In 2006, in Mahmoudiyah, during the U.S. military occupation of Iraq subsequent to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a gang of U.S. soldiers raped, killed and burned 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi before murdering her mother, grandfather and six-year-old sister in an attempted cover-up of their crimes against the teenager. Writer-director Brian De Palma, who took the directorial prize at Venice, based his docudrama Redacted on this incident. As does his earlier, unimpressive Casualties of War (1989), also involving the gang-rape and murder of a girl by U.S. soldiers, but during the Vietnam War, Redacted widens the net of responsibility beyond the rapists. (All the actual participants in the rape-murders were prosecuted.) Those who know about the crimes but hesitate to come forward, whatever the reason(s), are also morally implicated; in the widest unfolding of the net, responsibility lands on war itself, the crucible of conditions in which it pounds the humane sensibilities (such as they exist) of its trained-aggressive participants, and the rationalizations for atrocities that become more readily accessible, perhaps even irresistible, to human minds stuck in that environment.
The title of De Palma’s work refers to a number of things. One is official U.S. control of information about the Iraq War dispersed through the media. In part, such censorship aims to hide from public view the horror of war and, specifically, atrocities against Iraqi and other populations committed by U.S. troops. De Palma is to be commended for not excluding what may be the most pernicious form of this official censorship: the “embedding” of reporters in military operations—the compromising of media objectivity and truthfulness by welding media attention to, and identification with, the military perspective, building on a foundation of gratitude on the part of media for their inclusion in what they are seduced into believing is privileged access to unfolding history. Why “most pernicious”? Rather than “redacting” reportage, this molds the minds of those who do the reporting, encouraging, silently, self-censorship, thus preserving reporters’ deluded sense of freedom, autonomy and self-determination in the practice of their chosen craft, upon whose truthfulness U.S. public opinion depends, with American democracy back home, ironically, hanging in the balance. It is not for nothing that the ancient Greek playwight Aeschylus is paraphrased in Redacted to the effect that in war the first casualty is truth.
There are at least two more resonances to the title that are worth noting. Redacted is structured as a series of chapters or segments, each with its own title. The final segment, titled “Collateral Damage,” consists of a series of stills each of which shows a mutilated corpse—part of the grisly handiwork of war. If we stretch a little the meaning of redacted, we can conceive of these stills as instances of redacted human forms and lives. Moreover, for legal reasons De Palma was prohibited from deconstructing the rape-murders; he was obliged instead to make up a fictional lead-up to the portrayal of the actual rape-murders of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and her family. In other words, Redacted was “redacted”!
Indeed, De Palma takes sly liberties with the facts. For example, he has relocated the central atrocity from Mahmoudiyah to Samarra, perhaps to play off the familiar term “appointment in Samarra,” referring to human death. (One of the soldiers is shown reading John O’Hara’s novel with that as a title.) I confess I am confused as to why De Palma changed the age of the victim from 14 to 15. It may simply be that this also was legally required to help mask the child’s identity.
Formally, Redacted is brilliant. Its cohering framework finds one of the soldiers videographing his comrades and events to create a record of his war experience that he plans to use to gain admittance to a filmmaking course of study once his service is complete. (I do not mind the farfetched nature—well, impossible nature—of this approach to the material. It’s absurdist—a reflection of the absurdity of war.) This announces the “inevitable” survival of this character, who is, after all, our guide through Redacted. However, this expectation doesn’t pan out. (The character is kidnapped, tortured and beheaded—a sight gag whose mordant humor again reflects the absurdity of war.) Seamlessly, De Palma’s own videographed Redacted takes over and completes the digital work-within-the-digital work, sublimely stressing, simultaneously, both truthfulness and “redaction,” both raw, ragged reality and the abortion of the soldier’s project. Absolutely dazzling; pure wit. (At Venice, in addition to the Silver Bear for his direction, De Palma won a young jury award for “cinema of the future.”) As in the only earlier work by De Palma that I half-liked, Sisters (1973), mordant humor provides a layer of distancing that undercuts De Palma’s tendency to indulge gluttonous, even pornographic sentimentality and projective self-pity (Blow-Out, 1981; Scarface, 1983)—a tendency that has helped defeat his attempts to evoke an Hitchcockian air. It is hard, for me at least, to imagine a director less like Hitchcock than De Palma, whatever De Palma himself might think.
In any case, however patronizing it may sound, as a non-fan of De Palma’s work, I am deeply appreciative of Redacted, a vibrant and sincere effort that has serious things to say and show about the Bush-Cheney-U.S. military recklessness and brutality in Iraq. And their stupidity: a French journalist points out that the routine shooting deaths of Iraqis at checkpoints, for which not a single soldier was ever prosecuted, were largely inevitable given that each warning sign for those passing through to stop for inspection/interrogation was in English and Arabic, neither of which poor, illiterate Iraqis could read. One must truly shake one’s head in despair.
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