Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s documentary, Full Battle Rattle, may seem like “just another Iraq war doc” but it’s not. In fact, not a single frame of the film was shot in Iraq. The film instead follows the fascinating story of Medina Wasl, a war simulation village in the Mojave Desert. It’s a community run by the U.S. military to train troops, using real soldiers and actual Iraqis in the simulation. The film, which won a Special Jury prize at SXSW 2008, just started a theatrical run with an opening at New York’s Film Forum. Over at IFC, Aaron Hillis chats with Gerber and Moss about the harsh realities and falsehoods of this unknown place:
IFC: The military aren’t exactly known for giving access. Were there ground rules while filming?
Tony Gerber: We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission to go there. We had to get clearance, first and foremost, from the office in Hollywood on Wilshire Boulevard that governs any representation of the Army in movies — whether it’s a Michael Bay film or a Tony Gerber/Jesse Moss documentary, that office has to approve of you. Then we had to get permission from the National Training Center itself, and we had to clear [the film] with the [Public Affairs Officer] for the incoming brigade, the 4,000 men and women who would be training at the National Training Center. Surprisingly, we were able to enter this world and begin making this film with no limitations on our access. You would think there’d be a minefield of no’s, but it didn’t happen. Largely, I think it’s because we were independent filmmakers and able to fly below the radar. We got in there, and they virtually forgot about us.
IFC: One soldier gets a verbal smackdown from a superior for dismissively insulting the Iraqi culture. Did you ever get a sense that people were playing nice for the camera?
Jesse Moss: I don’t think so. They’re playing by job description, that’s what they do. They’re used to being watched. I was living in the village of Medina Wasl with the Iraqi role-players and the soldiers who play the insurgents, and I wouldn’t say that was the challenge. It was more just getting to know these people in a very compressed period of time. Everybody fronts, whether you’re filming them in the simulation or outside. It’s your job as a filmmaker to get around that and to [find out] who they really are.