By Aaron Hillis
The war rages on, and just when you think you’ve seen every angle explored and exhausted in cinema, in stomps a bizarre new perspective from the desert and not the one in Iraq, but California’s Mojave. Co-directed by Jesse Moss (“Speedo”) and Tony Gerber (who previously worked together when Gerber executive produced Moss’ doc for AMC, “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood”), “Full Battle Rattle” takes viewers behind the scenes of Medina Wasl, a fake Iraqi village populated by actual Iraqi exiles that exists as part of the U.S. Army’s billion-dollar simulation, an urban warfare training camp where soldiers spend three weeks before experiencing real deployment. Fantasy and reality intermingle in affecting and often strangely comical ways, and Moss and Gerber’s film captures this dynamic within the intimate stories of the simulation’s players. I spoke with the filmmaking duo about what it took to get insider access, how the participating Iraqis’ psyches are affected, and the Kubrickian qualities of this real-fake-reality.
How did you discover this peculiar backdrop?
Jesse Moss: About two-and-a-half years ago, there were a couple of print news articles about the simulation. As enormous as this facility is, the army had, up until then, operated in secret in the early phases of the war. Tony and I had been talking about collaborating together. So we heard about this simulation, and it just seemed too strange and surreal. Around the same time, the war was going so terribly and was so overwhelming that both of us were trying to make sense of that. In the simulation, we saw an opportunity to tell a fascinating story about the war, but also this place and what it was like.
The military aren’t exactly known for giving access. Were there ground rules while filming?
Tony Gerber: We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission to go there. We had to get clearance, first and foremost, from the office in Hollywood on Wilshire Boulevard that governs any representation of the Army in movies whether it’s a Michael Bay film or a Tony Gerber/Jesse Moss documentary, that office has to approve of you. Then we had to get permission from the National Training Center itself, and we had to clear [the film] with the [Public Affairs Officer] for the incoming brigade, the 4,000 men and women who would be training at the National Training Center. Surprisingly, we were able to enter this world and begin making this film with no limitations on our access. You would think there’d be a minefield of no’s, but it didn’t happen. Largely, I think it’s because we were independent filmmakers and able to fly below the radar. We got in there, and they virtually forgot about us.
One soldier gets a verbal smackdown from a superior for dismissively insulting the Iraqi culture. Did you ever get a sense that people were playing nice for the camera?
JM: I don’t think so. They’re playing by job description, that’s what they do. They’re used to being watched. I was living in the village of Medina Wasl with the Iraqi role-players and the soldiers who play the insurgents, and I wouldn’t say that was the challenge. It was more just getting to know these people in a very compressed period of time. Everybody fronts, whether you’re filming them in the simulation or outside. It’s your job as a filmmaker to get around that and to [find out] who they really are.
The simulation seems less like military preparation than it is a school of manners. Do you think that’s a greater priority beyond the warfare training?
JM: It’s that, and it’s the very best of anti-anxiety medications. A lot of these guys have not left their home state, and they’re going to Iraq to fight a war and they don’t know what to expect. I think that makes them feel like a crazy, unmanageable process might be rational and manageable, when the reality is never that. It makes them feel in control of an uncontrollable process.
TG: Plus, the Army is able to weed out the nutjobs, those guys who are going to snap and really lose it. There were stories about guys getting totally lost in the simulation, and God knows you don’t want that to happen in theater, as they say.
JM: The stakes for this brigade that’s going to Iraq in a matter of weeks couldn’t be higher. It’s life or death. They don’t step out of character. There is no “out of character” for them, and I think you see that reflected in how seriously they approach their mission to save the village of Medina Wasl. Coming into this, thinking we’re going to be watching a theatrical exercise, it’s more real than that. That was part of what drew us there, the combination of realism and hyper-theatricality.
The fact is, they’re playing parts. Is it healthy to treat this as some sort of game? Or more directly, does this kind of training work?
TG: Ultimately, the question of whether the training has an efficacy or saves lives was not our point of interest. We wanted to work inside the metaphor. We were interested in this theatrical idiom and the tension between on-stage and off, what’s real and what’s not. Here’s a documentary film that features role players speaking lines. Is it fiction or nonfiction? The film, we like to think, strikes to the core of this un-realness we find ourselves in. We’re waking up here in America, [under] two terms of George Bush; how did we get into this situation? It’s as if it’s a bad dream, and at some point, as a nation, we weren’t being vigilant about the direction we were being taken.
JM: It was important for us to leave the simulation at the end, wake up to reality, and see that these guys are going to Iraq. They’re going to get on a plane to fly over there, and some of them are going to die. It became clear to us that we had a responsibility as filmmakers to go there and show that it wasn’t just a game for them.
Your film doesn’t editorialize, so what do you personally believe this simulation does for its participants’ psyches, especially the real Iraqis who live there full-time?
TG: I think that case-by-case, it’s different for all of them. In the case of Nagi Moshi the deputy chief of police who, in the course of our film, is facing an asylum hearing I think it certainly helped him get his asylum. Some of the Iraqis feel a tremendous sense of pride; they feel like they’re contributing to their new homelands. In other cases, there’s probably an extreme case of schizophrenia. The real Iraq is being destroyed and certainly doesn’t exist in the form that they can reminisce about. In some ways, this simulated Iraq in the desert may be closer to the homeland they once knew than the present reality.
How did you gauge the right balance between a serious subject and its ridiculously droll moments?
JM: We both knew the tone that we respond to in films, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction. The work of Robert Altman was very influential. What appealed to us about the simulation was that it seemed comic, surreal and horrifying, but also very real at the same time. We didn’t want to make a Christopher Guest mockumentary, yet we wanted to allow for moments that were funny to us and the people who were part of them, whether it’s overspending your budget for a village by accidentally paying the grieving widows too much, or guys goofing around while they assassinate a suspected collaborator. This is the black comedy that I see in Kubrick, and it’s how I can connect with a film and still allow for the horror to shine through, if you will.
I also think it’s worth saying that we found these people very sympathetic, and I had never spent time working with soldiers. It was maybe an expectation amongst them or those who come to the film that this may be a hatchet job, but what makes the film more powerful is that they’re very capable. You want them to succeed in their mission of saving Medina Wasl, and yet they fail spectacularly.
You mention Kubrick, but “Dr. Strangelove” is a narrative. We’re talking about nonfiction that encompasses fake deaths, fake funerals, and an all-around fake reality.
TG: It’s a mindfuck, isn’t it?
JM: It’s perverse that the only way we’re going to see dead American soldiers is in a fake Iraq, but that’s the truth because those images are censored. I think we found a way around that in our film. You can show images that are taboo because they’re “fake.” The body parts, the spurting blood, all of it, you don’t seem them. That’s why Americans are disconnected from the realities of the war. In the utter falseness of the simulation, you’ll find something very true and that’s why those moments the memorial service, the body parts are so shocking.
Iraq-themed films haven’t done as well commercially, the primary assumption being that audiences prefer escapism over real life. Was that ever a concern?
JM: It’s a reality we’ve had to confront, but we’re optimists. We live in an era where people get their news from a fake news show. Why not get your Iraq from a documentary about a fake Iraq? Hopefully, people will respond to that approach. We’re not trying to spoon-feed them some medicine here. It’s a fascinating, entertaining, provocative film, and I think people always want that, don’t they?
[Photo: “Full Battle Rattle,” The Film Sales Company, 2008]
“Full Battle Rattle” opens in New York on July 9th.