Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gunnin' for Trouble: Full Battle Rattle

Just when you thought the U.S. government couldn’t get any more bizarre, there’s co-directors Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s documentary Full Battle Rattle (military slang for a soldier suited up in full gear), billed as a “surreal look at modern war games in the Mojave Desert.” Basically what this means is that American taxpayer dollars are going to fund a billion dollar “virtual Iraq” for the purposes of urban warfare simulation or, as one talking head in camouflage simplifies, a huge reality TV show (giving the idea of the war “theater” a new twist). Even more surreal is the fact that the U.S. Army granted the filmmakers permission to live (and film!) inside the simulation for an entire, three week rotation, Gerber with the soldiers in training and Moss in the actual (fake) village of Medina Wasl, capturing both the Iraqi exile role-players and the American troops who take the parts of insurgents. Smartly the co-directors chose a straightforward approach – handheld on DV, no fancy camera or editing tricks required. This is a case of a fine melding of great story, fascinating footage and filmmakers who know enough to get out of the way, simply sticking themselves unobtrusively inside the giant game to record the unfolding of a nightmare struggling to become a dream.

“Full Battle Rattle” opens with the requisite vicious scenes of a chaotic war followed by a “cut.” While mangled mannequins are moved, an Iraqi woman in traditional clothing asks in perfect English, “Are we done?” (Mission accomplished?) But that’s low on the surreal totem pole compared to the best image in the film that follows, a long shot of an ice cream truck in the middle of the desert, the blare of a happy-go-lucky tune and a couple soldiers patiently lined up for treats in the sweltering heat. One middle aged man assigned the role of “deputy mayor” enthuses that he sometimes feels like he’s actually back home in Iraq, a discomfiting statement considering the Iraqis are given in-depth roles to play, not allowed to break character while the game is in motion, forced to deal with hideous back-stories filled with dead children and maimed relatives. And it is within this context that Gerber trains his lens on the Lieutenant Colonel, stoically ordering his troops to be “professional, polite and vigilant,” dangerously unaware that “I’m sorry for your loss, sir,” sounds an awful lot like a condescending slap in the face.

Throw into this volatile mix the Americans acting the roles of insurgents (“Is it Allakbar?” a soldier inquires, rehearsing a “Death to America!” rally while another advises an insurgent, “Make up a gibberish language. Focus on the saddest moment in your life. Think about when your dog died…That’s acting!”), crosscut with another soldier discussing character motivation with the deputy mayor (“Your son has been murdered – that’s all that’s on your mind!”) and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps concentrating on line readings and acting technique isn’t the best use of time for men facing battle in less than a month. The American “reporter” doing multiple takes for his “broadcast,” trying to get it just right, a mock Iraqi funeral complete with wailing women – “It gets real, they get lost in the scenario,” the soldier coordinating the simulation explains about the troops. But are they getting lost in the virtual reality or are they just getting lost? Ironically it’s the Iraqis forced to live with their painful, emotional backgrounds (both real and imagined) and high-level duties (imagined) who seem most committed to the simulated scenario. Mock news footage of the real Lt. Colonel offering trite statements to the fake journalist (followed by fake footage of real explosions) is no match for the gung-ho, truly invested Iraqi “police officer” who revels in his newfound sense of power (when not banging on doors to “root out insurgents” he works in a stockroom. Why the filmmakers were allowed access to this illegal immigrant on the U.S. government’s payroll is an unexplained mystery).

But it’s the mounting tension heightened by the gypsy-like, stringed score and the thoughtful commentary provided by a sergeant – and veteran of two tours in Iraq – assigned to play an insurgent that really makes “Full Battle Rattle” hit home. Sergeant Paul Greene, a bespectacled Philip Seymour Hoffman type, praises the benefits of going over to the other side (“makes you think like them”) while simultaneously admitting the thrill of blowing off steam without the heavy burden of morals or consequences. As an insurgent baddie he’s free to lash out without the weight of keeping volcanic emotions in check. He even honestly confesses to a prejudice against the Iraqi role-players for his first few days of simulation. As he speaks you realize he’s simply a mirror image of every young Iraqi man fighting for his country, falling into disillusionment and hatred as his life disintegrates before his eyes. (That the Army spends this much money on a war game that doesn’t mandate that every single soldier be assigned to step into an insurgent’s boots before deployment is nearly as unconscionable as its continuing to play Russian roulette with its troops’ lives.)

While the intricate, behind-the-scenes mechanics of orchestrating such an elaborate production – soldiers and civilians carry “cards” that alert the medics to their injuries (and how long the docs have to evacuate them before they die), the artificial limbs with wounds are based on real photos from the battlefield – is worthy of Ridley Scott, the reality outside the game is even more extraordinary. One Iraqi woman has parents still in Iraq – says she can hear the gunshots outside their home when she phones to give them the latest news (about her simulation of their real life!) While the illegal immigrant frets about his upcoming court case, fearing deportation to the real Iraq even as he lives in the virtual one, and an Iraqi woman studies for American citizenship inside the cramped quarters of Medina Wasl, the deputy mayor longs to see a free Iraq before he dies – and to finally become mayor (it’s been three years without a promotion after all!)

The war game is designed to start out neutral, “gray” but as soldiers make mistakes the environment becomes more hostile, less lethal when they get it right (and more absurd when they try to do right and get it wrong. Gerber cuts between three soldiers in heated discussion inside a Humvee, trying to figure out how much money they dispensed to the most recent victims of collateral damage. The back and forth bickering stops at “500,000 dines.” “Oh, damn,” states the surprised soldier who gave away the enormous sum, realizing that was all the funds they had). And just as in the real Iraq, easily avoidable missteps have dire consequences. Outside a barricade the deputy mayor patiently waits to meet with the Lt. Colonel about his murdered son – and waits and waits and waits, finally deciding he must “take care of it” himself. His disgust is both genuine and palpable as he storms back to his beat up car. (This in contrast to the soldier playing the insurgent who killed the son and knows his simulated death is near. “Oh, well, I’ll have a new character when I come back out here tomorrow, “ he tells Moss’ lens in an eerie parallel to notions of martyrdom and the afterlife. “I get the pick of the litter so I’ll just take another good one.”)

So when the deputy mayor without irony happily declares the “simulation injection” of a Sunni-Shia wedding (“Sunni, Shia, all religions working together!”), “unbelievable” you can’t help but think the worst is yet to come. And indeed, at a ground-breaking ceremony during reconstruction the insurgents attack, forcing the Lt. Colonel to hole up with the Iraqi leaders of Medina Wasl where he continues to robotically spew empty platitudes (“This is unfortunate my soldiers have to do this but together we will secure the town”) even as shots are fired, people “die” outside. The billows of sand, the mock blood seeping into the ground, “This town is fucking destroyed,” Sergeant Greene states with contempt as if in response. While the fake funeral the troops hold for comrades “KIA” (as their body tags read) is emotional, the practiced mourning ends with a soldier advising another yet again on technical matters, “Slow down when you read the 23rd Psalm.”

On the final day of the game the soldiers gather for the “withdrawal” phase only to learn that leaving the fake Iraq leads to a (one year) deployment to the real one. The camera cuts to the stiff-upper-lipped, downcast head of Sergeant Greene. Heartbroken and exasperated he soon gets on his phone to break the news to his wife that he’s been called up for a third time. All around him other soldiers join in the sad cell ritual. (The cruel irony that everyone still has to cheer, celebrate the joyous end to the simulation as the harsh brutality of real life creeps in is lessened with a final twist – the assassination of the mayor and the police chief.) Fortunately, Gerber and Moss kept their cameras rolling in a coda that follows the soldiers at home readying for leave, the Iraqi immigrant’s court hearing, the two Iraqi women who are best friends and the deputy mayor/liquor store clerk (his wife weeping when he shows the family his simulated assassination on the computer. “Why you crying?” he wonders. “I’m still here!”) As the troops say their goodbyes, the filmmakers focus on the wives holding themselves, their kids, crying, doors closing, a plane on the tarmac waiting in the dark. As we learn that 12 million will be spent to expand Medina Wasl into an Afghan village – and that five of the soldiers never came home – the words of the fake reporter haunt the mind. “Name an Islamic country that is a functioning democracy,” he’d asked a baffled soldier before quickly adding, “There isn’t one.”

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