An Iraq doc festival?

October 28, 2008


I want to stage a film series devoted to nonfiction films about the Iraq war, and here’s why.

Every time a movie that deals with the Iraq war – or even terrorism in the Middle East in general – opens and flops (latest examples: “The Lucky Ones,” “Body of Lies”), someone inevitably writes a story about the fact that virtually all movies that have anything to do with – or are perceived to have something to do with – the Iraq war have been box-office failures.


Somehow, that gets translated into the vague notion that this war isn’t really important. But it’s still going on and it’s still an issue in the upcoming presidential election. And it’s still a wrong war.


Yet the box-office verdict seems to let people off the hook.


It doesn’t matter whether they’re documentaries or fiction films. It doesn’t matter whether they have big stars in them. It doesn’t matter whether the critics sing their praises or slag them off.


Because here’s the bottom line: People don’t want to see movies about Iraq.


Why seems pretty obvious, for two reasons.


On the most basic level, movies about Iraq are perceived as being a downer. The news is full of depressing stuff – why spend money on a movie that will bring you down?


That’s also true of the network and cable news at the moment. The war goes on – in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, if McCain wins, in Iran). But news of those wars causes instant tune-out, which means lower ratings. So we see and hear little about what’s actually happening in the ongoing conflicts, despite the fact that they’re, well, on-going.


But here it is on a more subtextual level:


People hate to be wrong.


People hate to admit they were fooled.


People don’t want to believe that their leaders – the people they were convinced to vote for on a promise of national security against terrorism – might have started this war for, shall we say, more venal motives.


So they will bend over backward to deny their own mistakes, rather than face up and move on. And they sure as hell don’t want to be reminded of those mistakes when they go to the movies.


Maybe that explains why it took a decade after we withdrew from Vietnam to start seeing serious films about that conflict (most people point to Oliver Stone’s 1986  “Platoon” as the movie that unleashed the flood, though “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Go Tell the Spartans” (1978) both predated it by almost a decade).


But given the inexpensive nature of digital filmmaking today, we’ve been seeing documentaries about Iraq almost since the war began. And we’ve been getting dramas about the conflict and its aftermath for nearly that long. Some of the dramas were overwrought or obvious; others, such as “In the Valley of Elah” and “Lions for Lambs,” provoked thoughtful responses, but still didn’t find an audience.


Which is why I’d love to program a documentary series devoted strictly to nonfiction films that examine who, why and what happened once the Bush doctrine was implemented in Iraq. I wish these movies could be mandatory viewing, if only to remove the scales from the eyes of those who refuse to see. And here are the movies I’d show:


“No End in Sight”: Charles Ferguson created a measured, thoughtful look at how, once the invasion was complete, the occupation was completely botched. And it was told by the people who were actually involved – and then shunted aside – by the hubris-besotted Bush administration lackeys.


“The Fog of War”: Errol Morris sat former defense secretary Robert McNamara – one of the now benighted architects of the Vietnam war – in front of his Interrotron and got him to lay out all the reasons that war should not be entered into light, on the even of the Iraq invasion. The Oscar-winning film was like listening to someone accurately telling the future.


“Body of War”: Phil Donahue co-directed this sad, infuriating and uplifting story of a soldier who signed up after 9/11, came home paralyzed and found himself battling the government for care and speaking out against thewar.


“Standard Operating Procedure”: Errol Morris again, this time using the photographs taken by the soldiers acting as jailers and interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison to examine what went on – and why people did the things they did. (For a clip of a post-screening interview I did with Errol Morris this past spring, click here.)


“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”: This film covered some of the same territory as Morris’ film, but went into more depth with the soldiers themselves about how and why they found themselves doing things that will haunt them the rest of their lives.


“Taxi to the Dark Side”: Alex Gibney won the Oscar for this grimly compelling story of a young Afghan taxi driver, wrongly accused and caught up by American forces, who put him in prison detention – where he was tortured and killed in custody in less than a week.


“CSNY: Déjà Vu”: Neil Young directed this rousing film about the power of music to spread a message, as Crosby Stills Nash & Young hit the road to sings songs against the war and meet with both fans who love their message – and ones who disagree with it vehemently.


“Baghdad ER”: This HBO documentary looked at the horrifying injuries suffered by the soldiers in Iraq and the often-miraculous work done by doctors, who confronted the horrors of war everyday in the operating room.


“Fahrenheit 9/11”: The king-daddy of Iraq docs – and the only one that actually turned a serious profit. Michael Moore examined the way fear and deception were used to rush America into war in 2003 by an administration with a hidden agenda.


Of course, if I programmed a festival like this, I’d probably have to distribute anti-depressants at the end of each film.


Feel free to find them on video and stage a festival of your own. But be careful: Prolonged exposure to these films can cause an inflamed sense of personal outrage.



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