By Aaron Hillis
It was only a matter of time before renowned British documentarian Nick Broomfield (“Kurt & Courtney,” “Biggie & Tupac,” “Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”), whose on-camera muckraking begat Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, would tackle the Iraq War. But what’s surprising for a guy who’s been developing his doc style since the early ’70s is that “Battle for Haditha,” based on a 2005 tragedy in which U.S. Marines slaughtered 24 Iraqi men, women and children as kneejerk retribution for an IED attack, isn’t a documentary at all. A progressive but blisteringly angry re-enactment that may be the first Iraq-themed narrative with any intelligent sense of the complexities at hand, Broomfield’s drama casts real-life Iraqi civilians, insurgents and U.S. marines to depict the humanity from each side of the story. I sat with a no-nonsense Broomfield at NYC’s Film Forum to discuss the film, political apathy and his thoughts on how cinema may be more effective than the media.
Why did you want to make a film about this particular event, and what led you to casting non-actors?
Before this, I did a film called “Ghosts,” using the same technique with non-actors. It was about illegal Chinese immigrants coming to England, and I used illegal Chinese to basically be themselves. I got amazing performances from them because, obviously, they knew what that world was.
I also wanted to make a film about what happens in the vocabulary of war generally portrayed as good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians. Both sides always think they’re right or have their vision. I’m very anti-war and mindful that, at the end of the Second World War, there were all these pronouncements that this was to be the war that ends all wars, and warfare is not a way of resolving disputes because it would always involve the killing of innocent civilians.
This film happens to look at Haditha, a symbolic incident of the Iraq War, which I think the American public will remember. It’s something that I think happens every day because of the situation, the uncertainty, suspicion, paranoia, and the desire to live longer all those pent-up emotions that happen in any war. Innocent people get killed because they bend in the wrong direction. As much as anything, I think people need to think through what war represents, and it’s not enough to blame the Marines who are, in a sense, doing what we want them and have trained them to do. It’s the bigger thing: what is this conflict going to achieve? Hopefully there will be a desire to move forward and establish a real dialogue with the Iraqis; have a sense of them, their culture and their civilization, which is, as we know, one of the oldest in the world. Dialogue can never happen when there’s warfare, and there’s a circle of violence that emanates inevitably from it.
Though it’s loosely scripted, what made you decide that narrative was a better medium than non-fiction to tell this story? Did you need more control to get specific points across?
Depending on what medium you’re working in, you choose the subjects to fit. A documentary couldn’t have done of this particular story, certainly not on this emotional level. Members of the insurgency would not take part in the film. I met the insurgency, and you know, they don’t want to be filmed. Marines wouldn’t be identified on camera either, those we had met from Kilo company. You can’t get [within] that emotional proximity to the people who were involved. Also, in order to show that circular motion that has the inevitability of doom and clash, that sort of repetitive worsening of the situation, I think you need to see an event or drama unfolding in front of you to really appreciate what happens. I’m not saying that talking heads aren’t useful in another kind of context, but I don’t think they would’ve worked here.
You mentioned before that ending the war requires the start of a dialogue. What part in that conversation do you hope people will instigate after seeing your film?
What cinema can do is stand back from the plethora of information we get from the television which tends to become very inhuman after a while and establish a sense of humanity. Put a face on the Iraqi people. You’re never going to achieve a peace or a lasting solution until you have some respect you need to personalize the Iraqis as one needed to the Vietnamese. Cinema can do that on a very emotional level. I think people can empathize with an Iraqi family trying to raise kids, have a love affair, or just exist in this situation. It can bring humanity to the Marines at the same time, and the insurgency, and it all becomes much more complicated.
How do you get people to engage when they’re shying away from Iraq-themed films in droves? To many, it seems like an extension of the news, or homework, or eating one’s vegetables.
It’s any political film, really. People keep comparing this to the Vietnam films. I think it was a different time. People were marching about everything and felt like their vote counted, that they could register their feelings. The whole civil rights movement was based on being listened to, that somehow taking to the streets mattered and would have a significant impact. I don’t think people believe that anymore. There’s a feeling of impotence, that everything is beyond our control: “I’m going to get on with my life, raise my kids, make money, laugh at Britney Spears, and that’s all I can deal with.”
So once again, how do you convince people to pay attention when there’s a collective apathy?
I guess no one has really come out with that solution. Maybe when there’s a feeling of a new vision, that there’s some statesman-like character leading us to a new way of seeing the world, apolitical people will take control of their lives and what’s happening around them. I think there’s a lack of empowerment at the moment, a lack of belief that anyone’s views are represented. The cinema, entertainment and everything else reflects that. It comes from the top, doesn’t it? It comes from the administration and the overall political situation of the country.
Have any conservatives reacted to the film, and is it preaching to the anti-war choir?
Funnily enough, the conservatives in Jordan and places like Dubai, where the film has been shown, feel it doesn’t portray the freedom fighters in as strong or patriotic a way as it should. They shouldn’t be shown accepting money, they should be the conscience of Iraq, total heroes, you know. Here, the conservatives on both sides are essentially the same: “There shouldn’t be any criticism whatsoever of what’s happening because it’s an unfolding conflict. This is a conflict we’ve got to win, and this isn’t helpful.”
I think the film will people [who] don’t have any information on both sides. The Iraqis have very little idea of what is going through the minds of the marines. They just see them as evil, as the devil. I think by humanizing the marines showing that these are vulnerable kids who have problems with what they’re doing, and they’re kind of victims, too is a revolutionary thought for a lot of Iraqis who’ve seen the film. I hope the same will be true with the Americans who get a sense of what the Iraqis are going through, that the insurgency is not “the insurgency.” They’re not all Al-Qaeda members. A lot of them are guys who were in the army, who became disillusioned with the liberation when they realized they weren’t able to vote, their army was disbanded, they didn’t have electricity, their kids couldn’t go to school. They saw what was actually a I wouldn’t say an amazing economy, but certainly people could function and drive across their city disappear, and they felt they had to take things into their own hands. It’s humanizing both sides, and that’s the way forward.
[Photos: “Battle for Haditha”; director Nick Broomfield, Hanway Films, 2007]
“Battle for Haditha” opens in New York on May 7.