Thursday, May 8, 2008

Battle Fatigue

Film - Interview
Director Nick Broomfield
Battle for Haditha
Film Forum
209 West Houston Street
May 7-20

ImageDirector Nick Broomfield
(photo: Laurie Sparham)
Elliot Ruiz
(photo: Laurie Sparham)
In the quirky, highly personal documentaries he has been making for more than 20 years, British director Nick Broomfield often adopts a naive persona that allows him access to people who otherwise wouldn’t want anything to do with him. His work -- which include portraits of serial killer Aileen Wuornos and famed madam Heidi Fleiss, and a film about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of music superstars Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls -- displays Broomfield’s ability to burrow deep into his subjects’ psyches.

With his latest film, Battle for Haditha, Broomfield has bravely tackled a subject not obviously tailor-made to his talents. A dramatic reenactment of one of the most horrendous events of the seemingly endless Iraq War, when U.S. Marines massacred dozens of Iraqi civilians after a detonated homemade bomb killed one soldier and wounded several others, Battle for Haditha cannily utilizes the documentary techniques that have served Broomfield so well throughout his career. The extraordinary versimilitude he brings to this story drops us right in the middle of the action. Broomfield discussed his new film during a recent trip to New York.


KEVIN FILIPSKI: With all of the stories coming out of the Iraqi quagmire, why did you decide to make a film about what happened in Haditha in 2005?

NICK BROOMFIELD: Haditha is a quite symbolic event in this war, as well as a very specific thing that happened. It’s ideal as a way of illustrating all sides of this particular conflict; there’s no black or white, it’s a very complicated human story. And, more than anything, I wanted to bring some humanity back to the people of Iraq. Normally, we hear about all of the people being killed, but it’s very hard for us to put a human face to anything or to be reminded of the humanity of the situation.

KF: The film shows how cultural confusions and misunderstandings play a central role in how the brutality of the war has escalated.

NB: Yes, and it’s also a film about the language of war. What happens in any war is that each side depersonalizes the other, vilifying and demonizing the enemy to enable themselves to reach that point of hatred where they can kill without mercy. I think it’s the old adage that violence begets violence. It’s only when we can respect each other, and get some sense of each other’s culture, that we can move forward.

KF: How have the people portrayed in the film responded to it?

NB: When I showed the film in Dubai and in Jordan, we got to hear from both sides of the audience. There were Americans who were incredibly critical of the insurgency, and there were Jordanians who call the insurgents heroes. A number of Iraqis were surprised to see that the marines are human beings, that they are 18- and 19-year-old kids who have been really fucked up by this war. For so many Iraqis, the Marines are simply Evil -- and the same goes the other way, of course. None of the marines knew who the real Iraqi people were until they got to know them better; then they learned how good they could be. I wanted to make a film about how, instead of demonizing, we should try and put a human face on the enemy.

KF: What kind of research went into this project, and did you get any cooperation from the U.S. government?

NB: We looked at all of the government reports about Haditha that are on the Internet, and we had the 6,000-page report from the NCIS, which we looked at diligently and used to piece things together. We also met with three of the marines from that company, who told us what that day was like for them and what their experience was in Iraq prior to that day. So all of this was what we needed to flesh out the story. The military hardware you see in the film, we got that when we were in Jordan; the Jordanians thought our script was fair and balanced, so they supplied us with the Humvees and other equipment we needed.

KF: Nearly everyone in the film is a non-actor, including those playing the marines, who were or are marines in real life. How do you work with a cast of non-actors when you’re not filming reality, as you ostensibly do in a documentary?

NB: If you’re using non-actors, you have to cast people to play themselves, you have to create a situation that’s as real as possible, and you need to have a very small crew. So we created a barracks for the men playing the soldiers, and they lived there, just as the actors playing the Iraqis lived in the houses. Things were made as real as possible, and we shot the film in sequence. You have to allow them to bring what they have to the part. If they told us something about the reality of a situation, we listened and incorporated as much of that as possible into the film. The soldiers had all been in combat before, so they were used to that kind of action. Some of the Iraqis spoke a little English, but most of them had to work through an interpreter. We were using a lot of their experiences and getting their point of view that the insurgents are patriots and freedom fighters. They’re proud of Iraq’s culture, and they wanted elements of that in the film also, so they made a big contribution.

KF: How did you approach directing the large-scale action sequences, which aren’t the norm in your documentaries?

NB: I actually enjoyed doing the action. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be, but I worked very closely with explosives expert David Harris, who taught me quite a lot. I think the action sequences bring a lot of excitement to the film. Sequences like that take cinema back to its essence, which is basically visual. All the early movies before sound were essentially action films, and directing those scenes was a great reminder of that.

KF: Why do you think it’s been very difficult for films about Iraq or the events during and after September 11 to gain a foothold with audiences?

NB: I don’t think it’s just Iraq films that people don’t want to watch, it’s all films that are social or political. Back during the era of the Vietnam war, we were in a very different climate; people believed that they could make a difference and that their vote really counted. I don’t think people really believe that any more, and until there’s a new administration and a new vision from our leaders, that’s not going to change. Some of the films about Iraq just haven’t been very good, but I think that the problem is much deeper than that.

KF: Have you gotten any criticism that you’ve made anti-American propaganda because you show how difficult, if not impossible, the soldiers’ mission is?

NB: No, I haven’t heard anything like that -- at least, not yet. I think the film is accurate and fair. It’s not about judging or condemning anybody, but about trying to understand each side of this conflict, which might help all of us move forward.

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