Between Iraq and a Hard Site

Best of the 2000s

When people talk to me about anything cinematic, “depressing”
has to be the most fear-filled adjective I hear. “I don’t want to
see anything depressing.” “But is it depressing at all?”
“It was good, but that one part was depressing.”

But all films deal, however indirectly or weakly, with real life. And real
life—this past decade especially, sad to say, was depressing. For a
whole bunch of reasons beyond the box-office, but for two dates in
particular. Not initials (AIG or GM), names (Bush, Obama) or near-deaths (of
Iceland’s economy, or the print newspaper), but dates. And not 9/11 or
7/7, but 5/10 and 11/02. With these dates, 21st-century film reached a crisis

On May 10, 2004 came the first major story about the thousands of images
of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib—the New Yorker article (appearing a
week earlier online) was penned by long-time reporter Seymour Hersh, who
broke the news of the My Lai massacre in 1969 (

On November 2, 2004, George W. Bush was voted back into office by the
American electorate. Much of the rest of the world sat tight, exerting little
pressure on the powers-that-be in the US to clean house and review its
incarceration and interrogation policies in the “war on terror.”
There can be no better barometer of how far “democracy” and
“social self-examination” sank into the filthy deep. Four years
into the 21st century, any sense of “progress” or
“justice” was tarnished for the next 96 years.

And then came the films. No war in history has been documented as much
through the lens of fiction-films and documentaries as the US invasion and
occupation of Iraq, 2003 – ??. While film and TV images had been the
problem—mediating and anesthetizing the awful reality of 9/11, or
making the images from Abu Ghraib somehow seem jokey or fake to many people
(especially conservative pundits)—many films tried to be some sort of
solution. (There have also been two American TV series about the second Iraq
war. The second, HBO’s Generation Kill, adapted from Evan
Wright’s memoir by The Wire’s Ed Burns and David Simon, was
reviewed by my colleague David Berry:

In Abu Ghraib, photos and video recordings were both an instrument of torture
and, once leaked, a revelation of brutality. Worldwide, people saw prisoners
humiliated, mocked, and abused; though only a few of the MP officers in the
footage were convicted for any crimes associated with the pictures and
videos. As films on Abu Ghraib and other aspects of the “war on
terror” came out, more disgusting truths emerged: at least 75 percent
of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were innocent, as prison commander Janis
Karpinski and others noted. Hersh’s sources noted in a later May 2004
article, the methods of coercion, “interrogation,” and abuse in
Abu Ghraib were part of US black ops program “Copper Green”
and, as some docs noted, were imported from Bagram jail in Afghanistan and
Guantánamo; officials in the Bush Administration, including Donald
Rumsfeld, signed off on these methods.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (,
a 2007 HBO doc by Rory Kennedy, is one of the first and best examinations of
the abuse of detainees in Iraq. Procedural-style, she peels back the rotten
layers of a political and military system that built, memo by memo, a
rationale for humiliating and traumatizing innocent men.

Even by the time Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure—as
artfully analytical as his other films, though lingering far too much on the
photos—came out in 2008, a number of dramas and docs had already better
covered both the back-room approval and secret-prison brutality of the
USA’s post-9/11 military debacle. Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark
Side (,
in its focus on Dilawar, an Afghani man who went from driving his taxi to
lying dead in a jail cell after beatings and abuse within five days in
December 2002, is absolutely chilling. Also released in 2007, Charles
Ferguson’s doc No End in Sight is both persuasive synthesis and damning
autopsy because he’s not even much of a liberal, but is still obviously
appalled by Bush administration’s bungling and narrow-mindedness in the
first few months of the war (

But what about the people most affected by the invasion and occupation?
The best documentary of the Iraq War, in both form and content, is Petra
Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s 2005 film The Prisoner, Or: How I
Planned To Kill Tony Blair (
Unlike most docs, especially the overpraised Iraq in Fragments, it shows an
Iraqi citizen in all his humanity. Using comic-book drawings, dialogue
bubbles, and Abbas’ own photos and camcordings, the directors bring Ali
Khatayer Abbas’ own eye and voice to his time in Abu Ghraib (where he
and his brothers were taken after being arrested on cartoonish charges of
plotting to kill the British PM). Abbas, a journalist, had been imprisoned by
Hussein but his incarceration by the American forces seems worse; his black
humour, which clearly helped him survive the ordeal, is only a shade away
from the bitterness and resentment that make far more sense than him being
arrested and locked up for eight months in Iraq’s worst jail because he
owned some camera equipment.

The whole decade seems like a torture cell after some of the best
“war on terror” dramas, all from the UK (even Alfonso
Cuáron imagined his Children of Men in a Guantánamo-like
England). Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to
Guantánamo (
followed three innocent British Muslim youths into their leg-shackled,
orange-hooded nightmare. Then Winterbottom and Angelina Jolie recreated
Mariane Pearl’s awful wait for news of her kidnapped husband in their
rented Karachi home in A Mighty Heart (

Fellow British director Paul Greengrass put out two astonishing docudramas
related to 9/11 and its aftermath, too. (And his next film is the Iraq-set
Green Zone.) There’s the claustrophobic, outspy-the-surveillance
thriller The Bourne Ultimatum (,
a brilliant parable where the insurgent within gets revenge against his
sociopathic, military-industrial masters. And apart from the bad
opening—where an Islamic chant blankets NYC—United 93 (
is a riveting exploration of the chaos, panic, and tragedy of the flight that
was taken down into a Pennsylvania field by its passengers: a tale of
unwitting, don’t-want-to-be martyrs vs. desperate, want-to-be

And Nick Broomfield showed US soldiers finding hairtrigger-release against
easy targets in Battle for Haditha, his superb retelling of the November 2005
civilian massacre (

Still the war drags along, even as the images, the press attention,
perhaps even the memories of Abu Ghraib, have faded. There was little
attention when more pictures surfaced last month, including evidence of
sexual assault—pictures Barack Obama didn’t want people to pay
attention to, given his major speech soon in Cairo:

And so it ebbs away. How many saw 9/11 replayed on screens and how many
caught No End in Sight? How many saw the Abu Ghraib photo of electrode-rigged
“Gilligan” but know that most of the men there, like Ali Khatayer
Abbas, should never have been there in the first place? From 9/11 to 5/10,
from the footage that launched massive military campaigns in two countries to
the embedded footage and shockingly uncensored images that came back from the
front lines … all the visual documentation, documentary-ization and
dramatization of the war in Iraq raises a crucial question for 21st-century
cinematic warfare: can the reductive, distorting power of newsnight or online
snapshots be defeated by more honest, thoughtful, critical insights on screen
or disc? And it’s a battle with high stakes—our basic humanity.

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