Visual Perspectives in Battle for Haditha

11

MARCH, 2016

Docudrama
Film Analysis
Iraq War

by Reina-Marie Loader

It is remarkable to note just how many filmmakers opted to place the American conduct in Iraq under particular scrutiny – especially in the year 2007. Several critical films were released including Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah and Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha. In relation to such films, Ali Jaafar and Guy Westwell formulate a recurring problem in contemporary film. In their essay ‘Casualties of War,’ they specifically point out the noticeable failure of all three these films at the box-office, leading to their question: ‘how can an art form with the long lead times of cinema still feel fresh and relevant?’[1]

Where this question is without a doubt essential when considering the economic impact of cinematic development, it also presents a troubling thought for both the filmmaker and the academic seeking to investigate contemporary social perspectives through film. Judging film’s ‘freshness’ and ‘relevance’ solely in terms of revenue appears to be rather obstructive – especially when thematising the controversy of a war, in which dominant age-old ideologies stand in violent opposition to one another. The financial failure of these films is therefore perhaps not so much a result of a lack in technical ‘freshness’ or political ‘relevance.’ Rather, historical proximity and its ideological implications appear to be part of the key dynamics serving the decline of viewer numbers, since reception and interpretation are crucially affected by the cultural situation/perspective of the spectators.[2] This is perchance best explained by the notion that the recreation of questionable moments in our present-day history starkly contradicts the values of the escapist dream-factory that the cinema is ‘supposed’ to be representing. Broomfield’s docudrama Battle for Haditha for example disturbs this dream. Believing that cinema has the ability to move, Broomfield describes his aesthetic approach as a kind of ‘real cinema’ in which documentary techniques, digital cameras and the experiences of real-life soldiers within the performance play a pivotal part in reclaiming the truth behind certain actual events such as the Haditha massacre.[3] By using these techniques common to the docudramatic genre, Broomfield informs the viewer not only of the hushed-up fact that twenty-four innocent Iraqi civilians were murdered by American soldiers, but he also visually articulates the attitudes moulded by this war and the impact they have on individual perception – an aspect in my view extremely difficult to communicate in any other way than through the pragmatic impulses unique to art and narrative application. From a Western perspective, the film allows us to access the individual in the effort to break through ideologically constructed stereotypes, an invitation we can accept while retaining a critical stance towards the situation being depicted and towards the film as an interpretation of the situation. We are asked to consider the American soldiers as victims of Western (foreign) ambitions, rather than categorically dismissing them as the brainless minions of the Bush administration, as often happens in popular anti-war perception. Moreover, it is fair to say that most films critical of the Iraq War approach the subject from a distinctly Western perspective and, like much current journalism, actively shy away from portraying the Iraqi point of view. Where war film history certainly shows that the strategic neglect of different perspectives to one’s own is justified for ideological reasons, Broomfield rightly points out, such a disregard of the Iraqi point of view is undoubtedly a major contributing factor ensuring the failure of the Iraq war effort itself: ‘The Iraqis are never considered and their culture isn’t understood.’[4]

In many ways, Haditha therefore becomes a piece of interpretative journalism presenting a chronology of what happened on the 19th of November 2005 as well as a piece that negotiates between different perspectives thus articulating both the positive and negative attitudes of all three sides – that is, of the marines, the insurgents and the Iraqi civilians. It is specifically this negotiation between perspectives that interests me in docudrama in general since it presents the opportunity to challenge social norms and ideological constructs as an effort to reclaim the truth of events officially documented, yet often vastly distorted to fit the stereotypes amenable to impersonalised agendas – Haditha being a case in point.

In his essay Movies and Point of View, Doug Pye draws attention to the importance of considering the construction of the visual image as an essential part of meaning-making. This also needs to be considered closely in relation to ‘the real’ in film, as it can have a considerable impact on one’s cognitive reading of a visual text based on current events. Pye notably defines five axes of narrative point of view, which, in relation to my thoughts on the effect of the digital and perspective within Haditha, has a particular relevance. He distinguishes between the temporal, spatial, cognitive, evaluative and ideological axes. Particularly important in relation to film is of course the spatial axis. He defines this as the shot-by-shot construction of a film, which relies on the ‘relationship between the spatial location of the characters and the views taken by the camera’ (that is, camera placement, scale, movement and general mise-en-scène). These are the essential building blocks of cinematic meaning. Pye continues by pointing out that, however dominant non-spatial meanings or ‘mental attitudes’ are, cinematic point of view still ‘carries powerful connotations of spatial orientation and almost inevitably spawns related spatial terms (“position,” “perspective”) as ways of naming mental states.’ Consequently, the spatial make-up of a film precedes the overall perception or recognition of a film’s meaning. Within this field of thought, references to the digital in the visual imagery of Haditha subtly highlight how mental perspectives can in turn be manipulated and constructed through the deliberate usage of visual technology in modern-day warfare (see Figures 1-10).

Figures 1-10

The use of visual technology in modern-day warfare

As the images above demonstrate, computer screens, news reports and satellite imagery have a prominent place within the mise-en-scène of the film. Mostly tightly framed, these digital images are always centralised with people either completely absent from the frame, out of focus or dwarfed by the surveying apparatus pointing at its target with arrowed precision. Routes that are to be patrolled are planned on large satellite photos mapped out on walls with Western street names such as ‘Market Street’ and ‘Chestnut’. The safety of the American marines is greatly enhanced through constant satellite support from Marine Headquarters in Ramadi. Even normal Iraqi civilians are kept under close surveillance. Malicious intent however is assumed, never confirmed and more often than not mere suspicion can lead to innocent Iraqis being ‘taken out.’ It is a war that is not fought on a front line, but over the digital wires, running from screen to screen.

Figures 11-12.

Rashied (Duraid A. Ghaieb) is killed by an American marine

Moreover, like the optical zoom on a sniper’s rifle, these frames within the frame are marked with white arrows – bearing baleful similarity to the camera’s point of view during a scene in which one of the film’s most sympathetic characters, Rashied (Duraid A. Ghaieb), is killed by an American marine (Figures 11-12). Here, the camera is the optical zoom of the marine’s gun. After shooting Rashied three times (once in the heart, and twice in the back), he marvels with members of his company at the skill with which he killed this innocent man simply searching for his wife. War thus becomes even more sinister as the distanced killing of an unsuspecting and assumed enemy acquires sadistic overtones of pleasure. The relevance of this motif becomes apparent in the fact that it is frequently emulated in popular computer games such as Medal of Honour and Call of Duty. The relationship between the Americans and their screens are therefore reminiscent of computers and televisions in front of which people languidly sit while shooting virtual figures moving through a virtual environment for the purpose of entertainment.

Similarly, actual war is not fought man to man, but rather ‘man to screen.’ Individualism and context are of no importance as decisions between life and death are made from considerable distances. Individual perspective becomes redundant as the point of view from which judgements are made cannot possibly be adequately informed. This would mean that reality is misinformed, highlighting as it does the need to reclaim compromised, displaced or even lost relationships with actual realities in the world.

Developing further the logic of a distanced relationship with reality, I would underline the fact that Rashied is killed for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Spatially separated from both camera and marine, Rashied is treated as target practice or a figure in a computer game – his death justified by the rules of engagement in a war fuelled by archetypical assumptions. As Ramirez puts it, this is a hostile environment, everyone – man, woman, child – is a ‘go.’ All is fair, it seems, in the heat of war.

Another case of ignored reality through distancing can be found in an earlier scene during which an American official coldly decides the fate of an older Iraqi man casually making his way down a roadside with a shovel resting on his shoulder (Figures 13-15). Surveying the man by satellite as a possible insurgent, the official’s cognitive vantage point differs extensively from that of the viewer’s in that it excludes any regard to factual reality. As the spectators, we know that only moments before, the old man planted an olive tree at a party while praying for peace in Iraq.

Figures 13-15.

Innocent man killed by distant drone

“War thus becomes even more sinister as the distanced killing of an unsuspecting and assumed enemy acquires sadistic overtones of pleasure.”

He subsequently left the party, placing the shovel on his shoulder (Figure 13). As he now makes is way down the roadside, the spectator’s perspective switches to the point of view of an American official blankly looking at the man on a screen at Ramadi headquarters (Figure 14). The Iraqi is identified by a bodiless, digitised voice as a ‘military-aged man with shovel,’ which might be used to plant an IED or ‘improvised explosive device.’ The official briefly considers, but almost immediately orders the voice to take the man out. Helplessly, the spectator is made to wait, as a countdown is set in motion over the headphones. Cognitively speaking, our epistemic alignment, as George Wilson calls it,[5] bestows us with more knowledge than that of the character walking down the roadside – a perspective from where the audience may grasp the ironic extent of the true function of the shovel in the light of his imminent death. What is more, our point of view is uncomfortably aligned with that of the official ordering the execution – a narrative technique intensifying the sense of the all-round injustice the film is trying to communicate. The tragedy being: this man is totally oblivious of his approaching death. Within moments, the frame is washed out as a bomb drops straight on top of the man, killing him instantly (Figure 15).

The man obviously did not know what hit him at all. In a later scene however, our perspective is transposed to the point of view of an Iraqi father as he is suddenly confronted directly by his own death (Figures 16-20). Peering through the keyhole of his front door (Figure 17), he looks death in the face as he sees the marines approach – guns blazing (Figure 18). He is killed almost instantly, but surely not before grasping he is about to die (Figures 19-20). In the previous example with the shovel, the spatial axis associates our point of view with the perpetrator killing from a distance. In the keyhole scene however, the camera forces our perspective to experience the role of the victim as well. Moreover, the visual construction of the shot bears great similarity to the shots that are to follow shortly afterwards as Rashied is gunned down. Instead of simulating the optical zoom of a gun to focus our vision, Broomfield firstly films the shooting soldiers through the keyhole. Like the digital images on television monitors, the father’s vision is blurred and to some extent also obstructed. Yet, we are forced to experience the Iraqi man’s last moments in the same fashion he would have in those few seconds.

Figures 16-20.

Iraqi father confronted by his own death

What is clear from these examples is that the film directly incorporates the negative aspects of the digital as part of the visual commentary of the film’s structure. I deem this aspect of great importance when approaching films about contemporary conflict and war, yet its narrative application – it must be said – remains not altogether unproblematic in itself. A prime example of this is the claims the film makes about the video footage that brought the incident to public knowledge four months after the fact. The official news report states that a local journalism student shot the footage (Figures 9-10).

The film however implies that it was actually filmed by one of the insurgents who planted the bomb (Figures 21-22). Broomfield goes even further, suggesting that Safa’s statements on film were highly mediated by Al-Qaeda as well. Ahmad, the older insurgent, notably tells her to say directly into the camera that the Americans hit her. He requires her to lie. Where this does make sense within the greater argument of the film, namely that no one side is blameless and that the various ideological bodies at play here shamelessly exploit those ‘on their side,’ this also raises a critical question. Such falsification undoubtedly happens, but it should be questioned to what extent bold statements such as those Broomfield makes are verifiable and, moreover, whether they are factually true in the case of the Haditha incident. Nevertheless, the overall revealing quality of such films can draw valuable attention to a brutal system spanning the globe. Highlighting the media and documentation itself, Broomfield’s docudramatic investigation warrants important discussions on a broader scale about a system ironically supported by the very phenomenon claiming a close relationship with fact and reality, namely the digital image. Direct confrontation with these negative or problematic aspects of a supposedly reliable form in my opinion creates interesting avenues for critical research in artistic interpretation or meaning-making.

Figures 20-21

Insurgents suggested to have planted bomb

As a final point in this regard, I would like to return briefly to the aspect of temporal proximity, upon which I touched earlier. Our temporal proximity to what happened in Haditha naturally places our response to the film squarely within a highly complex system of meaning-making crucially affected by the interpretive nature of mental attitudes existing within the world of the audience. This system of interpretation is again highly reliant on Pye’s ‘axes of point of view.’ In terms of Haditha and its overall meaning, the evaluative and the ideological dimensions are perhaps of particular importance, despite the fact that their reliance on ‘implicit and explicit thought’ makes them exceptionally difficult to articulate in any simple way.[6] What is more, similar to the debates Pye refers to in relation to classical Hollywood cinema, the interpretation of the real in Haditha deeply challenges and exposes ‘dominant ideological assumptions’ by refusing to align itself with any single point of view for an extended period of time. Our sympathy and disbelief constantly change as the film moves from marine to insurgent to civilian. What we are presented with is a trichotomy of different viewpoints mutually deconstructing their own ideologies, and replacing them with a common point of view attempting to understand differences and reclaim common realities – which in itself is surely merely a question of perspective.

Notes

[1] Jaafar, Ali & Guy Westwell, ‘Casualties of War,’ in Sight and Sound, Vol. 18, n 2, February 2008, p. 19.

[2] Doug Pye, ‘Movies and Point of View,’ in Movie, nr 36, p. 12

[3] Electronic Q&A with Nick Broomfield and Eliot Ruiz at a public screening of Battle for Haditha Timecode: 3.18-5.09: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYw84H8e61o, (10/05/2016).

[4] Cf. Jaafar & Westwell, op. cit. p. 22.

[5] Cf. Pye, op. cit., p. 10.

[6] Cf. Pye, op. cit., p. 11.

Bibliography

Doug Pye, ‘Movies and Point of View,’ in Movie, nr 36.

Electronic Q&A with Nick Broomfield and Eliot Ruiz at a public screening of Battle for Hadithahttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYw84H8e61o, (10/05/2016).

Jaafar, Ali & Guy Westwell, ‘Casualties of War,’ in Sight and Sound, Vol. 18, n 2, February 2008.

Filmography

Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, Lafayette Films, UK, 2007).

Redacted (Brian De Palma, The Film Farm, 2007)

In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, Warner Independent Pictures, 2007)

Images

All images in this article come from the film: Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, Lafayette Films, UK, 2007).

The usage of these images are purely for educational purposes. We therefore subscribe to the view formulated by Oxford Journals on their website.

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