As the fighting in Iraq drags on, a new genre of film is emerging and evolving into something vastly different from the classic war movie established by previous generations.
Rather than the patriotism of World War II or the skepticism of Vietnam, today’s Iraq films view the repercussions of battle from a multitude of unexpected, compelling and real-life perspectives.
Two of the five films nominated for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards focus on the war.
In the impressionistic “Iraq in Fragments,” director James Longley looks at how the violence alters the lives of working-class Iraqis through three 30-minute stories.
Laura Poitras’ intimate “My Country, My Country” follows a Sunni doctor who runs for office during the January 2005 elections, the first to be held after the U.S. invasion.
Despite the awards and acclaim lavished on these films and those that preceded them – including 2004’s “Gunner Palace” and 2005’s “Occupation: Dreamland” – Longley wishes there were more documentaries being made about the war.
“Growing up in the United States, we tend to see a lot of war movies,” he says. “We kind of know how the war movie genre works. The tendency is to make a war film from the point of view of the soldiers, and that tends to be the standard.
“I was interested in recording the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Most of the people in my film aren’t in any way engaged in the fighting themselves. To me, that’s a more interesting point of view to have and explore in a film.”
Poitras says “My Country, My Country” was motivated by “despair – watching what was happening, the deterioration we were seeing and just a sense of the contradiction of war and a desire to try to both document the war and also express something about the tragedy of the war on a very emotional level.”
She initially planned to focus on the military. But then she met Dr. Riyadh, whose last name she has withheld for security reasons, in July 2004.
“Why I liked him as a character, he’s clearly a man caught within a predicament,” Poitras says. “He’s clearly against the U.S. occupation but he’s also someone who supports democracy and self-representation, so he participates. He’s in this very interesting pivotal position.”
On the other hand, Deborah Scranton, director of last year’s “The War Tapes,” thought the soldiers’ voices weren’t being heard sufficiently. So she gave hand-held video cameras to members of the New Hampshire National Guard and had them document their own experiences.
“A variety of Iraq war movies are being told from different perspectives, different voices, different time frames in the war,” says Scranton, whose film was on the short list for Academy Award consideration.
“I think an ideological thread would be a desire to tell or share stories that aren’t being covered in mainstream media – mostly because of the confines in mainstream media.
“It’s interesting,” she adds, “I can’t think of a Vietnam film told from the Vietnamese perspective.”
Most of the Iraq films so far have been documentaries; logistically it’s just been faster and easier for one filmmaker to get into the country, gather footage and leave. It would have been physically impossible in recent years for a film crew to make a feature there, and it’s especially dangerous now.
But a few fictional tales have emerged, including director Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave” from last year, about a group of soldiers returning from Iraq and readjusting to their old lives.
The movie stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and was shot partially in Morocco, where the desert and architecture are similar to those in Iraq, and partially in Spokane, the setting for the stateside scenes.
“I didn’t read a lot of stories about the many, many soldiers returning from the war,” says Winkler, a veteran producer who has an Oscar for the 1976 best-picture winner “Rocky” and says “The Deer Hunter” inspired him here. “I hope there will be a lot more.”
Approaching the war from a fictional perspective is preferable because “a documentary is a documentary,” he says. “What we can do is we get real actors to portray real feelings and we have a script and we have emotions and we have a story, a whole arc of a story, that we can dramatize ourselves. In a documentary, you’re bound by what’s there.”
Another rare piece of fiction, “Grace Is Gone,” focuses on a father who takes his two young daughters on a road trip, where he struggles to explain that their mother died while serving in Iraq. The film debuted at Sundance, where it won the audience award for favorite U.S. drama.
John Cusack, its star, says he began looking for an Iraq-themed film because of the Bush administration’s strong enforcement of Pentagon policy banning media coverage of America’s returning war dead.
“When they banned photos of the dead coming home, I thought, `My God, they think they can control death,’ ” Cusack says. “I’ve always thought you want to be in and of your time as an artist. I was kind of trying to process what’s happening right now. It seemed clear we’ve got to do stories about coffins coming home, and I was looking for something like that.”
But Winkler understands why the studios may have been reluctant to approach this topic.
“They prefer – it’s not wrong – to do a nice entertaining vehicle, a comedy or something that doesn’t deal seriously with a subject that’s in everyone’s mind,” he says.
That wasn’t always the case, says Robert R. Davenport, author of “The Encyclopedia of War Movies” (Facts on File, 2004).
“In World War II, the studios were almost mobilized in a way,” says Davenport, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and a technical adviser on “Pearl Harbor.”
“One hundred percent of the country, or at least 95 percent of the country, was behind the war and the studios really worked hard to not only reflect public sentiment but to mold public sentiment to keep everybody behind the war. Even before the war started they were sort of on the side of, ‘Let’s get into the war.’ There were a lot of prewar movies.”
Conversely, films about Vietnam have had more bite to them because the war was so unpopular with most of the public.
“If you look at ‘Apocalypse Now’ compared to ‘Coming Home’ and then ‘Platoon,’ they all come from different directions,” Davenport says, “although I guess the one unifying theme is that the country was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the war, so the farther we got into the war the more movies reflected that.”
The reason there are so many war films – Davenport’s book details 800 of them – is simple.
“Wars are inherently dramatic,” he says. “That’s why there are so many police and medical shows. It’s got inherent drama built in to it. It’s just one of those basic genres that go all the way back.”
(In a mix of two of those genres, there’s the Emmy-winning HBO documentary “Baghdad ER,” which takes an unflinching but ultimately inspiring look at the Army doctors and nurses who treat injured soldiers.)
Matt Dentler, producer of the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas – where “My Country, My Country” and “Occupation: Dreamland” both had their North American premieres – expects that fewer documentaries and more features will come. It just takes time and historical perspective.
“It’s all about trying to make the quote-unquote ‘definitive’ film about the subject and it’s hard to make a film that stands as a milestone,” Dentler says.
“Look at Vietnam. A lot of people, whether you like Oliver Stone or not, consider ‘Platoon’ one of the definitive Vietnam films and that was released in 1986. People also cite ‘Apocalypse Now.’ That came out in the ‘70s but that was an adaptation of ‘Heart of Darkness,’ adapted to fit the Vietnam War.
“We’re seeing some really interesting filmmaking going on in Iraq but they’re about so many other things that surround the war itself,” he says. “They are about what’s going on in Iraq but they’re about such bigger truths.”
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