Full Battle Rattle

Because of my proximity to Fort Bragg, one of the films I was most curious to see at Full Frame was Full Battle Rattle (IMDB), Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s documentary about a simulated Iraqi village, Medina Wasl, set up in California’s Mojave Desert. Medina Wasl is often the last stop for many soldiers before they are deployed for Iraq, and it is meant as a kind of training ground for soldiers to prepare for dealing with the problems they are likely to face when they arrive in Iraq. The city is populated by hundreds of Iraqi exiles who take on various roles–including one Iraqi who comically complains of being stuck in the role of deputy mayor–much like extras in a Hollywood movie might. And, in a striking move, the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency are, in fact, played by U.S. soldiers who have already served at least one tour in Iraq.

Full Battle Rattle follows the experiences of one Army Battalion as they go through the simulation. The film opens with a battle scene that unfolds before our eyes, complete with dramatic confrontations, wounded soldiers and civilians, everything you might expect to see in a war (movie). When the battle abruptly stops, we realize that it is a simulation with all of the special effects that one might find in a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with special effects, mannequins splattered with fake blood serving as wounded soldiers, and even a soldier offering method acting tips to one of the participants. From there, we are introduced to a number of the participants, both within the Battalion undergoing the training, and within the “Iraqi” village itself, and to the “authors” of the conflict that the Battalion must attempt to resolve without allowing the village to devolve into anti-American sentiment. And, at this point, we get a clear sense of the fact that we are watching a movie about a movie-like simulation of a real war. It’s a somewhat unsettling realization, and unlike Variety reviewer, Eddie Cockrell, I think that the non-judgmental approach taken by Gerber and Moss place a lot of trust in the audience, allowing them to make sense of this activity, to reach their own conclusions about what the simulation says about the politics of war.  In fact, what compelled me was not the degree to which these narrative representations of the Iraq War are inadequate–that’s pretty obvious–but the way in which the representations actually seem to shape the war itself.  As one commenter at Full Frame observed, Jean Baudrillard would have a field day with this film.

There are, in addition, a number of resonant moments. One of the Iraqi women observes that her mother, who is still living in Baghdad, has told her that she is happy that the daughter still has a reason to wear traditional Iraqi clothing, if only in a simulated version of Iraq. Another Iraqi player turns out to have journeyed through half a dozen countries before arriving, illegally, in the U.S. We see him going through court proceedings in order to avoid being deported, as he hopes that his participation in Medina Wasl will be viewed favorably in the court. At the same time, we are introduced to soldiers, whose attitudes towards Iraq range across the spectrum. One soldier, who plays an insurgent in Medina Wasl, admits that when he returns to the simulation, he has to put aside his own hatred of Iraqis, a process that often takes several days.

Perhaps the most oddly compelling scene in the film is the simulated funeral of a “fallen” soldier who is ostensibly killed in the war gaming.  During the funeral, we see soldiers shedding real tears for the simulated death of a comrade.  As Indy Weekly writer David Fellerath observes, it’s an unsettling scene (review found via the FBR blog), one that raises any number of questions about exactly what these simulations are meant to teach.  Full Battle Rattle is clearly critical of the war, and the (scripted) dramatic increase in tensions in Medina Wasl seems to predict the (seemingly unscripted) conflicts in Iraq.  It was certainly one of the most fascinating films I saw at the festival, one that looks at our investment in the war in Iraq from an entirely new perspective.

4 Comments »

  1. Brit Fisher Said,

    April 13, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    Hello Chuck,
    I read your blog on Full Battle Rattle and I appreciated your thoughts on our film. The decision to not take an overt political posture was not an easy one considering the strains, stances, social and emotional divides this war has created in our country, between friends and within oneself.
    I am so happy to hear from those who see FBR and both like it and ‘get it’. To have apparently been successful our efforts is just terrific!
    The Variety review was a shame. File that one under ‘U’ for “Ummm, seems as if Mr. Cockrell missed the point.” Ah well.
    It would appear that you enjoyed the film. To have people think and talk is just what we were hoping for. We look forward to continuing to share FBR with as wide an audience as possible.
    Best, Brit Fisher

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 13, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Brit. I did indeed enjoy the film and found it to be one of the more thoughtful takes on the U.S. military engagement with Iraq. In a slightly earlier blog entry, I had written about the fact that your film and Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Bulletproof Salesman offer more intellectually compelling–and therefore more satisfying–depictions of the war than we are typically given in the media.

    I do think the non-judgmental positioning taken by the filmmakers works well. That being said, I also believe that the events depicted in the film help to bear out many of the problems associated with the war. And I certainly wish you luck with the film.

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Iraq War Movie Fatigue, Part 2 Said,

    April 16, 2008 @ 9:12 am

    [...] Bulletproof Salesman (co-directed with Petra Epperlein) and Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s Full Battle Rattle. Both films avoid imposing easy interpretations of their subjects–an armored car salesman and [...]

  4. The Chutry Experiment » Lazy Saturday Links Said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    [...] be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, on Monday, January 12, at 9 PM.  Rattle, which I reviewed when I saw it a few months ago, documents a simulated Iraqi village, Medina Wasl, set up in [...]

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