If making documentaries about the Iraq War could end it, it would have been over a long time ago. And if writing think pieces about Americans' apathy toward films about that war could encourage spectators to go see them, Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha" would have played for several months at Film Forum, rather than two weeks, and Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss," produced by MTV Films, would have attracted crowds of screaming teenagers.
As histories of the war go, it would be hard to improve on Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," so recent documentaries have found increasingly unusual angles on it. "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" focused on a group of Iraqi rockers forced to become refugees, while Nina Davenport's "Operation Filmmaker" depicted an Iraqi film student desperately hustling celebrities and Davenport herself so he can avoid having to return to his country after interning on Liev Schreiber's "Everything Is Illuminated."
In one particularly striking moment, "Operation Filmmaker" cuts from footage of wounded bodies in Iraq to simulated bloodshed on the Prague set of "Doom," on which he worked after Schreiber's film. For an instant, the two melt together, creating a queasy sensation. At its best, "Full Battle Rattle," directed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, aims to capture the same merger of horrible reality with ridiculous fantasy, but it only succeeds intermittently.
FULL BATTLE RATTLE
Directed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss
"Full Battle Rattle," takes place in the Mojave Desert, where the US Army has built a "virtual Iraq." The set includes 13 villages. The film focuses on one battalion's attempts to control the simulated village of Medina Wasl. American soldiers play themselves and insurgents, while Iraqi-Americans portray civilian villagers. Hundreds of Iraqi immigrants participate in the simulations.
"Full Battle Rattle" zeroes in on Bassam Kalasho, a liquor store clerk who plays the deputy mayor of Medina Wasl. In the war game, his son has just been killed, which leads the town into sectarian violence.
"Full Battle Rattle" might be the first Iraq War documentary that liberals and conservatives could appreciate equally. The former can see an allegory for the war's absurdities in Medina Wasl, while the latter would be excited to see a group of cheerful Iraqis happy to collaborate with the US military and become American citizens themselves. While the filmmakers state that "we both have strong and similar feelings about the war" in their press kit, they neglect to get very explicit about just what those feelings are -- and that's problematic."Full Battle Rattle" certainly doesn't preach to the converted. Its major failing is that it doesn't seem to have much of a perspective on anything. For the most part, "Full Battle Rattle" doesn't play much differently than a documentary on upstate New York Civil War re-enactors might. One wonders what attracted the filmmakers to a subject about which they have so little to say.
A few critics have praised it as a non-fiction satire. Admittedly, there's something inherently funny about the spectacle of "dead" soldiers getting told to stay comfortable or being yelled at for bracing themselves after "getting shot." In one particularly cringe-inducing moment, a soldier compares the experience to a reality TV show.
On the other hand, the attempts at cultural sensitivity training at Medina Wasl are nothing to laugh at. Whatever one thinks of the war, surely it's a good idea to discourage soldiers from referring to Iraqi culture as " salam alakum shit."
"Full Battle Rattle" balances the story of the Army's simulated experiences trying to control violence in Medina Wasl with interviews of American soldiers and Iraqi participants. Most of the latter are pretty superficial, though.
The film's most powerful moment is a throwaway. One of the Iraqis remarks that, in America, the divisions between Kurds, Sunni, Shiites, and Christians have evaporated once the players step out of character. Against all odds, the US has constructed a peaceful Iraq. It just happens to be in California, populated by refugees portraying caricatures of the friends and relatives they've left behind. For once, the film touches on something profound about simulation and reality.
The rest of the time, it raises interesting questions but fails to delve very deeply into their implications. In its final ten minutes the game is over and Gerber and Moss follow its participants back to real life. For most of the Iraqis, that means quibbles with immigration lawyers and menial labor; for the American soldiers, it's a trip to the actual war zone.
These scenes would have a lot more impact if "Full Battle Rattle" engaged more with its subjects as people. It doesn't mock or snicker at them, but it's content to hold them at arm's length as an example of only-in-America weirdness.