Absurdistan: The New Iraq War Cinema
Earnest, sad, and righteous, they are not. More inspired by M*A*S*H or Dr. Strangelove than The Deer Hunter or Coming Home, a new pack of political films that defy the clichés of the post-9/11 Iraq War cinema has arrived. Notwithstanding a few holdovers of moral outrage (Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss, Nick Broomfield's upcoming Battle for Haditha), these are stories told in stark contrast to the recent round of straightforward message movies (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs) and indie-documentary exposés (The Ground Truth, No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side). Rife with satire and absurdity, with more ambiguity and less agit-prop, they don't toe the MoveOn party line and go beyond the familiar war-is-hell mantra. As documentary filmmaker Michael Tucker says: "Yes, it's tragic and horrible. Duh. What else is there?"
For one, there's the bizarre madness of it at all, as shown in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. While ostensibly a raunchy teen comedy, the film's archvillain is a racist, ignorant deputy chief of Homeland Security who wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights and sends Harold and Kumar to face the horrors of Gitmo (the dreaded "cockmeat sandwich"). "While it's obviously absurd," co-writer-director Hayden Schlossberg acknowledges of the film's premise, "there's an element of truth. There have been people thrown in Guantánamo who have done nothing. We like the idea of doing something about these subjects in a way that's not serious."
"Sincerity handicaps you," explains Tucker, who co-directed a number of Iraq docs, including Gunner Palace and Bulletproof Salesman, his latest, about a German armored-car dealer (who at one point says, "People have to die to improve the product" without a hint of irony or culpability). Tucker, already at work on his fourth Iraq film—this time about the public and the war—feels that sobriety isn't effective. "Trying to be earnest about something—it does nothing to explain it," he says. "That's why the fiction films have largely failed—because people are already in that emotional place."
Instead of somber stories that mirror the audience's disgust and disillusionment, several filmmakers are taking askew or comical approaches to America's policy blunders and injustices. (Was Albert Brooks's ill-received 2006 release, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, ahead of its time?) For Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, humor allows him "to get people to look at really hard-to-swallow subjects. It's the Mary Poppins idea that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." In his latest nonfiction adventure, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? (see J. Hoberman's review in this issue), Spurlock recounts the U.S.'s long history of backing despots and dictators by showing an animated Uncle Sam drinking at a bar with "our S.O.B.s" like the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. "If you put these things in a straight historical context," says Spurlock, "you would turn people off."
Jeremy Pikser, who wrote Warren Beatty's 1998 political satire Bulworth and has since co-written War, Inc.—a send-up of American imperialism in the Middle East that has its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month and opens in May—agrees. "Satire is the only way you can address this stuff and actually vent an appropriate level of anger," he says. "If you get that angry without being funny, people just run in the other direction." Indeed, despite Paramount's best efforts to tap the MTV audience for Peirce's moderately admired Stop-Loss, the film's $4.6 million opening weekend did nothing to buck the downbeat sales trend for Iraq-themed pictures. Harold and Kumar, on the other hand, has the best chance yet to introduce the issues of torture and deteriorating civil liberties to the mainstream. "We never thought of it as an educational film," says Schlossberg. "But now we're starting to realize that most people—particularly young people—don't know about these things."
While comedy might be a way to sneak a little left-wing ideology into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, several filmmakers say that a satirical or metaphorical strategy is necessary to reflect our current experience. "Because you're so mortified by the horror of what you look at," says Pikser, "it forces you to dislocate yourself from any kind of direct representation, because naturalism cannot contain that anger."
Documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport says she, too, found it more productive to reflect on the Iraq War through analogy: "When this unrelenting thing has been in our face for so long that it's become unbearably painful, you can't continue to look at it so directly, so you have to make fun of it or reinterpret it, or you'll just go crazy." Davenport's Operation Filmmaker (opening in June), which follows an Iraqi film student named Muthana, plucked from Iraq by Liev Schreiber to work on his film Everything Is Illuminated, becomes a bitter metaphor for the U.S.'s failed "humanitarian" project in the country.
The film's complex portrayal of Muthana, who, far from some rescued refugee, comes across as a prideful brat, further complicates a liberal-minded audience's sympathies—and doesn't always play well. "People get angry watching the film," says Davenport. So, just as torture gags might turn off certain politically minded audience members—"The occasional person says, 'You shouldn't be joking about people being tortured at Guantánamo!' " says Harold and Kumar's Jon Hurwitz. "But why not? The greatest source of comedy is often tragedy"—ambiguity is also a new, sometimes uncomfortable place in which these films exist.
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."
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?"
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.