Brian De Palma—known for his perverse tales of voyeurism and violence, from Body Double to Scarface—may have found his dream subject in the Iraq War.
Frustrated with the lack of disturbing images out of Iraq, De Palma set out to “show the other side,” he says, with Redacted (screening at the New York Film Festival, October 10 and 11). A mishmash of fictionalized fragments, including a soldier’s video footage, YouTube clips, and a French documentary, the digital film tells the story of American soldiers who rape and murder an Iraqi girl. “We have all these infomercials created by the Bush administration,” says De Palma of mainstream media’s war coverage. “But if you go on the Web and read soldiers’ blogs or look at the pictures, you go, ‘Whoa!’ You see a whole different story.”
“You have to look at the pictures,” De Palma says several times during our conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his film created equal numbers of defenders (“a brilliant film with a passionate payload of political conviction”) and detractors (“tedious,” “nauseating,” “as stridently performed as a high-school play”). At the Venice International Film Festival, De Palma walked away with the Best Director prize; at Telluride, audience members reportedly stormed out during the film’s rape scene.
So which is it: Is Redacted a powerful, postmodern expression of the Iraq War morass and a searing comment on the way it’s represented, or is it a lurid piece of repellent agitprop? Redacted producer Jason Kliot would say both. “Everything you hate about De Palma is being used to great effect for a humanist purpose,” Kliot asserts, “which is to try to do what he can to stop the war.”
While scanning the cover of The New York Times, which features a photo of suffering Sierra Leoneans, De Palma recalls seeing “a fantastic picture from Darfur, of a starving baby crawling across the ground with a huge vulture a step or so behind it,” he says. “I thought this was one of the most striking images out of this particular atrocity, but there are no pictures of Iraq. Why is that?”
With Redacted, De Palma hopes to remedy that situation, bringing to light a true event that took place on March 12, 2006, known as the Mahmudiyah killings, in which five U.S. soldiers gang-raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl named Abeer Qasim Hamza, after slaying her mother, father, and five-year-old sister.
Shot in Amman, Jordan, the production cast the victims from among the millions of Iraqi refugees living in the country. (“Needless to say,” says De Palma, “they’re looking for work.”) According to producer Jennifer Weiss, the girl who plays the younger sister experienced an incident in which American soldiers came into her house, put guns to her head, and killed some of her family members. “It was a very upsetting night,” Weiss says of staging the rape-and-murder scene. During another sequence in which soldiers blast a car with AK-47s, “a lot of the Iraqis started to cry.”
De Palma chose to reproduce this particular incident because of its resonance with Casualties of War, his own 1989 Vietnam War film. “You could do Haditha, you could do Abu Ghraib, but it clicked with me because I did a similar story with Vietnam, and, of course, you do, in fact, rape the country,” he says. “It’s a big metaphor. You destroy the country: burned, dead, ravished.”
If overt metaphors, exaggerated dialogue (“You’re not a fly-on-the-wall; you’re a jackal!”), and images of bullet-ridden pregnant women seem a tad explicit, De Palma acknowledges the film is meant to be a cinematic attack, likening it to the infamous “Be Black, Baby” pseudo-doc in his 1970 Vietnam-era satire Hi! Mom, in which white audiences go to a black theater performance, only to be painted in blackface, humiliated, robbed, and terrorized. “The audience should be upset,” he says. “I’m upset. I’m upset that the Fourth Estate has collaborated with the administration and sold a bill of goods to the American people about why we’re there and what we’re doing.”
But De Palma’s assault, like much of his past work, comes at a level of self-conscious remove, with the action mediated through various video platforms. “Much of the movie is making you aware of what you’re watching,” he notes. “It’s saying, ‘Beware of the filters.’ ‘This is all a lie, but you’re going to believe it.’ It’s very Brechtian. We’re going to set you up and manipulate your emotions, but keep your mind working, too.”
To that end, the film climaxes with unrelenting photos of battered, bruised, and blood-splattered Iraqi civilians (babies included). “I said to the producers: Go to the photographers and get the pictures they can’t get published,” says De Palma. “And I got them.” Ironically, the photos have been redacted—black lines cover the victims’ faces to make them unrecognizable—because the film’s insurers are worried of potential lawsuits from the relatives of the dead. De Palma doesn’t believe this is the case (“I think they’re too upset by the pictures and I think this is an attempt to tamp them down”) and he remains committed to fighting for an uncensored director’s cut.
There is one photograph that remains in full view. Staged and shot by New York photographer Taryn Simon, the film’s final picture shows, in grisly detail, the image of a young corpse that’s meant to be the murdered girl, Abeer Qasim Hamza. “It’s staged, but it’s a real death,” maintains De Palma. “That little girl really died in that war. When you shoot the crucifixion of Christ, how do you represent it? You don’t have the real Jesus, so you have to do artistic rendition.”
For some, this final shot will muddle the power of the documentary pictures that precede it. But De Palma sees nothing wrong with distorting reality. “If they can do this for the last six to seven years and pursue an amoral war, shouldn’t I have the right to tell the other side of the story— to tell a greater truth?”