Documentary Film "Full Battle Rattle"

An Iraqi Village in the Californian Desert

In the documentary film "Full Battle Rattle" the US Army simulates the Iraq War with the help of Iraqi extras. Do the filmmakers have enough critical distance from their subject? Martin Gerner on a film in which fantasy and reality overlap

​​Everything in Medina Wasl – which means "Crossroads Junction" – seems just like we know it from the news about Iraq: A bomb explodes, machine guns rattle, cars go up in flames, dead bodies and wounded people litter the ground. Iraqis meet their deaths, the women bewail their losses. Shiites fight against Sunnis, the US Army tries to get the chaos under control.

And then a signal is given and suddenly the whole game is over. The dead stand up again, dust themselves off. Seconds later they are munching on sandwiches and making jokes.

Medina Wasl is one of thirteen villages in California's Mojave Desert, 150 kilometers from Los Angeles, where the US Army is simulating the war in Iraq. The village serving as scenery is actually a collection of clapboard buildings that looks a little like a town in a Hollywood Western. A mosque has also been fashioned out of several layers of wood, its minaret rising up at the end of the street. Next to it is a cobbled together Iraqi cemetery with gravestones made of wood instead of stone.

Plastic dolls, fake blood, real tears

Authentic by contrast are the over 200 Iraqi civilians who, together with genuine US soldiers, have been cast in fixed roles in the virtual war scenario.

Bassam plays the Deputy Mayor of Medina Wasl, sitting across from a US commander who says into the camera: "The cultural norms of the Iraqis are important to us. We want to appear professional, polite and prudent."

​​The screenplay for the two- to three-week training camp envisages not only the use of propaganda but also anti-US demonstrations. Some of the Iraqi actors chant in chorus "Down with George Bush!" and "Hang the Yankees!"

Plastic dolls with rotating limbs and injuries oozing fake blood are made up to look like wounded, then treated and cared for as if they were real people. Real tears are shed for the burial of the phony dead. Nothing is left to chance. This makes a professional impression on the viewer, but as the film goes on it all seems increasingly alienating and absurd.

Patriotic or critical?

"The reality is much more complex, difficult and dangerous than the US Army can enact in this kind of camp," says Jesse Moss, one of the two directors. "Our film is meant to be an allegory about the lies and good intentions of the US military, which have turned into the reverse."

Without the interviews with the Iraqi actors, the film would be only half as compelling. Listening to the music accompanying some of the scenes, one might even get the idea that these images are meant to inspire patriotism. At least that's the way some viewers felt at the film's premiere at the Berlinale.

"Our goal was to make an observant documentary film. Not one that takes the viewer by the hand and tells him what to think," says Moss. "This war is insanity and the Bush administration bears the responsibility for it and for the many deaths."

Accused of betraying their homeland

In the film, the military's dramatization, allegedly designed to sensitize its members to a foreign culture, ends up unmasking the military itself instead. In one scene, a US soldier is seen watching an Egyptian sitcom with two Iraqi actresses. The soldier's childlike face comprehends neither what is happening on screen nor the smiles of his companions.

​​"The first three days of a training camp, I always have a hard time with the Iraqis," one of the soldiers who was already in the real war in Iraq admits.

Among the Iraqi actors are several who fled their country during the war. Acting here is anything but a matter of course to them: "At the beginning I felt guilty working here. Some people in the Iraqi community accuse me and my colleagues of betraying our homeland," relates one of the actors, who has role number ‘4491': "I thought about quitting, but part of the money I'm earning here I send home to my family in Iraq."

Fictional battlefield – real actors

In the film the Iraqi actors celebrate an Arab wedding. An execution video is shown in which one of them acts the part of victim. This scene is hard to bear without an appreciation of black humor. In the end, the US military hands over Medina Wasl to the Iraqi authorities. In the subsequent celebrations, another attack occurs. The new mayor is killed.

"The army behaves like a big corporation that wants to show what it is planning for the future," comments Tony Gerber, the second director. "This machinery goes on running and keeps the culture of fear alive in the USA, instilling constant anxiety about being attacked by new enemies."

Currently, Medina Wasl is being converted. Out of the Iraqi village, a backdrop for the war in Afghanistan will be created for USD 12 million.

Martin Gerner

© 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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