Absurdistan: The New Iraq War Cinema

The next wave of post-9/11 political films trade sobriety for satire

At the Berlin Film Festival, the world premiere of Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure drew fire for its horror-film-style cinematography and for not attacking the soldiers who tortured and took photos at Abu Ghraib. (Writing in ArtForum, critic Paul Arthur called Morris's use of re-enactments "obscene," "yielding familiar aesthetic thrills as a substitute for specificity of meaning.") Morris defends his more evocative filmmaking choices as a way of opening up Abu Ghraib and its photos to further re-examination. He also doesn't believe we need another film that enumerates the Bush administration's crimes against humanity. "That is a well-known story," he says. "I wanted to do something different."

When filmmakers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss unveiled Full Battle Rattle, their film about Iraq War simulations in California's Mojave Desert (which opens in July), they also encountered some frustrated responses from Berlin's audience. "There's an expectation of what an Iraq documentary should be, that the film needs to take a deadly serious tone," says Moss. "But we live in a generation where people get their news from The Daily Show. Why couldn't they get their news [of] Iraq from a movie about a fake Iraq?"

And why, asks Brooklyn-based theater director Josh Fox, can't films about the post-9/11 world avoid neatly prescribed messages? "The main issue is whether a film is motivated by answers or by questions," says Fox, whose debut feature, Memorial Day, is an experimental provocation about U.S. soldiers on a Girls Gone Wild–type furlough and torturing inmates at Abu Ghraib. "Because what makes a 'political' movie is that it's motivated by answers—which is to say: We, the filmmakers, are right about the issue, and you, the audience, will agree with us after you've seen it." Six years into the War on Terror, Memorial Day—along with many others in this new breed—isn't "about agreeing or disagreeing," says Fox. "It's just about our human contradictions that we don't want to process."

Enemy combatants Harold and Kumar
Jaimie Trueblood/New Line Cinema
Enemy combatants Harold and Kumar

In our highly politicized climate, even Harold and Kumar have become divisive figures, with conservatives calling the new film "anti-war" and "left-wing pan-terrorist pap." But the filmmakers say their movie is ultimately patriotic, neither right-wing nor left-wing. As Schlossberg says: "In what other country can you write dick jokes and shit jokes for a living?"

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