Saturday, January 31, 2009

Milos Stehlik: The Iraq War in Film

The Iraq War In Film
by Milos Stehlik
Worldview (WBEZ: Chicago)


Most documentary filmmakers don’t make films about the war in Iraq to get rich: it’s because they want to tell a story or show a reality that they feel needs urgent telling. This is a reality largely missing from our media-saturated universe. The dirty little secret of television coverage is the severe restrictions on journalists in covering the war in Iraq – first from the compromising concept of being “embedded” with military units, and then, because of the restrictions on movement created by the dangerous situation on the ground. Reporters for the BBC, for example, afraid for their safety, remained in their protected hotel room and gave video cameras to Iraqis, asking them to bring back footage. According to the organization Reporters Without Borders, 222 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the start of fighting in Iraq in March 2003, two are still missing and 14 are kidnapped

The lack of visceral images, of the terrible human toll that the Iraq war has taken on both the American military and on the civilian population, lead to abstracting the war in Iraq into a bloody conflict in a distant, parallel universe. Yet many of the films offered keys to helping us understand what was happening in Iraq at such enormous human and economic cost. In James Longley’s powerful documentary, Iraq in Fragments, for example, the middle section of the film is a penetrating verite insight into the supporters of radical cleric Moqtada-al-Sadr. Seeing the fanaticism which drives his supporters gave us some understanding of the single-minded, martyrdom-inspired devotion that we are up against in the factionalized country.

The trauma that soldiers and the population of Iraq faces daily was cleverly sanitized by the Bush Administration by censoring any images of dead American soldiers or coffins coming back to America. In an article in a recent New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern writes that just about the only documentation of the terrible injuries suffered by American soldiers in Agfghanistan and Iraq is a manual for surgeons issued by the Office of the Surgeon General called “War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007.” American military censors reportedly tried to ban the book from general circulation by having it refused an ISBN code, which would have limited its commercial sale. A U.S. Army surgeon said that the military was concerned that the graphic images “could be spun politically to show the horrors of war”, as if the horrors of war are a Republican or Democratic issue.

It remained to the brave and undaunted American documentary filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill to show the trauma in the Iraqi operating rooms in Bagdad ER¸ and more recently, the emotional loss faced by families of fallen soldiers in their newest film, Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery. Section 60 is where about 10 percent of the casualties from the Afghanistan and Iraq war are buried. Alpert and O’Neill spent months in the cemetery, wining trust of the families, documenting the consequences of the wars...

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