EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Screening in the Feature Documentary Competition, Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber's "Full Battle Rattle" will be having its North American premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival after premiering in Berlin last month. The follows lives inside the US Army's Iraq Simulation in California's Mojave Desert. The film takes on one Army Battalion's efforts to pacify the town of Medina Wasl, one of thirteen villages in the simulation, as it lies on the brink of civil war. indieWIRE talked to Moss and Gerber about the film and their goals for SXSW.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Jesse Moss: I leapt into non-fiction filmmaking from politics, and had the good fortune to work with an amazing filmmaker, Barbara Kopple. The compassion, conviction and craft she brought to documentary, in films like "Harlan County USA," inspired me to find stories that engaged me and discover ways to tell them. After paying my dues for a few years, I made a film for HBO about an Ivy League impostor, and have been working on my own since then. A few years ago, I made another film, called "Speedo," about a demolition derby champion.
Tony Gerber: I was never much of a reader as a child so it was movies that fed my hunger for stories. I saw Fellini’s "Amarcord" at a very young age and was mesmerized. My earliest films were in collaboration with live performance in downtown New York City venues such as La Mama, the Kitchen and PS122. I later went to film school where I had the occasion to study cinematography and learned to write screenplays. I supported myself as a cameraman working for MTV News, The Real World and the occasional music video. I caught a break when my thesis film "A Small Taste of Heaven" was accepted into the IFP’s No Borders development program. The short subsequently played Sundance and was developed (with playwright Lynn Nottage) into my first feature, "Side Streets," starring Rosario Dawson and Shashi Kapoor.
What was the inspiration for this film?
When we learned that the US Army had constructed an ersatz Iraq in California’s Mojave Desert, populated with Iraq Role Players, it seemed too strange to be true. It was our hope that by living inside the Iraq simulation, we could come to a better understanding of the war. We were amazed we got the access, and that we had complete editorial freedom.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film...
What interested us about the simulation was the chance to look at the war in miniature, and peer into the inner workings of the American war machine.
The Army Battalion we followed through the simulation had been given the responsibility of bringing peace and prosperity to Medina Wasl, a mock Iraqi village. At play were all of the forces of the “real” war - including an insurgency, sectarian violence, a news media - replicated in a manner that seemed both extraordinarily sophisticated and remarkably crude.
The battle for Medina Wasl is the dramatic spine of our film. We chose to tell this story from the point of view of an American Army Battalion, the Iraqi townspeople, a group of US Soldiers cast as insurgents, and Army consultants “writing” the script. We follow our key characters from the moment they receive their role assignments through their simulated “deaths.” After the simulation was over, our Army subjects were deployed to Iraq for real.
"Full Battle Rattle" is a documentary film, but it also features actors speaking lines from a script, which is a pretty good definition of a fiction film. It’s a film that exists on the boundary between non-fiction and fiction. The distinction between the fake and the real is the central tension of the film, and what appealed to us about the simulation. It may be fake, but it says a great deal about the big, screwed up real war we’re in.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project
Access was difficult, particularly since we’re independent filmmakers. And of course funding was a challenge. But we had some particularly brave investors who believed in this film from the beginning. Editing took 14 months.
We do not yet have an American distributor, but the Film Forum has committed to show the film in New York for two weeks in July. We’re thrilled.
What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?
At our world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival we experienced a very passionate response. It was a little scary to spark such a firestorm. We’re excited to engage an American audience at SXSW and talk about the film and the war. And our film subjects, including soldiers and Iraqi role players, will be seeing the film for the first time at the American premiere on Sunday, March 9. And hopefully the right industry folks will come and see the film. "