Redacted

The controversy over Brian DePalma’s pseudo-documentary Redacted (IMDB), specifically the concluding montage which features documentary photographs taken during the Iraq War, has now more or less faded, and the film itself has more or less been forgotten amidst the other Iraq War dramas that have come (and mostly gone) in recent months. But because of my interest in documentary, I’ve felt compelled to see Redacted, and when I discovered that it was playing on demand, I decided to check it out, even though several friends, perhaps wisely, cautioned me against seeing it. And while most of the reviewers whose opinions I value have criticized the film, I’m trying to resist completely rejecting the film (like Karina, I think it’s a fascinating project conceptually, at least).

Redacted relates the story of a group of soldiers who inadvertently kill a pregnant Iraqi woman and her unborn child when she and her brother fail to stop at a checkpoint. The fact that she was about to give birth when her brother drive through the checkpoint and that her brother misinterpreted the soldiers’ signals seems to matter little to the soldiers who fired upon the car, Flake and Rush (I’m not entirely sure, but I think, just maybe, their names are meant to be allegorical). In response, the local militia kills a soldier with an IED. Rush and Flake respond to their comrade’s death by raping and killing a 15-year old Iraqi girl, as well as several members of her family. One of the soldiers attempts to report the crime but is depicted as psychologically unstable, and little is done to pursue the crime (the story is loosely based on the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi).

De Palma’s innovation–and it is a valuable idea–is to tell the story using a variety of “documentary” techniques, including a soldier’s video diary, a French documentary, an embedded reporter, an Arabic news channel (modeled, perhaps, on Al Jazeera), a fortuitously located surveillance camera, a video blog, and a video chat. The implication seems to be that even with all of these documentary forms, we are unable to gain access to the truth of what is happening in Iraq. At least, I think that’s the implication. De Palma seems to introduce his thesis at the beginning of the film during one of Angel Salazar’s video diary segments when one of his fellow soldiers admonishes other members of his battalion that “truth is the first casualty of war.” We then watch as the film’s story unfolds and the guilty soldiers (Flake and Rush) attempt to cover up their crime. Perhaps the biggest issue here, however, is that De Palma is remarkably uncritical when it comes to reflecting on his own representations of the Iraq War. I’ve been opposed to the war in Iraq since before it began, but if De Palma is going to assert that representations of the war inevitably fall short of the truth, doesn’t the same critique apply to his own film? I’m not sure he adequately addresses that point.

To be sure, I think it is important to acknowledge that representations of the Iraq War present unique challenges to those of us who are interested in documentary, precisely because of the often fragmentary, always partial representations that Redacted references throughout the movie. But I’m less convinced that De Palma has said anything interesting or new about these attempts at documenting the war. It’s quite obviously clear that embedded reporters, insurgent videos, and soldiers’ video diaries are going to provide us with vastly different perspectives on the war, but these perspectives seem so tied to a larger, allegorical (presumably anti-war) point that the distinctions between the various media seemed almost cartoonish. And also like Karina, I’m far from convinced that this film has done the anti-war movement any good whatsoever. If anything, it seems to reinforce stereotypes of those of us who opposed (or came to oppose) the war.

And say what you will about truth being a “casualty of war,” I’m also uncertain about what “truth” about Iraq De Palma was trying to convey here about the pursuit of the war in Iraq. I’ve been opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning, but I found De Palma’s attempts to portray the (lack of) representation of this specific atrocity to be profoundly simplistic. The soldiers are virtually devoid of personality, with most of them being either pathologically violent, sex-crazed lunatics, virulent rednecks (Confederate flags and centerfolds dominate the barracks), or both. While there is one “good” soldier, he seems to be the exception. He is also depicted as the only soldier who has gone to college, suggesting his elevated class status. I realize that there might be some larger point about US soldiers being instruments of state power, but no such thesis was suggested. In fact, the architects (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) of the war go virtually unmentioned. And, yes, I realize that some US soldiers have committed the crimes depicted in the film, but reductive depictions of the military bother me no matter the politics. The film also seems to ignore the fact that a vast majority of Americans now oppose the war, making the film’s arguments about truth seem rather reductive and simplistic (and making Elvis Mitchell, J. Hoberman and Roger Ebert’s praise of the film somewhat curious, although, upon seeing the film, I agree with Hoberman that the concluding montage is both unneeded and distracting).

If De Palma is correct in asserting that the first casualty of war is the truth, due in part to its mediation by photographers and reporters, then the first casualty of Redacted is the failure to think critically about its own mediation of these representations.

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