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.