Hollywood cranked out a plethora of movies about World War II and the Korean War as they were being fought. But it took years after Vietnam and the Gulf War for the U.S. to make fiction features about them. Today, American documentarians are pretty much the only filmmakers addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The time lag between event and product for narrative films is a truism, but if this country could swing it in the ’40s and ’50s, why not in the ’70s and the ’00s? America is not the only nation with a blind spot. Most Tribeca Film Festival films about current conflagrations are docs, and a majority of the fiction features that deal directly or obliquely with armed conflict are about situations set in a more distant past.
Tribeca always screens a number of films from and/or about the Near and Middle East, so it’s almost a given that docs about the Iraqi and Afghan wars would be among them. The most revelatory is “I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne,” a powerful film made in 2005-2006 by TV correspondent John Laurence, an American based in London. The young men in Charlie Company at Fort Campbell, Kentucky introduce themselves by name, age, and hometown — not unlike the list of the confirmed dead we see every day in the paper. Laurence covered Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Iraq. He knows how to talk to these guys and how to make himself invisible. There is a payoff: The soldiers make appalling statements in front of the camera or in range of the microphone while training in Kuwait and patrolling in Iraq. Examples: “We are not bringing anyone back alive. Kill ’em, kill ’em, and kill ’em;” “It smells. It’s worse than an American ghetto;” “I wanted to drop my pants and piss on Iraq.”
Building democracy in the Middle East and securing the State of Israel are not on their agenda. Their tours are sagas of self-preservation and male bonding. The film is nothing formally: It “documents,” and in this case that material is sufficient. Did you know that the Americans turn in insurgents to the Iraqi police, who frequently let them go free after forcing their families to pay a large bribe? Laurence goes off target only when he digresses too long about the unfortunate soldier who lost a leg. At the end Laurence films the grunts from below as they march in formation out of a base hanger where pennants hang from high trusses. It’s like a scene out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and it is scary.
Alex Gibney‘s “Taxi to the Dark Side” tracks our use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. Gibney interviews the powerful people who made it possible, the low-level soldiers who executed it (that is a real coup), and the critics who questioned it. He brackets the film with the moving story of an Afghan taxi driver wrongly put into Bagram Prison and beaten so severely that he died five days later. Hence half the title: The other half stems from Dick Cheney’s thinly veiled pronouncement of the dark side we must venture into in order to beat the enemy. I felt Gibney’s “Enron” was too slick for its own good. “Taxi to the Dark Side” is slow, right for TV, yet the director wants to liven it up, so he resorts to little pans of documents and other token movements that don’t amount to much. An informed person already knows much of the info presented in the film. Still, it is important that he has mapped out for posterity the nasty road to legitimate torture.
Living in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, Israelis, especially progressive lefties, make great docs. Case in point is Ido Haar, whose fine “9 Star Hotel” reveals his empathy for the Palestinians under occupation. He gained the confidence of a group of young Palestinian men from the West Bank hired by contractors to help build the new Israeli city of Modi’in. In a scenario mirroring that of our own illegal day laborers, they are simultaneously pursued by the police. Their lively camp in the nearby hills is a hideout. The Separation Fence in the area is nearing completion, so they know that their employment is not open-ended. Israeli fiction is less successful. Eytan Fox did a nice job with “Walk on Water,” but his Tribeca film, “The Bubble,” doesn’t gel. It is a Romeo and Juliet-ish gay love story about an Israeli reservist and a young West Bank Palestinian who sneaks into Tel Aviv for their dates without any hassle. Fox isn’t stupidly p.c.: He doesn’t mind exposing the retrograde homophobia in Arab culture. Yet the emotional place where he takes the handsome Palestinian at the end of the film — I don’t want to ruin it — is so far-fetched it’s almost laughable.
A New York Times piece on April 18 detailed how the Sudanese government is flying arms into Darfur in violation of Security Council resolutions, even painting planes the color of U.N. aircraft. That government is dominated by Arabs, and even though in many parts of the world today they are the victims, in Sudan they are the perps. In the strong doc “The Devil Came on Horseback,” American directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern do an excellent job of capturing Brian Steidle‘s emerging awareness of the genocide committed against black non-Arabs in Darfur by the Janjaweed militia of Arabs on horseback supported by the Sudanese government. An army macho who went to Sudan as a truce observer, he was horrified not only by the atrocities he witnessed but by the nonintervention policy of his African Union team.
So instead of a gun, he shot with a camera. We are spared nothing of the horrible images of burned, tortured, and hacked-up bodies. Normally the device would repel me, but the use of an American in the Third World as our point of entry works well here, mainly because Steidl did take the photos, and I believe that Americans might not take the situation seriously without a guide. In disgust, he quits, comes home, and spreads the word (and the pictures). He is now an activist, trying to educate the public about this shameful state of affairs.
Other films, fiction features all, touch indirectly on genocide far from Africa and the Near and Middle East. Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic‘s “The Optimists” is a five-section metaphor for his nation post-Milosevic, which also means post-ethnic cleansing. The metaphors here are much too obvious, unfortunately, e.g. a fat boy who can’t help knifing farm pigs and a hypnotist who sways, and cheats, the masses. Peruvian filmmaker Francisco Lombardi‘s “Black Butterfly” is set in 2000, during the last days of the corrupt regime of President Alberto Fujimori, who had engineered the massacre of Indians as a way of containing the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. The most powerful politician in the country, however, was Vladimir Montesinos, who was also a blackmailer and assassin. The film is about a pretty young teacher whose fiance, a judge, Montesinos ordered killed. To exact revenge, she reinvents herself as a girl-for-hire to get near him. Black Butterfly is okay as a thriller, but Lombardi’s relentless lesbiphobia is odious. Eytan Fox has always drawn a parallel between homophobia and other forms of injustice. He could teach Lombardi a thing or two.
You Needn’t Bother: “Postcards from Tora Bora,” Wazhmah Osman and Kelly Dolak, U.S. (an amateurish returning-home doc by an Afghan-born American, with unbelievably naive voiceover); “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation,” Cao Hamburger, Brazil (cloying crowd-pleaser, which steals from other directors, about adorable young boy left with Orthodox Jews while dissenters were “disappeared” by Brazil’s military junta)