I’d watched Voices of Iraq earlier in the day and been tremendously impressed, in fact it’s been my favourite movie that I’ve seen during the Edinburgh Film Festival. More than any other to date this movie did to me exactly what I keep talking about when I discuss what makes a great movie.
It moved me, it made me feel a range of emotions throughout the movie, and made me keep thinking about it after I left the cinema, and these are great things for a movie to do.
My expectations were high for this documentary too, it was the flipside of Voices of Iraq in that it was hanging with the US troops stationed in Uday Hussein’s former palace, and telling their experiences of Iraq. There had been great things said about it during its screenings in the US, and so we sat down to watch it in the presence of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein the film makers.
Straight from the word go, this movie was not as good as Voices of Iraq, it had an entirely different agenda and style, and although it may have fitted well with a US audience, it certainly did not with us.
The film maker followed the troops based in Gunner Palace through various missions and patrols, filming what occurred on the streets, interviewing the soldiers back at the Palace, and editing all this together with a Max Payne type voiceover (for those of you who don’t know that means, we’re talking film-noir, deep husky voiceover man style, you can even hear it in the lines as well as the actual voice. Running over that is a hip-hop soundtrack, some of which is chosen by the soldiers, and some even sung or played by them.
So there’s the first problem, we’re suddenly faced with a documentary that plays out like Full Metal Jacket or some similar movie, action, glib comments, high jinks, fun and laughter and a booming soundtrack. For me this presented a totally different view over what I had been expecting.
The soundtrack plays over most of the audio, so when there’s an explosion or gunfire nearby and everyone turns there’s not much of an impact on the audience as the sounds are lost in the beats of the music. This goes for the times when nothing is happening too, the patrols are out and you’re hearing this music wondering if the beat in the background was a shot, explosion or just a loud bass.
This is the most distracting part of the documentary, as it really does have a negative impact. It lightens the whole movie and lifts from the gravity of some key scenes. When you’re watching, sitting next to the gunner standing out of the top of the vehicle, you should be as scared and alert as he is, yet you’re too busy hearing the music. It does remove you from the scenes and remind you that you really are in the audience, and that’s where a lot of the effectiveness of the movie is lost.
There’s also another side to the audio that bothered me, it was so difficult to hear some of the soldiers when they weren’t in a straight interview, so during patrol or mission scenes you would be struggling to hear what was being said, and a lot of the time you would be missing it. So there were subtitles, but really selective subtitles, which would sometimes only appear for one line of someone talking, you wouldn’t hear what else they said or what the response was from the person they were talking to. This bothered me, and I think it bothered me more than the idea of Voices of Iraq editing 400 hours of footage down. This was the team behind the documentary deciding which lines to subtitle, leaving the rest to be lost in the noise of everything else going on.
Couple these facts together and when you hear of a soldier dying in the course of the filming, it really didn’t have as much of an impact as it should have. The audience should have been shocked and suddenly finding themselves thinking about the reality of the situation, however it really didn’t have that much of an effect. Yes, it was sad, and you understood someone had died, but it was almost cheapened by the presentation style of the documentary, loud, hip-hop entertainment.
Finally on the audio, why were there so many guitar solos from the one soldier, continually turning to him playing guitar as either the voice over rasped away and caught up, or there were shots of the setting sun over the city behind him. We realised there were musicians amongst the soldiers and that showing this gives them a human side and some depth, but we didn’t need repeated scenes of the same thing. The rapping soldiers were good, because you could hear them telling a story, they had something to say and something about the situation they were in.
This was a disturbing movie, but disturbing for almost the wrong reasons. There were plenty of funny moments where the audience laughed, but mostly we weren’t laughing at a joke, we were laughing at the ineptitude or idiotic moments, usually from the American soldiers’ mouths. When you laughed there was an immediate feeling that you shouldn’t be laughing, this was wrong, and you shouldn’t find it funny, I was laughing in disbelief.
The entire film focused on these soldiers, their antics at the Palace, their split between treating the Iraqi people well and treating them with disrespect and heavy handedness, and the fact that they didn’t seem to take in the seriousness of the situations. Perhaps they did, and perhaps this was their way of coping with it, yet it never sat well with me, and I thought that this portrayed them in an extremely poor light.
When you sit on your couch and you watch the TV, and you go to your 9 to 5 job and you complain about the pizza being late … there’s no way you’re gonna know how to live here…Only people who remember this is us.SGT Beatty
However, there were expectations, and these were usually in the higher ranks. At the end, one soldier, Sergeant Beatty says the most intelligent thing of the whole film, a comment which I really thought should have been the tone for the entire movie, yet it was just a fleeting moment.
The timeline of filming also seemed to bring much confusion, we were continually being shown what day the filming took place on, Monday, Tuesday, etc. but no concept of dates or months. Then the film maker is suddenly on a plane and back at home, yet this is right in the middle of the movie and there’s no explanation, he’s just gone home, and we’re still seeing scenes from Gunner Palace. Were the cameras left? Did the soldiers film themselves? Suddenly, before you know it, the film maker is back out and filming on patrol, ah, so he’s back in Iraq again. This was all very confusing and made for a muddled timeline, it makes the scenes seem much more separated, and pulls back the audience. We only fully understood it during the Q&A afterwards.
Still there are some good things that come out of the film, it shows just how over stretched the soldiers are, how young and inexperienced they are, how often they get attacked and how they deal with policing the Iraqi’s. It does show how tough a time they are having over there, and we shouldn’t forget that, forget them, or forget why they are there.
Overall though I would say that Voices of Iraq is a far better documentary and does a lot more good than this film. On hearing from the Q&A that the movie was pirated in Iraq and being sold on street corners I wondered just how responsible it was showing this side of the soldiers to the Iraqi people. Showing them the soldiers’ real thoughts, the way they behaved, scenes of lounging in the Palace and even one where a soldier dresses as a holy man in a comic and slightly degrading way. Is that really bringing something positive, and are we really seeing the story of these guys in the proper light, rather than a hip-hop, fast paced entertainment show? It really did get to me and disturb me in a way I’m sure the film makers did not mean.