Saturday, February 28, 2009
Battle for Haditha - DVD Introduction
Battle for Haditha (2007) is Nick Broomfield’s concise, lucid, devastating depiction of the Haditha massacre. If you follow the news, you know the basic facts: November, 19, 2005; IED; one Marine killed and two wounded; twenty-four Iraqi men, women, and children killed in response to fear, vengeance, and the inscrutable factors that motivate men under fire.
The film is divided into two main acts: November 18th and November 19th, with a brief resolution showing the repercussions. The first act depicts the day before the massacre and follows the soldiers involved; the Iraqi families who were victims; and the Iraqi insurgents who buried the bomb and set it off.
The Marines begin their day, November 18th, with what has turned into a cliché of the modern war film: American soldiers cruising along (often in helicopters – humvees, in this case) to the pounding, ear-splitting din of heavy metal. We also get the inevitable horsing around, but this is accompanied by sobering talking-head declarations of fears and confusions connected with the frustrating war in Iraq involving an unclear enemy living amidst non-combatants. As in the Vietnam War, the soldiers state how a woman or even a child, strapped with a bomb or concealing a weapon, can be a combatant. We meet the specific Marines who crew the humvee that will meet destruction on the 19th, but the film focuses on Corporal Ramirez, played by Elliot Ruiz, who delivers a performance that is engaging, poignant, and naturalistic, as he expresses his feelings of dread and disgust for the situation in Iraq.
We also follow the insurgents – who seem almost comically inept to the point that you wonder about their motivations. One is an overweight father with little children. His friend and accomplice is a dim-witted young man who works in a video store. Next to the the Al Qaeda, who are orthodox and fanatical, more physically fit and tough looking, the gray-haired man and his young friend look like clowns. Nevertheless, they are taught how to rig a cell phone to a bomb and their adventures, as they smuggle the bomb through the city and a roadblock to where they bury it, provide tense moments.
The sequences that set this film apart from other films and TV shows about the war in Iraq are the ones that follow the Iraqi family members through their day’s errands and routines. The camera following these characters invites us into their lives and culture. We see women buying live chickens to be served up for a circumcision party that evening. We see an old man reading the Koran and later lounging around with his grandson, their bare feet together as they nap. Some sequences are like lucid depictions of customs in National Geographic documentary; we see the circumcision and subsequent celebration that includes jubilation, dancing, singing, and eating. Other sequences are touchingly intimate. A pregnant mother (Yasmine Hanani), expresses her fear that her husband won’t find her attractive when she is hugely pregnant, but her husband affectionately convinces her that he will.
Since we know what will happen on the 19th, the second major act immediately carries a heavily ominous tone. As the Iraqi men, women, and children rise to the new day and go about their routines, the Marines get ready for their day’s patrol. I will say little here about what unfolds after the last humvee in the column is ripped apart by the explosion though I will say that the ensuing sequences are tautly directed and gut-wrenchingly disturbing in many ways.
What happens and why it happens are matters that I cannot judge. War is most horrible when its effects touch the innocent and the young, but I am in no position to judge the actions of young men, sometimes unwillingly placed in harm’s way, who respond to factors and emotions that are beyond my experience. What I like most about Battle for Haditha is that it doesn’t leave the viewer with a simple explanation, nor does it suggest exoneration for those involved. The film lets you come to your own conclusions as it compellingly draws a factual illustration of a chain of mercilessly inexorable events.