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The Iraq War In Film

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The Iraq War In Film

From Patricia Foulkrod’s THE GROUND TRUTH

In his regular film commentary, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia takes a critical look at films about the Iraq war...

For the war in Vietnam , we had The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Coming Home, The Green Berets and The War at Home. PLATOON made the career of Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW – and the difficulty of completing it – were international sensations.

For the war in Iraq , we have over 50 documentaries, several television series, and a dozen or so feature films. The web is filled with articles of how all of these films failed at the box office. The analysis isn't deep: people are tired of the war. There is an over-saturation of coverage.

In an article called “Yanks Nix Iraq Pix” in Slate, Anthony Kaufman quoted the response filmmaker Patricia Foulkrod got when she started trying to promote her documentary about Iraq war veterans, The Ground Truth. Prospective distributors said,  “Oh, no, not another Iraq war movie.”  Foulkrod said “I remember a development person from Miramax who came back from Sundance and said, “We just saw Why We Fight. It's been done.” And I said, “You're kidding me. We're in a war and it's been done after one movie?”

Many of the Iraqi films went around the world on the film festival circuit, garnered prizes and publicity only to flop at the boxoffice. Stop Loss, the highly publicized film by Kimberley Pierce opened to $1.6 million in screenings from 1,291 theatres. It ultimately grossed almost $11 million. But not including the marketing and distribution costs, it took $25 million to produce.

Most documentary filmmakers don't make films about the war in Iraq to get rich: it's because they want to tell a story or show a reality that they feel needs urgent telling. This is a reality largely missing from our media-saturated universe. The dirty little secret of television coverage is the severe restrictions on journalists in covering the war in Iraq – first from the compromising concept of being “embedded” with military units, and then, because of the restrictions on movement created by the dangerous situation on the ground. Reporters for the BBC, for example, afraid for their safety, remained in their protected hotel room and gave video cameras to Iraqis, asking them to bring back footage. According to the organization Reporters Without Borders, 222 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the start of fighting in Iraq in March 2003, two are still missing and 14 are kidnapped

The lack of visceral images, of the terrible human toll that the Iraq war has taken on both the American military and on the civilian population, lead to abstracting the war in Iraq into a bloody conflict in a distant, parallel universe.  Yet many of the films offered keys to helping us understand what was happening in Iraq at such enormous human and economic cost. In James Longley's powerful documentary, Iraq in Fragments, for example, the middle section of the film is a penetrating verite insight into the supporters of radical cleric Moqtada-al-Sadr.  Seeing the fanaticism which drives his supporters gave us some understanding of the single-minded,  martyrdom-inspired  devotion that we are up against in the factionalized country.

The trauma that soldiers and the population of Iraq faces daily was cleverly sanitized by the Bush Administration by censoring any images of dead American soldiers or coffins coming back to America. In an article in a recent New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern writes that just about the only documentation of the terrible injuries suffered by American soldiers in Agfghanistan and Iraq is a manual for surgeons issued by the Office of the Surgeon General called “War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007.”  American military censors reportedly tried to ban the book from general circulation by having it refused an ISBN code, which would have limited its commercial sale. A U.S. Army surgeon said that the military was concerned that the graphic images “could be spun politically to show the horrors of war”, as if the horrors of war are a Republican or Democratic issue.

It remained to the brave and undaunted American documentary filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill to show the trauma in the Iraqi operating rooms in Bagdad ER¸ and more recently, the emotional loss faced by families of fallen soldiers in their newest film, Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery. Section 60 is where about 10 percent of the casualties from the Afghanistan and Iraq war are buried. Alpert and O'Neill spent months in the cemetery, wining trust of the families, documenting the consequences of the wars...

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

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