Making Art Out of War

A love-struck poet stumbles into Iraq right before the start of the U.S.-led war, a two-star general implacably pushes for an invasion of a tiny Pacific island to deflect attention from another war going cataclysmically wrong, and an eerily unhinged secretary of defense wrestles his staff in a comically bellicose display of brute force.

From big-budget feature films to edgy stage productions, the war in Iraq -- as seen through prisms of dark satire, phantasmagoric adventures or sometimes pure burlesque fantasies -- is slowly but surely making its way to a theater near you.

Over the past 19 months, the Iraq war has dominated international headlines and has served as a pivotal election campaign issue in countries such as Spain, Australia and the United States. But quite apart from the news, the conflict is seeping into the oeuvres of painters, poets, playwrights, writers, filmmakers and even pop stars around the world.

"Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's controversial documentary about the Bush administration's policy on Iraq and the war on terror, has grossed more than $119 million at the U.S. box office. More than 2 million videos and DVDs were sold on the first day of its home-entertainment release, making it the most successful film in documentary history.

"I think at least 8,000 film students across the country have been heartened by the success of Michael Moore," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture studies at Syracuse University. "My guess is that come 2008, we're going to have many, many people making political documentaries with the hope that they can be as successful as Michael Moore."

In the world of feature films, Oscar-winning Italian director Roberto Benigni is currently shooting "The Tiger and the Snow," a quasi-comic epic about a poet named Attilio who accidentally lands in Iraq in March 2003 -- right before the start of the U.S. aerial bombardment of Baghdad.

And while most artists are unlikely to enjoy the reach of a Benigni or Moore film, it has not stopped them from tackling the war in their works -- from plays such as "The Belly Bump," a satire about a pugnacious defense secretary by American playwright Joe Sutton, to "A Place in History," a sinister, majestic painting about the dark reign of Saddam Hussein by eminent Australian artist George Gittoes.

Documentaries Become Genre of Choice

War has both traumatized and fascinated artists — from Pablo Picasso's anguished depiction of the Spanish Civil War in "Guernica," to World War II dramas such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and the "horrors of war" genre that emerged out of the Vietnam War with "Apocalypse Now."

If the Hollywood blockbuster came to epitomize World War II and Vietnam, many experts believe the documentary film will be the artistic genre of choice for the current conflict in Iraq. And they credit Moore and the spectacular commercial success of "Fahrenheit 9/11."

But while some of the most memorable Vietnam War movies -- such as Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" -- came out more than a decade after the end of war, Thompson believes this time around, things have changed.

"My guess is we're going to start seeing films about the Iraq war a lot earlier," said Thompson. "Think about how quickly Hollywood proved our predictions about culture after the 9/11 attacks wrong. We were predicting that irony would be dead after the attacks. But irony, in fact, is back in full force."

Advances in digital video technology and the proliferation of affordable cameras have also contributed to the rise of an interesting variant of the conventional documentary.

This week, Magnolia Pictures -- a film distribution company co-owned by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- is releasing "Voices of Iraq," an 80-minute documentary, in 10 U.S. cities.

Billed as a film "directed by more than 2,000 Iraqis," the documentary is culled from approximately 450 hours of footage shot with 150 digital cameras distributed to Iraqis across class, religious, gender and geographic lines.

'I Love You' -- Again and Again

By all accounts, some of the most interesting artistic and literary voices about the war have emerged from the vast Iraqi diaspora around the globe.

Drawing on their collective experiences of exile, Iraqi-American artists have produced several critically acclaimed pieces addressing the often conflicting views about the war within the Iraqi community at home and abroad.

"Nine Parts of Desire," a one-woman play written and performed by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo, for instance, is currently playing at New York's Manhattan Ensemble Theater after a successful run in London.

"Nine Parts" tells the stories of several ordinary Iraqi women -- all played by Raffo -- including an artist painting propagandistic Saddam portraits during the Baathist reign and an elderly women making a living out of selling shoes retrieved from the victims of U.S. bombings and insurgent attacks.

A particularly poignant scene features a phone conversation between an Iraqi-American woman in New York and her relatives in Baghdad shortly after the 9/11 attacks. One of her relatives, whose command of English is limited to the phrase "I love you," repeats it endlessly, urgently, in a touching display of the ability of human emotions to transcend the limitations of words.

A Happy New War

Indeed the distance between relatives living in peace and those experiencing war is a common theme in the works of many Iraqi-American artists and writers.

More than a decade since he left Iraq after the Gulf War, Sinan Antoon, a Baghdad-born writer and poet now based in the United States, found himself joining the vast community of anguished Iraqi exiles reduced to watching the war on TV.

"After the 1991 war, I was dismissive about friends who told me it's more difficult to watch the war from abroad," Antoon said. "But during this war, I understood."

Having lived through the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict as well as the Gulf War, Antoon is no stranger to the brutality of war. And the unfortunate regularity with which they break out is a recurrent theme in his poetry.

In the English translation of his Arabic poem, "A Prism; Wet With Wars," Antoon bemoans the now-familiar Iraqi soundtrack of war. "Before we weave an autumn for tyrants," he writes, "we must cross this galaxy of barbed wires and keep on repeating, 'Happy New War.' "