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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

No End in Sight

While sitting at a table with two friends for breakfast recently, we got into a brief discussion of the chronology of the Iraq Conflict. One of the people at the table had penalized a speech competitor, at least in part, for swapping the invasion dates the US chose for Iraq in Afghanistan. My friends correctly identified that we’d invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, and then our other companion asked: “So when exactly did we invade Iraq?”

I quickly answered, “2003”, and both friends fell silent. If they weren’t sure, they at least trusted me. And I, though happy to have seemingly chosen the correct time-line, wasn’t entirely sure I knew outside of the nebulous data-base that is my brain.

I was right, it turns out, but only correct in identifying a conflict which offered the US and Iraqi people little satisfaction. With all of the current discussion surrounding ISIS (and, yes, Gaza) reigniting limited American interest in our role in Middle-East peace, it’s important to consider the last decade of (in)action as it relates to the Iraqi people. No End In Sight attempts, with a calm and collected demeanor, to elucidate the glaring failures of the US government to properly invade, police, or maintain an occupation of Iraq. Unlike many of the documentaries I’ve watched recently on the subject of global conflict, whether stylish and journalistic like Dirty Wars or deeply personal like 5 Broken Cameras, this film is all big-picture data. It attempts to gain interviews with a majority of individuals involved in capturing and maintaining Iraq, whether as warriors or peace-keepers, and to investigate the ultimately malign shortcomings which hovered over the occupation and the George W. Bush administration.

This is a concise film, ribbed with intention and fury. It’s shot in fairly standard form, mostly talking heads and occasional footage from Iraqi protestors or civilians. There are even some moving maps and things and, given that the film is about seven years old, these small touches actually reveal it as more robust than many of its contemporaries. Mostly, this is a film that gives you the tools to understand how exactly the US went wrong in Iraq. I can still recall learning the basics on Bill Maher during the mid-2000s, mainly things like a lack of infrastructure, or the De-Baathing process. Here, though, I was shocked to find out how little of this process was overseen by Bush, how the soldiers were incorrectly prepared for combat, how few people commanding the Conflict were versed in any kind of Middle-Eastern culture or even spoke some kind of Arabic. UN intermediaries were wasted (and killed), the Green Zone was erected to keep us from engaging the people we were ruling over, and a lack of communication on the ground impeded us from stopping the wide-spread looting our own forces/process ultimately encouraged. I could go on, but the film does a far better job of simply reiterating the madness than I can.

This is precisely what I seek in good documentary filmmaking. An incendiary story and the follow-through to document the ways in the principal players acted. Likewise, it documents in broad strokes with evidence and thoughtful pacing. When I argue with people about policy and conflict I want/NEED to be able to cite more specific evidence. Since I don’t have anyone to teach me about the Iraq Conflict at this point, watching older films as a way of understanding the world I grew up in is absolutely vital. Much like this film, a much needed primer for those of us old enough to remember but too young to have ever fully understood.

(9.6 / 10)

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“What I have to film demands a strong camera. Not a fragile one.” – Ermad

5 Broken Cameras

Embedded documentaries, whether in international crises or international conflict, are all the rage at the moment. At places like Sundance and the Oscars they’re grabbing awards left and right largely because they challenge the idea of received information and, importantly, give us a more earth-bound perspective of what’s going on in the world around us. At their best, they’re revelatory. At worst, incoherent.

This film is both. Sometimes neither. It follows the life of a Palestinian farmer as he navigates years in a border-town under frequent threat from Israeli forces. We watch him grapple with the loss of friends, family, and even his own livelihood in an effort to document the fleeting world around him. The filmmaker, Ermad Burnat (along with director Guy Davidi) utilizes a variety of hand-held recorders to document his changing world. The film breaks down into sections addressing political protest, life at home, and Ermad’s explorations of his past via the camera and narration. In that regard it’s a deeply simple film, though one which attempts to transmute complex circumstances surrounding geo-political strife into a personal and human story. It’s often effective, as when one of his children begins learning his first words. Words like “shell”, reflective of the troubling world these children are growing into. This film is unabashedly pro-Palestinian, and given the contemporary fighting in Gaza the movie may benefit from increased attention once again. The Palestinian plight is receiving renewed attention in light of the Gaza bombings, but it’s worth remembering while watching this that we only get one side, Ermad’s view as a Palestinian. This is a perfect reflection of contemporary truncated documentary. It’s all personal vision, no context. That’s good for emotions but quite ineffective in educating viewers on the context which produced these circumstances in 2012. Or just the past few weeks.

VERDICT: Incredibly brave film with bold and innovative approach to storytelling. Troubling lack of context, though. Extra points for timeliness. As the death toll ticks above 500 we should be seizing opportunities like this one to learn more. Moderate recommendation.

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The Invisible War

As I came of age in the cauldron of feminism that is the Ball State Speech Team, I became aware of just how important it is to engage with topics surrounding sexuality, gender, and minority rights. This was a big part of my intellectual education at college, and I’m still very thankful for it. This film deals with the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Sadly, I was aware of this enormous problem before even watching the film (another by-product of having the sort of intellectual acquaintances who find understanding such things a priority), and was heartened to have it reinforced and to take the chance to give it a more thorough look.

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries lately and this is probably the most “conventional” one in terms of construction and content. Like Blackfish, this film utilizes a lot of talking-heads and doesn’t push the envelope too much in terms of form. Where it does excel and tell a courageous and very difficult story is by profiling several women and men who recount their experiences with the culture of sexual assault which frequently pervades the military. It attempts to not only tell the stories of women, though the closest thing it has to a protagonist is in Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca, but leverages these stories with instances of male assault and indicts a hyper-masculine military culture for failing to create a culture in which individuals can disclose their assault for fear of reprimand, violence, or even instances in which their commanding officer (in charge of dictating the course of the prosecution) is the themselves the abuser. These sort of power abuses and hypocrisies are the primary focus of the film, and it’s frequently intercut with (bland, IMO) title-cards which offer facts, figures, and often horrifying/frustrating data to reflect how our armed forces are often brutalized not by our enemies, but by their own peers. A silver lining in the film is the effect it has already had on changing the policy allowing commanding officers the power to dictate judicial proceedings and how prominently it has been shown throughout the military in the past two years.

VERDICT: This isn’t revolutionary filmmaking, and at times suffers a sort of tedium for lack of compelling cutting/editing, but it’s an enormously important topic. This gets a strong recommendation on the tone and content of the piece, but be prepared for a challenging and necessarily graphic film.

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“The world is a battlefield and we’re at war.” – Anonymous JSOC source

Dirty Wars

I remember watching a clip from this film, the one in which narrator/star/superman Jeremy Scahill appears on Bill Maher to discuss his Blackwater book, as a mid-teenager. It’s impressive that his image, and his commitment to telling uncompromising stories, sticks with me even today.

This is a messy, thoughtful film about messy, thoughtless things. On a careening course which carries us through Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, Scahill explores the power and reach of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, and the (potentially) unlawful killing of various citizens of other nations as well as our own at the hands of our government. It’s a quick, bracing film which is definitely a product of the VICE style of slick, extremist filmmaking. Everything here is maximilized and instagrammy, not unlike HELL AND BACK AGAIN, really. However in that film the poetics of contemporary aesthetics are used to move us spiritually beyond the world of facts, figures, data, and compel us to look inward. Here the effect is marred because Scahill’s game is to get us to stare into the abyss of our fractured American foreign-policy. A gussied up set of filters and Scahill’s insistent interjection of himself into the narrative as protagonist, information warrior, and general badass mucks up our genuine view of the perpetrators and victims in these countries. The Afghanistan chapter is overlong and tedious, but the Yemen chapter is thoroughly engrossing. Somalia, sadly, feels bluntly tacked on for the purposes of scope and reach. Scahill is underwhelming in his attempts to draw the breadth of this narrative in a way which most viewers will be able to follow, and like VICE, it fails to conjure up astute context or connections for lay-viewers to follow. This is bold, courageous journalism. It’s also needlessly self-indulgent and lacking in verifiable content. Modern journalism, in other words.

VERDICT: Mostly for foreign-policy junkies (like me). This won’t offer much to the already converted and even less to those who would label it propaganda. An eerie and unsettling reminder of the guiding hand of politics behind the curtain. Light recommendation.

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Hell and Back Again

It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that so many of the critically acclaimed documentaries of the past few years are about war. Whether it is documenting combat, utilizing new technology to bring insights to the experiences of those caught on the battlefield, or even the unique trials of combat on our veterans, the destructive power of conflict seems to constantly rear its head as subject of philosophizing and discussion.

Hell and Back Again adds a poetic element to this conversation by focusing on marine sergeant Nathan Harris. Utilizing an intensely cinematic style of embedded shooting, director Danfung Dennis documents both Nathan’s time in Afghanistan and his complex bout with PTSD upon returning to the United States. In the realm of documentary filmmaking, particularly regarding war, this is far from “journalistic” in tone, and instead opts for a very emotively effective docu-drama style which emphasizes the almost poetic doom of Nathan’s battle both in Afghanistan and at home. It’s an empathetic portrayal of the struggles of veteran life, and even manages to give some much-needed attention to the difficulties placed on Nathan’s partner as she attempts to cope with the wounds her husband has suffered with and hopes one day to fully overcome in his personal mission to return to Afghanistan.

Some viewers will likely be turned off by the extremely cinematic shooting style and lack of musical cues. It’s not necessarily audience-friendly filmmaking, but succeeds brilliantly in moments as a technical reflection of the sheer brutality which Nathan Harris has suffered for his country. Likewise, the portrayal of Nathan Harris is often uncompromising/unflattering. He candidly reveals he went to join the military to kill people, or relishes his time in bed with his firearm. This is not a man it’s always easy to grieve for, but the magnitude of his struggle is magnetic in its ability to draw empathy. This is one of so many soldiers. Watching a film about war will never be enough. But it’s a brilliant start.

OVERALL: For those interested in the myriad contemporary war documentaries, this is one of the more “artistic”. It’s exceedingly well edited and a technical wonder. Those searching for facts and hard data should look elsewhere.

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Poster Girl

In the wake of discussions surrounding the possibility we’ll be in Afghanistan for another decade I’m often struck by a bit of chronological magic. Or nightmare. It’s possible that children born after the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 could be fighting wars in the Middle East. A terrifying thought, if only because it reveals the sins older generations pass unknowingly, or uncaringly, to their children. The short, 40 minute documentary Poster Girl chronicles the toll of PTSD on a female solider named Robynn Murray as she returns from the Iraq conflict. Robynn is clearly a sensitive soul, one who has made it her mission after returning from war to ensure that she can speak out against the way she feels she was manipulated into harming innocent civilians and transforming into a murderer. She also grapples with the difficult Veterans Affairs system, and her attempts to claim her disability funding are one of the more frustrating and emotional aspects of the film. Ultimately the picture culminates in Robynn pursing art as a way of performing a sense of healing and seeking closure in her life with the military. It’s sparse, raw, and manages to pack in a lot of depth in its short run-time.

VERDICT: Normally I find shorts TOO short to truly enjoy comprehensively, but this one is really pretty good. Robynn is a great documentary subject, and I’m glad to see this film bringing attention in its own way to the plight of PTSD and unique difficulties of the female soldier.

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