulty in finding redemptive elements in the story of Iraq. You can look at individual stories and find heroic acts, but to confront the level of chaos in this particular war, the lack of purpose, it's hard to take. You could almost call it, if you were so inclined, anti-cinematic."

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