By David D'Arcy
It isn't Disneyland, but it is a place where adults, mostly young adults, can play at being in war. Specifically, the war in Iraq. It isn't re-enactment, but simulation, in preparation for fighting the real thing after the "game" is over, and it's the last stop before soldiers encounter the real thing. The place is the National Training Center, a "town" built in the vast sands of the Mojave Desert, some two hours west of America's gaming capital, Las Vegas.
"Full Battle Rattle" is the army term for the full combat gear that soldiers wear. Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber call their film, Full Battle Rattle, an observational documentary, a new term for verite style.
And we hear lots of voices - young soldiers, officers determined that they and their troops will learning something from the training, and Iraqis recruited from San Diego who are playing at being themselves as they pretend to be under occupation. US soldiers with Iraq experience play insurgents. The odd simulation couldn't be more well-meaning - an oddly surreal game to help soldiers better understand their role in a war that their commanders may have trouble understanding.
More than a dozen Iraqi villages are constructed out there, with inhabitants and occupying soldiers. The mission in Full Battle Rattle is to manage frustrations in the fictional village of Medina Wazl (Junction City), where a town leader's son has been shot by insurgents, which leads the townspeople to wonder whether the insurgents might be better at ensuring their security than the Americans. It's a challenge for the Americans led by earnest Lt. Colonel Robert McLaughlin to make things right. Without giving too much away, let's just say that they don't.
In this "western," all the players wear Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems (or MILES) gear, which enables the army to measure casualties and kills - an updated version of the notorious body count that provided a quantitative measurement of success or failure for the US in Vietnam, or at least the top commanders and their boss Robert McNamara thought it did.
In the same landscape where Zabriskie Point was filmed, with cutaway shots of the blue sky and mountains reminding you where all this is really taking place, US officers tell "local" Iraqis of Medina Wazl that "we can be your best friend or your worst enemy." The Iraqis can work with the Americans, "or we can rain down a shit-storm." This is phraseology that replaces the timeworn expression "my way or the highway." Seeing it applied in this simulation, you can conclude that the US is still searching for the right mix of friendliness and force.
I spoke with Moss and Gerber as their "observational" documentary began its national run at Film Forum.
There seems to be a paradox here. The press has been writing about films about Iraq, yet few of them have drawn much of an audience. The docs on Iraq don't seem to be connecting with an audience that goes to movie theaters. Yet you tell me that at Hot Docs, you got a real response from the audience.
Jesse Moss: I think to some extent it's the audience who likes to see Iraq documentaries that comes to see them at festivals.
Tony Gerber: You cannot judge a book by its cover. We happen to fall into that genre, but we're quite different from any Iraq documentary that has had a commercial release to date. We deal with the film with a certain amount of ironic distance. And we never go to Iraq. This is a movie that looks at the war through a prism.
I'm not trying to compress your film into something identical to films that are dealing with the war in Iraq. The hint of any film being about Iraq seems to prejudice the theatrical audience.
Moss: That's the reality of the marketplace now. I'd like to be optimistic and think that the right kind of film that deals with Iraq could connect. We've had some dreadful Hollywood films, and some okay films, and those have not done well. When people want to see a Hollywood film, maybe they want to see escapism in it - No End in Sight being the more recent exception, and that was a year ago. It's true that Iraq is scary for non-fiction audiences, or maybe they feel as if they've seen it before. I also think there's a certain sense of guilt and shame on the part of Americans, whether they're movie-going audiences or not. The fatigue is about being lectured at, and it's about agenda. It's about the dialogue being agenda-driven. And what we've set up to do is to make an observational film that's not agenda-driven, and I don't think that's been done to date.
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