Why We Fight (US, France, Canada, UK, Denmark, 2005)

He saw the military-industrial complex coming

He saw the military-industrial complex coming

This film focuses on why the US invaded Iraq from the claim it was involved in 9/11 to Bush’s statement that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that ‘watershed’ attack. However it contextualises these years by explaining America’s neo-colonialist project throughout the 20th century and bookends the film with Eisenhower’s swansong speech as President when he predicted that war would become a function of capitalists’ desire to make money. As the documentary shows, this has come to pass.

It’s tempting to think everyone watching this movie would be convinced of the argument that wars are fought for businesses like Haliburton. However, as Dan Gardner demonstrates in his brilliant Risk (Virgin Books, 2009), once humans believe something to be true it is almost impossible to convince them otherwise. So while I find this film utterly convincing, those who are politically on the right are likely to believe that it’s left wing propaganda.

Jarecki mixes archive footage with interviews with politicians, ex soldiers and, refreshingly, Iraqis supposedly being liberated. A range of political voices are heard, including the right wing idiot who argues that a pre-emptive strike is legitimate because it’s common sense to shoot first before someone shoots at you; it may be but Iraq NEVER had weapons of mass destruction and and didn’t have the capability to shoot first.

The question ‘why we fight?’, echoing WWII propaganda films, is asked throughout and is answered, most potently, by Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski ret. who saw at first hand the Bush adminstration’s abuse of intelligence in the Pentagon, when she says we fight because not enough people stand up against war. Given the millions who protested against the Iraq war this might seen harsh, however the war went ahead anyway. It’s the problem with democracy, many people believe it is ‘power of the people’ and – hegemonically – accept their powerlessness; it isn’t, it’s ‘power of the capitalist’. We need a better political system.

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Red Riding Trilogy (UK, 2009)

No way out

No way out

Being a bloke whose formative years were before Gazza cried at the 1990 World Cup Finals, tears are something that are a foreign land to me (except when my dad died). So when I found a tear trickling down my cheek at the end of the final part of this trilogy, based on four David Peace novels, I knew I’d been watching an extraordinary set of films.

The portrayal of West Yorkshire, where I live, during the 1970s and 1980s, when I – thankfully – wasn’t here, is as bleak a picture as you could hope (?) to see. The pervasive police corruption (I notice today it’s been announced that complaints against the police in Britain have gone up 10%) that drains society of the rule of law is starkly presented. Peace’s novels are a mixture of fact, obviously the Yorkshire Ripper and I remember the case of the man, with learning difficulties, who was ‘fitted up’ for crimes he didn’t commit, and the fiction of artistic license. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad in Yorkshire, or indeed Britain (though the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit at this time), as the films show but there’s no doubt that it was that bad for some.

The noir narrative is difficult to follow, it’s condensed to such an extent – through the use of ellipses – that audiences have to work hard to keep up; as it should be in challenging drama. The large array of characters, brilliantly played by an cast of top actors, adds to the requirement to concentrate. Unusually, each of the three films, 1974, 1980 and 1983, are shot in different formats but despite this, and three directors, the trio are unified by the bleakness of the vision.

Spoilers. The focus of the investigations are into the disappearance and murders of young girls which the police, for reasons of corruption, fail to resolve, other than arresting and torturing confessions out of the innocent. Clearly such narrative problems are highly emotive, there are few things that can encourage anger quicker than the sexual abuse, and murder, of children. However, these always remain in the background, we never see the abductions and hardly see the suffering families because the focus is on the investigations: of a journalist in the first; of the police into police conduct in the second; and the police in the third. So the missing children are abstract and felt only in the way a missing child in reality is noted: we can feel bad and angry about it but, unless we know the people involved, it’s a necessarily detached emotion. By focusing upon the evil, and that’s not too strong a word for the world portrayed here, we are mired in the hell of the time and place. So the ending of the trilogy when, against all expectation, a girl is found alive the emotional release is immense: there can be good in the world too. This is heightened by quite brilliant direction (Anand Tucker), performances (Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan and Robert Sheehan and Peter Mullan) and the parallel editing that links two climactic scenes (Trevor Waite editor and Tony Grisoni script). As the camera rises with Addy’s character, clutching the girl, amongst a swirl of swan feathers… well, it was too much for me!

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di bicyclette, Italy, 1948)

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

What happens when you watch a ‘classic’ movie – and there are not a lot that are more ‘classic’ than Bicycle Thieves – and you think ‘that was good’;  ‘good’ is not  good enough for ‘classic’. The ‘good’ reaction was the first I had nearly 30 years ago, when I saw the film twice; in the intervening years I’ve seen it on two more occasions and now agree with the ‘great’ and the ‘classic’. The film hasn’t changed though it has gotten older. It was a ‘mere’ 30-odd years old when I first saw and that amount of time has passed again; it’s not getting better with age, it was a classic in the ’80s, so presumably I’ve become more discerning.

In the decades between first seeing it and now I’ve become a dad and I suspect that’s made the difference as the key to the success of Bicycle Thieves is Bruno, Ricci’s faithful son. Children, of course, are often used to pull the heartstrings but di Sica, and his scriptwriters, use Bruno with subtlety.

There’s no sentimentality of the portrayal of the father-son relationship, Ricci’s stress leads him to strike Bruno and then buy him lunch in a posh restaurant to assuage his guilt. Bruno goes off on a sulk at one point, Ricci allows him then fears the worse as someone nearly drowns in the river. These events encapsulate parents’ treatment of, and anxieties about, their children. Throughout the film, di Sica occasionally gives us Bruno’s viewpoint, though Ricci is the protagonist; and Bruno is always there doggedly supporting his dad. The ending, when Ricci loses his moral authority over his child, Bruno slips his hand into his father’s cementing the bond between them. This simple hand-holding gesture was similarly effective in Mandy (UK, 1952).

Bicycle Thieves is not simply a great film because of Bruno, it’s portrayal of desperate poverty remains potent but what excuse is there now? Post-war Italy was bound to be a place in turmoil, for the rich – of course – it was different, but in the early years of the 21st century in the ‘advanced nation’ that is Britain we are faced with vast cuts in public spending which will inevitably disproportionately impact on the poor. And the reason for the dire state of public finances is the bailing out of the private sector banks. Neo realist films were politically left wing, what we need now is a left wing party that will increase taxes for the rich to pay for public services for all.

Representing the war in Iraq

The British contribution: 'The Battle for Haditha'

The British contribution: 'The Battle for Haditha'

NB This is extracted from Image and Representation (Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2009), pp.268-71 and includes spoilers

Unlike during the Vietnam War, when Hollywood barely noted the war’s existence in its films, the conflict in Iraq, which started with the (primarily) American-British invasion in 2003, saw many films released on the subject. Most of these films were, in some way, critical of the way the conflict was being managed by the American government; and virtually all of them were box office disappointments. These fictional features were preceded by a large number of documentaries; these also failed to find much of an audience.

We can only speculate as to why audiences weren’t interested in seeing representations of such an important event. It is possible that, as cinema is seen primarily as an entertainment medium, that audiences didn’t want reminding of the death and destruction occurring in Iraq. The films, as is usual, received a mixed critical reaction from ‘lukewarm’ – to be polite – for Lions for Lambs (2007) to generally positive, for example In the Valley of Elah (2007). Unsurprisingly, given the divided nature of the support for the war in Iraq, a number of these films, such as Redacted (2007), were seen as particularly controversial.

Most of the films, typically of Hollywood, use generic conventions. Rendition (2007) works as a political thriller focusing on two narratives: the ‘rendered’ Egytian-born El-Ibrahimi who is taken to another country to be tortured, and his American wife who desperately tries to find out why he didn’t return home. In political thrillers:

‘The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature.’ (Lundegaard, 2006)

Powerless protagonists

Powerless protagonists

It is usual in the genre for the ‘ordinary man’ to succeed, at least to an extent, in revealing the corruption to the world; as is the case in The Interpreter (UK-US-France, 2005); though this may be tempered by a suggestion that the corruption will continue, as in Three Days of the Condor (1975). In Rendition the ordinary man is simply a victim, powerless to do anything, whilst his wife, though dogged in her attempts to find her husband, similarly fails to achieve anything. Although, as a mainstream film, it is unsurprising that there is a ‘happy’ ending, courtesy of a disgusted CIA officer, the twist on the genre of making the protagonists powerless is a powerful indictment of the current political climate where torture appears to be official policy in America.

In the Valley of Elah is a mix of melodrama and police investigation. The protagonist Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is a patriotic ex-serviceman who supports the war. Early in the film he helps an immigrant put right an American flag that is flying upside down, he says that an upside down flag means the country is in mortal danger. However, his investigation into his son’s death, just after he’d returned from Iraq, reveals to him how war dehumanises soldiers and the film concludes with him deliberately flying the flag upside down.

Melodrama as politics

'In the Valley of Elah': Melodrama as politics

Melodrama is a non-realist genre and so consciously uses both characters and settings symbolically. Deerfield, the name itself evokes the American pastoral, represents someone who naturally supports the country in times of war. He is a deeply repressed male, contrasted by Susan Sarandon’s character, who plays his sometimes-desperate wife. Deerfield’s investigations reveal the ‘dark heart’ at the core of this war and so, even though he is patriotic, he realises that the war is wrong.

Elah uses the device of a corrupted mobile phone video, which is slowly revealed throughout the film, as part of unravelling the mystery of what had happened to Deerfield’s son. Redacted, the most unconventional of the ‘Iraq films’, also uses new media technologies to represent the rape of a 15-year-old girl and the murder of herself, and her family, by US marines. The film starts with a disclaimer that the film is ‘a fiction inspired by true events’. The writer-director, Brian DePalma, uses a mix of texts to show what (might have) happened: a ‘home video’ made by one of the marines; a pastiche of a French (intellectual) documentary about Iraq; CCTV cameras; Internet postings; a video made on a mobile phone; photojournalism. Although it may seem that it is a realist text, the multimedia mixing instead draws attention to the artifice of what is shown. This may suggest that such horrendous events cannot be convincingly rendered by realism. Indeed DePalma also deploys melodrama; the one good guy, who tries to publicise what’s happened, is called Lawyer McCoy. This melodrama extends to the use of an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca, the protagonist of which murders the man who is trying to rape her. This, highly passionate, aria could be seen as an ironic comment upon the Iraqi teenager’s inability to kill her rapists. However, the last image of the film is an actual photograph of the dead girl which needs no melodramatic heightening to appall its audience and so, ultimately, DePalma’s film comes across as exploitative.

'Redacted': obscene views

'Redacted': obscene views

One British film to deal with a similar topic is The Battle of Haditha (2007). This is a dramadoc that recreates the massacre of 24 men, women and children in Haditha by (allegedly) US marines. Director Nick Broomfield’s intensely realist aesthetic, signified by the handheld camera and utterly convincing performances, manages to humanise both the perpetrators of the atrocity – we understand that these are young men, badly led, and out of their depth – as well as getting to ‘know’ the victims. It also features a sex scene between Muslim husband and wife, where the woman removes her veil; this in itself should not be remarkable but such representations are extremely rare. From a western perspective, the lifting of he veil individualises the character and makes it easier to identify with her.

Gung-ho

Gung-ho

All these films are critical of America’s conduct in the war; it would be difficult to offer a gung-ho representation of events whilst the victory, heralded by George Bush in May 2003, had still failed to materialise. The Kingdom (2007) was one mainstream film (all the others were independently produced) that was actually set in the Middle East, albeit Saudi Arabia. Here Jamie Foxx plays an FBI investigator Ronald Fleury who bulldozes his way through political objections to investigate, and bring to justice, the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against American families. The film is progressive in its casting of African-American in a lead where his ethnicity is absolutely irrelevant, however its portrayal of backward, foreigners, needing American assistance, plants its perspective as being firmly of the view that the ‘west is the best’.

It certainly isn’t wholly simplistic. An opening montage succinctly lays out the geopolitical history of the region and sites oil as the driving force behind America’s involvement in the region and not ‘freedom’ as politicians suggest. And Foxx’s ‘local’ helper is a well-drawn character though ‘a sequence showing Al Ghazi’s family’s evening Salah in parallel Fluery phoning his son was almost cut from the film during the editing process’ (Miller, 2007, p. 63b) is evidence of Hollywood’s reluctance to humanise non-western characters. Because of the nature of international cinema it is rare that we get to see how other cultures represent both themselves and the west.

K.Miller (2007) ‘The Kingdom’, Sight & Sound, vol. 17, no. 7, November

The Hurt Locker (US, 2008)

Out of this world

Out of this world

As the critical response has suggested, this is an impressive war film about Iraq. Stylistically similar to the hyper-real visual style seen in Cloverfield (US, 2008), it uses extreme handheld shake to signify ‘thereness’. If you’re filming defusing an unexploded bomb the niceties of framing and composition are going out of the window. The cinematographer is Barry Ackroyd who shot United 93 (US, 2006) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ire-UK, 2006), both realist films. However, although documentary-style camerawork, that follows rather than leads the action, is evident in these films, they remain carefully composed; I felt mildly nauseous watching The Hurt Locker such is the camera shake on the big screen. Ironically, this effect makes it more of a ‘roller coaster’ than Hollywood blockbusters even though this is nothing like a mainstream movie.

The best review I’ve read is by the reliably excellent Philip French in  The Observer and I agree with much of what he said. I’ve written about most of the Iraq movies in my latest book (I’ll extract the relevant section and blog it later) and The Hurt Locker is certainly a fascinating addition. Its focus on the American viewpoint is slightly problematic for me as all Iraqis are filmed as potential terrorists; take the shot of the DVD vendor that suddenly makes him look sinister when he’s simply a guy trying to make a living. However, if we accept that this is a function of the film’s viewpoint, the protagonist and addicted risk-taker SSgt William James, then this is acceptable. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, suggests this is a challenge to ‘political correctness’ as if there’s something wrong in questioning the representation of the antagonists.

The British do get to show their face but are so money-seeking and inept, once the shooting starts those that haven’t been shot yet don’t even fire a gun, that we descend into a gung-ho Hollywood movie despite the fact that the sequence is brilliant.

The sound design is spectacular, by Paul N.J. Ottosson, adding to the visceral discomfort of the experience. This is cinema that is about experience; experience that most of us, thankfully, won’t have. I don’t know any serving soldiers but met one on leave from Afghanistan on a train journey. The soldier obviously needed to talk about their experiences and now I know of someone in the front line each time I hear of casualties they won’t be in the abstract. Cinema can also do this, to an extent, allowing us to understand the experiences of others. If we learn nothing of the ridiculous politics fueling East-West conflict from The Hurt Locker, we do get a sense of what it might be like to be there.