The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

The Problem with Reality: Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha

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Smart people have long debated the relation between cinema and reality, but for documentary filmmakers, the question has always been a particularly vexing one.

From Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to Michael Moore’s Sicko, the genre has always been controversial, at times drawing fire for including “fake” or “staged” scenes, or for selective editing, tinkering with the chronology of events, or playing fast and loose with the facts. (Moore has been accused of all of the above.) None of these charges apply to narrative features, of course, because they are assumed to be works of imagination. But documentary films carry the burdens of our expectations—the desire, that is, for unadulterated Truth, always a complicated notion. And when it’s a matter of historical record—as in front-line war reportage—the bar is raised considerably.

While the recent spate of Iraq war films have tended to dramatize post-traumatic afflictions and home-front conflict (Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs), documentaries have adopted a more investigative approach, making a case for what went wrong either on the build-up to war (Fahrenheit 9/11) or its dark, downward-spiraling aftermath (Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight). So what to make of reality-based war films that advertise their fictive effects? How are we to judge the docudrama, for instance, or a talking-head documentary where the events being recounted by interviewees, the real-life people involved in these situations, are illustrated with reenactments?

Battle for Haditha, a new film by eyebrow-raising British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac) raises these and a host of other tricky, contentious questions. For one thing, Broomfield’s latest is not a documentary at all, but a docu-fiction feature “based on true events.” Revisiting a shameful, headline-making incident from the Bush Administration’s benighted war in Iraq, Haditha recreates events that led to the methodical mass killing of 24 men, women, and children by a squadron of U.S. Marines in November 2005. In the film, two Sunni insurgents plant a roadside bomb procured from Al Qaeda operatives. After lying in wait, they detonate the IED as a Marine convoy passes, killing one man. Then, overcome with rage, a Marine corporal (Elliot Ruiz) leads his men on a door-to-door raid of nearby homes, gunning down nearly everyone they find.

Like Brian De Palma’s recent Redacted, a fictionalized account of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family by goonish, marauding American grunts, Broomfield’s docudrama is a nerve-rattling, you-are-there experience, propelled by a surge of disgust and outrage that’s meant to shock us out of our complacency and fatigue with the war. But unlike De Palma, who was angrily criticized (even by fans) for his cartoonish depictions of “good” and “bad’ soldiers, Broomfield makes a good-faith attempt to paint a more complex picture of the entire conflict—and the humanity of those caught in its chaotic sweep. Toggling between the barracks and the street, from the inside of Humvees to the intimacy of Arab shops, mosques, and living rooms, we’re privy to the everyday concerns of military officials and grudgingly re-mobilized enlisted men just trying to “stay alive”—as well as the fear, confusion, and distress of average Iraqis. Even the two bombers are figures of sympathy, misguided men who watch in horror as their actions unleash a murderous rampage.

Broomfield’s ideological viewpoint is certainly anti-war, but his methodology is worth scrutinizing. In his director’s statement, Broomfield is frank about his quest for absolute authenticity [emphasis added]: “When I thought about how I would bring this story to the screen, I realized that my writing a script and putting my dialogue into actors’ mouths would be a disservice to what really happened. I needed to bring reality to this very serious subject, and the only way to do that would be to have real ex-marines involved. Only then could I expose myself to real dialogue and scenarios that would bring justice to the actual event.” Leaving aside for the moment whether or not Haditha is any more successful in representing 21st-century combat reality than Redacted, Broomfield’s obsession with creating something “real” begs the question: Why didn’t he make a documentary?

Broomfield really has gone the extra mile, too, casting many former Marines who did tours of duty in Iraq in central roles. As in the Dragnet series, the names have been changed; the facts, however, such as they are known (a military trial is currently underway at Camp Pendleton, California), remain the same. Broomfield conducted interviews with Marines from Kilo Company and Iraqis who were in Haditha at the time of the killings, as well as hundreds of people whose lives have been affected by the war. Adding to the reality effect is the fact that much, if not most, of the dialogue is improvised. The film was shot in neighboring Jordan by Broomfield and his DP, Mark Wolf, a veteran wildlife cinematographer who employs all the tropes and visual conventions of gritty, verité documentary: quick cuts, shaky handheld close-ups, and hard-charging, on-the-move camerawork.

Yet, with its breathless pacing, cross-cut editing, and docu-style reliance on tension-building datelines, Haditha evokes nothing so much as an episode of 24, teleporting us out of the realm of cinematic fantasy and into what might best be dubbed the “televisual” medium: that is, the world of media and entertainment. And this is precisely where it fails. The very fact that you can feel Broomfield striving to keep us on the edge of our seats reveals a hidden impulse toward sensationalism, rather than critical thinking, driving the whole enterprise. What are we, the viewers, asked to do? Experience the virtual shock and awe of the embedded journalist, buffered from the actual consequences of real combat by the fact that we are watching it all on a screen. In this sense, Redacted—a far more incompetent movie whose subject is not just war but mediated reality (i.e. how film/video/TV/Internet screens actually change the turbulent world they represent, as well as those who watch and engage the world through them)—is an angrier, more interesting film.

I’m sure Broomfield would take issue with this characterization. His mission, it is clear, is to ask us to viscerally experience an event, a horror of war, and puzzle over the moral complexities in which it immerses us. Film, he well knows, can assault us with reality in a way that a newspaper article or a CNN-style broadcast never can. The question is how? And why do the formal conventions of verité documentary, which were long ago mimicked by reality TV programs like Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Real World, now seem so bankrupt? Is it because we can’t help but associate those aesthetics—the rapid-fire cuts, the omnipresence of that shaky, handheld camera—with MTV and ADD-addled mass entertainment? Furthermore, when non-actors are placed in stage-managed situations and asked to “be themselves”—whether by Nick Broomfield or Donald Trump—can this ever offer us a more intense glimpse of “the real world” than reality itself?

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Haditha is that it doesn’t really help us understand anything about this messy conflict, which is happening right now, as you read this, to the tune of $341 million per day. Devoid of its larger context, we are plunged within the date-specific geographical and psychic milieu Broomfield has painstakingly re-created for maximum authenticity, and sent on a mind-numbing thrill ride through the landscape of American occupation. We might walk away with a sense that war is dreadful. Or with a feeling that this conflict is really fucking up our too-young enlisted men (and women). Or that innocent people in Iraq are dying. But we won’t have any clearer grasp of military protocol, home-front attitudes, Sunni-Shia strife, White House posturing, terrorist motivations, or combat psychology—all things we badly need to be knowledgeable about.

We are not drawn into the inner lives of Haditha’s ghosts, either, who lack the depth a proper drama requires of its characters. We are not asked to think hard about uncomfortable facts, or a disparity in accounts of the same event, as we would in a well-balanced feature documentary.  All we are left with at the end of Battle for Haditha are glimpses of far-away suffering—a Marine officer in emotional distress, a child with a bandaged eye. And a sense that maybe we should feel guilty about it.

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 3:50 pm

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