As a documentarian, Nick Broomfield has dissected American pop culture with films like “Biggie & Tupac” and “Kurt & Courtney.” With his more recent forays into narrative feature filmmaking, he has broadened his scope to include global issues. “Ghosts” explored the dark world of Chinese migrant workers in the UK, and his latest work, “Battle for Haditha,” which opened at Film Forum earlier this week, recreates the infamous 2005 incident where U.S. marines murdered two dozen Iraqi civilians in a small village, driven by rage after encountering a roadside bomb. An attempt by the military to cover up the role of the American soldiers in the slaughter didn’t last long. Media scrutiny led to an internal investigation, and the events have now been thoroughly recorded in various reports.
Using real soldiers and Iraqis to recreate the event, the movie creates a raw, brutal portrait of wartime insanity. While “Haditha” escapes the pratfalls of rhetoric by taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, Broomfield clearly has a unique agenda: Unlike any other contemporary war film, the drama emerges from the action, rather than being superimposed on it. You’ll find plenty of shouting, but no histrionics. Broomfield and actor Elliot Ruiz, an Iraq War veteran Broomfield cast as Corporal Ramirez, recently sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the main themes at work in the film.
iW: The central event of the film is based on real testimonies. Given your documentary background, why didn’t you take that approach?
Nick Broomfield: I’ve been making documentaries for a number of years, and I think far too many people just stay in a groove and carry on what they’ve been doing for far too long. I think it’s important as an artist, in whatever field you’re in, to take on new challenges, try to tell stories in different ways, and develop your techniques into something new. When I did “Ghost,” the film before this, I took a big risk by basically casting all non-actors using real locations, and shooting in a style that’s not applied in traditional feature films. Feature films are still very much caught in this time warp of shooting master shots, close-ups, reaction shots – which is all a style that cinema verite is completely not about. Cinema verite is all about real time, long takes, uncertainty, the moment. I tried to keep all that in the style of making this film. At the same time, I tried to tell a story in a much more structured way. Obviously, it’s a story that I don’t appear in. I tried to forge a new technique of film, which I think is possible because of all the technological changes. I don’t think you need to make feature films in the way they’re made anymore. It comes out of a 1930’s technology, and we’ve gone past it now.
iW: What are your feelings about the way Iraq has been studied in other contemporary American films?
NB: I think there have been some good documentaries done. I think “My Country, My Country,” “Iraq in Fragments,” “No Way Out” – they’re all very different films, but very interesting. The feature films have been fairly disappointing. Aside from my own, none of them have even had any Iraqi characters, which is symptomatic of some major failure. I don’t know how you make a film about a country and you don’t have any characters from that country in it. It’s like nationalism gone crazy. The bigger question is, “Why has there been no appetite for Iraq films within the American public?” I think it’s not just Iraq films. It’s any political films. It’s interesting that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was also unsuccessful. The reason for that is a very sad reason: I think the American people feel totally divorced from the decision-making process. I don’t think they feel in any way involved, that if they’ll have any effect if they make their protests felt. People can deal with Britney Spears, but they can’t deal with any real political issues because they don’t believe they have the power to influence anything.
iW: How did you go about scripting the Iraqi characters?
NB: Well, we used Iraqis in the film – people who were recent refugees. We shot the film in Jordan, simply because you wouldn’t survive a tea break in Iraq at the time we were shooting. It was just so dangerous. But we used Iraqi people. Geographically, it’s very similar, and the culture’s not that different. I’ve had e-mails from marines who were in Haditha, saying, “We thought we were looking at our own home movies.” So I think it’s pretty close.
iW: At the AFI Dallas Film Festival earlier this year, the film was introduced by a programmer who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. He said your portrayal of the army was “fair.” Have you screened the movie for the military?
NB: The opening (at Film Forum) is the opening for the U.S. I’ve had a few small screenings for friends and stuff. Elliot (Ruiz) is obviously an ex-marine and there are some ex-marines in the film. Some of them have seen the film.
Elliot Ruiz: Some of my friends who served in Iraq, people that actually rescued P.O.W.’s, are actually excited to see the film and glad that it got made.
ER: They’re happy that there’s finally a fair depiction of the types of things we go through on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think people realize the types of situations we’re put in, and the decisions we’re forced to make. It’s every day, all day long, that we’re forced to make decisions that either end our friends’ lives, our lives or somebody else’s lives. They’re just glad people get to see that now.
iW: Did anyone you know express a little more hesitance about it?
ER: All of my friends have been very supportive. Most of them have had five combat tours. This is straight-up kicking down doors, action all the time. These are the people I went to Iraq with, and they’re all very supportive. It’s just a bunch of corporals that went for a year or two. These guys have been in for five years. My first sergeant just retired. They’re all happy about the film.
iW: What did you know about the Haditha incident before you were cast in the film?
ER: Everybody in the Marine Corp knows about the Haditha incident. We heard about it as soon as it happened. It spread like wildfire. People don’t realize that it’s not just the Haditha incident. You can look up how many people are being charged for murder. My friend just told me five of his friends just got sent to jail for murder charges, and he just got sent back to Afghanistan on Sunday. He was actually explaining that to my mother when he was in California: It’s not just the Haditha incident. This stuff is happening every day.
iW: If that’s the case, Nick, why did you choose to focus on what happened in Haditha?
NB: I think some of the films have been too general. Films are limited in terms of time. This is two days, a specific reference point. If you’re talking about an incident from the point of view of three different groups of people, it’s very hard to apply that to a process. In terms of simple storytelling, you need to have something that can provide a structure to tell a story.
iW: One critic referred to the movie as “forensic cinema.”
NB: I don’t think that’s what it is at all. I wouldn’t want to make a forensic film. I think what happens, in terms of the actual incident, is very much based on witness statements and the transcripts of the marines who were interviewed. For legal reasons alone, we just needed to get it right. However, I think it’s much more interesting – Elliot was a marine and has his own stories and experiences. I wanted very much to use the rawness of their own lives to make this much more powerful. The way the word “forensic” is used, it’s like every single phrase that is uttered is supposed to be uttered on that day. That’s clearly not the truth. This is a film that in many ways works as a film about war that happens to look at the Haditha incident. That’s how I would define it.
iW: At the same time, when I read the Time Magazine piece about the incident after seeing your film, it was like I was reading a treatment for it.
As a storyteller, I wanted to do something that was accurate and fair. I didn’t want to be inventing things that would weight the story in one direction or another. It was really: How did the marines perceive that day? What was their viewpoint? Where were they coming from? What did they feel about each other? What did they feel about the Iraqis? What did they feel on the day-to-day level? It’s the same thing with the insurgency. We see nothing about the insurgency here. We don’t even know who the insurgents are. We don’t know that the insurgents and Al-Qaida are different. All those things are important. I think, to me, making something that’s balanced and fair – and, also, accurate — is very important. You don’t want to open the film with people pointing at it, saying that it’s not true. More than anything, it’s not about making a forensic film. It’s about making a film that you know is accurate.
iW: Do you hope to bring something new to the investigation of this case?
I think that’s a different film. I think it’s an interesting film, but it’s not the film I’ve made, which is a film about war. I haven’t made a film about military justice. If I was going to, it would be military justice…question mark.
iW: Does that topic interest you?
I think it’s fascinating, but I don’t think it’s something I would feel is relevant to talk about now. I think the film is really saying, “These are seventeen year old guys put into an environment they didn’t understand, who did things partly because of their prior experiences in Fallujah.” If anyone should be put on trial, it’s George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They were the one group of people who knew what they were doing. It’s very different to ask if there’s some sort of thing called military justice.
iW: Elliot, as a marine, did you think much about the idea of placing more blame on the American government than on the military?
ER: That’s why I took this role. He’s explaining that in the film. A lot of people don’t know the difference, they don’t know what we’re going through. That is the bigger picture: Are those marines really responsible for what happened? I mean, they did what they did, but who’s really responsible? Who really created that situation? This is not blaming the military, the insurgents or the Iraqis. It’s blaming the people that created all three groups.
iW: Do you think there needs to be a better dialog between the U.S. military and the government?
ER: Let’s say I was still in the marine corp. What I could say? What can really be said? Yeah, we don’t agree with it – but it’s our job. We either go to Iraq or go to jail. We don’t go to Iraq, we betray our country. We really don’t have a voice.
NB: It’s the old question that was raised at the Nuremberg Trials: Who’s responsible? The foot soldiers or the guys who told them to do what they do? It takes you up the chain of command. That’s why, at Nuremberg, you had the heads of the military being tried. There isn’t an inquiry into the Iraq War, but there should be. It should be all the half-truths and fabrications that were proved, later, to be lies. They should be looked at. Whether or not that will happen, I don’t know, but in terms of a healthy democracy, that’s what needs to happen. Future leaders need to know that if they lie, willingly, and mislead an electorate and a population and the rest of the world, they’re going to be held accountable for it. At the moment, they don’t seem to be.
iW: Do you really believe the management of the war has reached a point where we can analogize it to Nuremberg?
NB: Certainly. We’ve got a million Iraqi people dead on the basis of chemical weapons that didn’t exist. The British were just as bad. They were famous for gassing the Kurds, which we later blamed Saddaam for. The British were the ones who started it. I think you need to look at the bigger picture. Those are the issues, really. Haditha is a little bit of it. Haditha is what people do when they come to the end and can’t think straight anymore. These poor guys are all thrown together. None of them speak Iraqi. They’ve never been out of America before. If we’re going to start trying people, why don’t we look around and see who we should be trying? It’s the architects of this incredible situation.