Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Uses of Artifice: Tony Gerber/Jesse Moss' FULL BATTLE RATTLE comes to DVD

The documen-
tary begins in the midst of an all-out battle, shown more convincingly than almost anything TrustMovies has seen on our current war in Iraq (trust him: he's seen most everything on film or video that's come our way). Except that -- spolier ahead -- this is not a real battle. Instead, it's taking place in the Mojave Desert, where the U.S. Army has built a "virtual" Iraq. And I do not mean some computerized war game but a real village featuring hundreds of flesh and blood Iraqi roleplayers, and a battalion of American soldiers sent here to learn what they can from this simu-
lation before they head off to the "real" place--for the "real" war.

When I first heard about FULL BATTLE RATTLE, the very idea of it turned me off. A "pretend" Iraq? Go soak your head. Yet when I actually viewed it -- on DVD: it's out this Tuesday -- I could hardly believe how fast and effectively the film yanked me into its world. Rather than spout a bunch of Bush/Cheney-speak ("They're gonna welcome us with flowers and open arms!"), the battalion in this faux town is trained in something much closer to the actual Iraq, with surprises, most of them negative, around every corner. Al-
though everything, from the Iraqis to the battles to the newscasts (both ours and Al Jazeera's) is fake, it begins to take on meaning, relevance and even feeling for both the soldiers and us viewers. This is a strange phenomenon: knowing something is pretense and yet being influenced by it, even so. (Wait a minute: Isn't that what we do every time watch any movie? Or it is only when we see a fiction film, rather than a documentary. More of this later).

For the Iraqi-
Americans doing the role-playing, while speaking their native language, the situation must be even more so bizarre. One young woman talks longingly about her father, still in Iraq, and another man (shown, left) charts his jounrey, hopping from Iraq through country after country until he lands in the USA. Now, by helping our soldiers, he may be able to earn legal residency. Or not. He's worried about this, and soon enough, we are, too. Eventually, Full Battle Rattle begins to seem like a collage or combination of everything we've ever seen about Iraq: Newsreel and TV footage, fictional films and documentaries, all rolled into one weird, fake/real movie.

The film has been praised as enormously potent satire. Well, yes, but to see it as only that is to miss the point. One cannot help but wonder, while watching Full Battle Rattle, if the Bush administration, from the beginning, had paid as much attention and treated Iraq with half the understanding and respect shown here, how much differently the war might have gone. On another level, the film works as a crash course in film-making itself. After awhile, I began asking myself what was the single thing that made all this appear so real? Suddenly I knew: the music! The background score is quietly terrific, making use of so much of the kind of music to which we've been conditioned over the decades when dealing with the middle east that, when coordinated with the visuals on display, the score nails down the movie by offering immediate recognition and veracity. (The men in the battalion, of course, weren't able to hear this music in the way we viewers can, but then they had the "reality" of the fake town and those fake Iraqis to make up for it.)

Thinking about this film for very long can send you halfway around the bend. In fact, attentive viewers may eventually feel like they are peeling an onion or opening up a set of those one-inside-the-other Russian dolls. After all the peeling/opening work is done, what's left? Just a movie. But what a movie! This documentary may not be eligible for an Academy Award this year, but it certainly joins the ranks of the best I've seen of late: The Cove, Trouble the Water, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox, What's the Matter With Kansas, and --upcoming, about which I'll have more to say in a day or two -- Intimidades de Shakespeare y Víctor Hugo and The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

If Battle/Rattle directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss didn't know quite what they were accomplishing during their filming, I suspect they realized many of the ramifications somewhere along the way because their end result is so stunning. Full Battle Rattle makes you think -- about life and death and war and truth, and then about real vs reel life, fiction vs documentary -- as few other films have managed. The DVD is out this Tuesday, September 15. You can purchase it from distributor First Run Features, or rent it from Netflix, GreenCine or your favorite walk-in store (and if the latter hasn't already ordered it, give 'em a push).

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