Fighting the Iraq War in California

Filmmaker Exposes Truths About War Without Ever Leaving Home


July 17, 2008—


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."

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, told that people see documentaries for a variety of reasons. "Idle curiosity" is one. "The reinforcer" is another. Some "docs people see when they want to have their hunches confirmed and amped up, either to get more infatuated with a character like Isaac Stern, or to hate Karl Rove more intensely." Iraq documentaries fall into the second category.

"I've maxed out about Iraq documentaries," he said. "The questions I have are not going to be answered, and to be shown more evidence of atrocities in Iraq is not especially interesting."

Case in point: "No End in Sight," about the decisions behind the American occupation of Iraq, was carefully marketed so as not to appear to be another film about "the incredibly, messy, ugly, dusty, chaotic strife in Iraq," said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, the film's distributor.

"We were resolute about having limited images from Iraq in our marketing materials," Bowles told Instead, promotion focused on "abuses of power, the gleaming halls of power. It was about politics and the grotesque errors in judgment."

It worked: "No End in Sight" was the year's second biggest doc, after Michael Moore's "Sicko," added Bowles, taking in $1.4 million.

Into 'The Heart of Darkness'

"No End in Sight" is, of course, the rarity, a documentary on a very depressing subject that people paid money to see in theaters.

Yet filmmakers persist in telling the story of Iraq. "It's in their blood to do these things," said Gitlin. "They feel a moral commitment to plunge into the heart of darkness."

Morris said many filmmakers feel a "need not to just passively sit while all this stuff is going on around you." He made "Standard Operating Procedure" in part "because I was curious about these soldiers, about who they really are. Are they monsters? Are they beyond the pale? What would we have done if we'd been put in that position?"

James Longley's lyrical "Iraq in Fragments" focused on three ordinary Iraqis and did "very well," said Film Forum's Cooper. "It was beautifully shot, poetic. It may be about Iraq, but not about the war."

Longley began it before the war began, with the intent of following his characters before, during and after the war, he told "I did think the war was a bad idea, but [telling that story] wasn't the task I set out for myself."

His goal, he added, was to "show the world [the points of view] of unlistened-to, unthought-about people, to make them the center of attention. If I don't make it, who is going to make it? It's not the business of CNN to spend two years following ordinary people."

For "Full Battle Rattle," Moss said he "felt very distanced from the war. In my community, I don't know anybody who's serving, who's coming back. To me the military is very foreign, it's dominant but it's foreign."

At Fort Irwin, he added, "we felt we were going to the very center of the military industrial complex. The Iraqis are employed by a military contractor. A lot of it is subcontracted, and there are a lot of consultants on payrolls. To expand just Medina Wasl, the military is spending tens of millions of dollars."

What can audiences expect to see in the future?

Gitlin has a few suggestions: "Who are the four million refugees and what are their lives like? Or a forensic documentary, How many people have been killed? How do you get an assessment of how many people die in a war? I'd be interested in being taken behind the scenes, looking at the work of performing that calculation."

John Sinno, the coproducer and distributor of "Iraq in Fragments," has a film he's just finished. "It's a satirical comedy about the war on terror, called 'Zombies of Mass Destruction.' It's basically about a town in the U.S. that gets invaded by a zombie virus, and an Iranian father and his daughter get blamed because people think it's a terrorist attack."

Sinno is just beginning to "scope out the festivals" for his film, hoping, no doubt that a fictionalized, satirical tale about the war on terror will be more palatable for moviegoers than the often gritty world of the documentary filmmaker.