Oct 12, 2007

New York Film Festival: Redacted

As I got ready today to write my review of Redacted, the Brian De Palma Iraq war film shown last night at the New York Film Festival, I came across an interesting piece of news. Apparently, at the press conference there was a huge discrepancy between the director's claims that his own film has been "redacted" by Magnolia Pictures, the distributor; and the producers, who claim this isn't so. In order to explain this funny business, you have to know that the film uses actual photographs of Iraqi war victims, whose faces have been masked with what looks like a sharpie, because there is no clearance to use them for commercial use, which is the category that this movie belongs in. The debate on fair use and clearances is one for the lawyers. Although I must say only in America would executives be so concerned that the families of poor Iraqis blown to pieces are going to sue them for using a picture that has already appeared in the press. And if they are so concerned at respecting their dignity and their privacy, perhaps they should not show them at all, much less with an inkblot covering their faces.
In any case, the more interesting issues raised by this film are those of authenticity.
Redacted is sort of Casualties of War redux, except in Iraq and in the age of video and internet. Every single image in the movie is supposed to be shot by a witness holding a video camera, or by a security camera, or by a news network, or by documentarians. Certainly such immediacy is disturbing and endlessly interesting, since it makes witnesses or voyeurs of us all, as opposed to simply an audience looking for entertainment. HOWEVER, with a capital H, the movie happens to be a fictional dramatization of a true incident that happened in Samarra, where American soldiers raped, killed and burned a 15 year-old girl and massacred her family. So all the supposedly realistic footage is painstakingly designed to look real but it is performed (mostly hammily) by actors. The internet sites are recreated, fake newschannels invented, etc. The stylistic choice supposedly makes the audience confront reality without the safety blanket of "this is only a movie". But unfortunately, it also imposes certain limitations on the plot, which result in contrivances that defy belief. For instance, one of the soldiers is shooting everything he sees in his camcorder so he can submit his film to film school. To this end, he wears a tiny camera that records the rampage on the night in question, and nobody knows. Like we say in Spanish, now tell me a cowboy story. There is no authority around to censor him. It may be true that American kids are running around Iraq with no semblance of a squad leader telling them what they can or cannot do. But if Redacted is to be believed, the soldiers are not only sorely lacking in supervision, but they display an alarming degree of naivete about the danger of their surroundings. They act as if they were at Summer camp half the time, and they seem totally unsupervised. When the shit hits the fan, and the plotting of it is recorded by a security camera that seems to have stereo speakers, it is almost beyond belief that nobody has the power or authority to stop it. One could think this is a perfect metaphor for the kind of moral degradation we are going through as a result of this war, but my point is that it would have worked much better as a metaphor had it not tried so hard to look real, had it been shot in a more conventional way. The paradox is: the more realistic you try to make it, the more fake it looks, because the audience expects everything to be more real. In fictional conventional narratives we are able to forgive and accept certain conventions expecting that we will be rewarded with true insight. Art can achive more genuine results through artifice. (See: Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Paths of Glory). But when you try to have it both ways, it doesn't seem to work, or it smacks of exploitation. I'm of the camp that viewers need to know exactly what it is they are watching. I was not a fan of The Blair Witch Project because I don't buy the fake reality, and the same happened to me with Redacted, as well made and undeniably intense as it is. Or perhaps it's De Palma, who has the subtlety of an axe murderer and a tin ear for real reality. Even the way the kids talk to military investigators seems farfetched. I find it hard to believe that two soldiers that are in hot water for committing rape and murder, would be so disrespectful and so blasé. It doesn't help that the guys have nary a shred of real dimensionality to them. There is the decent college kid, the aspiring Latino filmmaker, the tough talking Black sargeant, and the two trailer trash from hell, which Sean Penn did by himself much more convincingly in Casualties of War. The young, talented actors give it their all. Had they been in the hands of someone with more psychological acuity, they would not seem like walking clichés.
So plenty of instances ring false. Which is exactly why the movie fails, for all its brutality, for all its intentions to make Americans confront the evil we have unleashed. Its manipulations are more transparent, and less emotionally effective.
Brian de Palma is a very proficient filmmaker and some of the sequences in this film have incredible tension and power. They are chillingly effective, particularly one where a car runs through a checkpoint, seen from the point of view of the passenger in the car. In fact, part of the film is quite entertaining: most of the soldiers are likeable and they speak the army macho patois with much conviction. We seem to have a tradition in American war movies of goofy camaraderie and potty mouthed repartee that we all come to expect. Though it may be very real, it's a cliché. But then things get ugly, and the plot is blatantly contrived in order to get someone to actually record the evil deeds with a camera. De Palma really goes to town with the violence, although it could have been more disturbing to learn of the incident without actually seeing it, through its consequences. I'm not advocating for prudishness. Redacted is a war film and war should not be sanitized. The entire point of the film seems to be that the war has been pre-sanitized for us by the government and the self-censored media, and had we access to the obscene brutality that goes on every day, as we did during Vietnam, perhaps we'd be more inflamed against the war. Still, the premise that the crime is recorded for posterity with a video camera makes the whole thing rather forced.
In the end, I was not moved nor outraged, but exhausted and underwhelmed.
The photographs of bloodied, maimed civilians at the end of the film are horrifying. That their faces are further desecrated by a black blot makes their tragic anonymity even more obscene. They are the only thing that is actually real in the movie. What is the point in obscuring their faces? Surely they are already unrecognizable, charred, maimed, blown to shreds. Is it only for legal protection? Is it for sensationalism? In either case, it is an appalling, disrespectful use of them. If the purpose is to shock American audiences into recognizing that we are at war, then why obscure the faces? These are human beings, and viewing them like this may provoke shock and outrage, but it does not afford them or us any dignity. It's war porn.

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