This is a post I didn’t really intend to write, but I’m sorting through some ideas as I prepare to review a couple of Iraq docs from Full Frame, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s Bulletproof Salesman and Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s Full Battle Rattle, both of which were highlights of the festival for me. But as I began thinking about both films, I wanted to think through some of the questions that have been circulating recently about the place of documentaries and narrative features about the Iraq War.
It has become common wisdom that audiences are resistant to seeing movies about the Iraq War, whether those films are documentaries or features. This assumption seems to have been firmly established during Oscar season when a few high-profile directors and films (Brian DePalma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah) fared poorly at the box office. And this assumption seems pretty much taken for granted in a Studio 360 interview with Stop Loss director Kimberly Pierce, who talks passionately about how her brother’s service in Iraq. The dismal box office even inspired a Full Frame panel on “Crisis Fatigue” that I was unable to attend, thanks to a poorly timed dental appointment. While most commentators speculate that audiences are going to theaters to seek out entertainment, not to get “lectured” about the war, I want to suggest that things may be a little more complicated. After all, supporters of both political parties still cite the war as the most important issue facing the country. And, in fact, as Eugene Novikov of Cinematical implies, the box office numbers for many of these films may not be as bad as advertised. And, in perhaps a clearer sign of ongoing interest in movies about the war, the New York Times reports that PBS’s Bush’s War has attracted a substantial online audience (in fact, that’s where I discovered the film). Similarly, Deborah Scranton’s Bad Voodoo’s War seems to be generating a lot of traffic, if visits to my blog review of the film are any indication.
While both of these examples do not address the problem of getting audiences into theaters, they do suggest that there is an audience out there for meaningful, compelling documentary coverage of the Iraq War and its consequences. I do think that PBS’s decision to make these docs available online and to promote them heavily within the blogosphere (I’ve seen tons of online ads for both) makes a lot of sense, and both films seem to fit neatly within the recent headlines about General Petraeus’s testimony. I’m not saying that theatrical distribution of Iraq docs isn’t an issue, but I don’t think things are quite as dismal as the “box office crisis” narrative might suggest.