Brian De Palma: "Making You Aware of What You're Watching"

By Sean Axmaker

Brian De Palma Brian De Palma arrived for the North American premier of Redacted at the Toronto International Film Festival direct from Venice, where he won the prestigious Silver Lion for Best Director. It was a controversial award for a controversial film, a fictionalized portrait of real-life war crime in the current Iraq occupation, which De Palma has made more provocative by using the techniques of non-fiction filmmaking, TV news reporting, video diaries and propaganda pieces to challenge audiences to question what exactly they're seeing. He was clearly exhausted from his whirlwind schedule (he was ordering a sandwich when I was ushered into the hotel room; "I just don't have any time to deal with anything else," he remarked as I set up my tape recorder), but it didn't blunt his comments about his feelings of impotence in the face of war and the cinematic response that is Redacted.

It is pure coincidence that day of the interview, which also happened to be his birthday, was September 11.

I saw Redacted two days ago and I confess that I still don't know how I feel about it.

That's perfectly understandable. I've seen this reaction many times and it's because of the powerfulness of the emotional element and also because it's new. It's presented in number of ways that you haven't processed before. People come out of the film like, "I've got to think about this." They've been affected but they have to sort out everything and it takes a while. It's usually about 24 hours before they can really deal with what it means to them.

I don't really make an emotional connection because the style, by its nature, keeps you at such a remove, but the film is sticking with me.

Well, it is the Brechtian idea of making you aware of what you're watching while you're watching it. These video forms that seemingly are reality TV are really fictionalized. I'm going to make up a story here and you're going to believe it.

Salazar [Izzy Diaz] starts off talking into his camera, saying, "I'm here to show you the truth."

Right.

And then we have the French documentary which is their truth, and then the news shows, and on top of all that, all of these elements are fictional creations of yours. What are you trying to say about the nature of truth?

There are a couple facts here. Even though this is all based on real material, real material which I found on the Internet in these forms that you see in the movie, because of the legal problems, I couldn't use the real material. I couldn't use the real news stories. My first idea was to use the real material, the real news story, but the cases were being prosecuted while I was making the movie, so the lawyers said, "Well, you can't use any of that." So anytime I used anything that had to do with the real case, I'd have to fictionalize it. Fortunately, I had made Casualties of War and the incidences were almost exactly the same. So I drew most of my characters from the soldiers of Casualties of War, with a lot of other stuff I had found on the web about certain soldiers - you know, their blogs; you get all sorts of characterization stuff from that. And that became the way to tell the story.

So it was constructed via the way you discovered it, through the video footage and video blogs you found in the Internet?

Yes, that presented the form to me. And I'm very technically savvy. I used to build computers when I was a kid and I'm very interested in the whole computer revolution. This'll change in another couple of years. There wasn't YouTube two or three years ago. There's all kinds of new stuff and people are using it to express how they feel about things. They're performers; they're doing all kinds things and it's interesting to see how it's going to evolve. And I also think, certainly with digital storytelling, it's a new way to tell narrative, to create narrative. I've made a lot of movies and most narrative forms have been pretty much exhausted now. They do them on television, they've recycled every plot and character you can imagine, so now there are whole new ways to deal with story forms that are emerging in these bits on the web.

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