Friday, September 14, 2007

TIFF 2007: "Redacted"

(Special Presentations)
(Canada/USA. 90 minutes, 2007)
Written and directed by Brian DePalma
Cast: Patrick Carroll, Francois Caillaud, Rob Devaney, Izzy Diaz, Mike Figueroa, Ty Jones, Ohad Knoller, Paul O'Brien, Abigail Savage

If hip-hop culture continues its world domination, then Brian DePalma’s epitaph will likely read “the guy who directed Scarface (the Al Pacino version)". Amidst the once-controversial hyper violence, the relentless onslaught of profanity (approx. 207 uses of “the f word”, but not--I repeat not—the world record!), and Giorgio Moroder’s the otherworldly synth-strains (and an unfortunate montage set to the vocal stylings of Frank Stallone), what was once an operatic moral fable of Reagan-era excesses gone awry has been reprocessed and reinterpreted with Tony Montana now—perversely—the poster boy (and t-shirt icon) of 21st century manifest-f*ckin'-destiny.

Prior to 1983 (where the film was only a minor critical and box office hit) DePalma was renowned as an auteur of thrillers--Carrie, Dressed To Kill, and Blow Out among his key successes—with the label “modern day Hitchcock” both an artistic blessing and a critical curse (the Paulettes of the age rarely gave him any respect and dismissed him as a shallow, showy stylist). But before becoming identified with lengthy tracking shots, disorienting split screens, and shrieking Pino Donnagio strings, he began his career as a young Sarah Lawrence grad shooting 16mm, semi-improvisational counterculture satires like Hi, Mom! and Greetings on the streets of his native New York.

In 1989, just as the “Vietnam” cycle that began with Platoon was coming to an end, he surprised his staunchest critics and splintering fan base with Casualties Of War, an impassioned dramatization of a rape/murder committed by American soldiers in the early days of the conflict. As expected, it was greeted with critical and box-office indifference (he was taken to task for casting Michael J. Fox in the lead role), but has since endured as one of his defining efforts.

During production of his adaptation of James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, DePalma came upon a terrible subject that would return him not only to the psychic landscape of his underappreciated anti-war drama, but to his roots as a guerilla filmmaker....

A soldier’s camcorder introduces us to the young American Marines of Alfa Company, stationed at Camp Carolina, Samara, Iraq. Private Salazar (Diaz) is an aspiring filmmaker who plans to use his homemade documentary as an audition piece for film school. He turns his lens on his mates, who include their leader and Iraq vet Master Sgt. James Sweet (Jones), the immature Rush (Sherman), his buddy the arrogant, remote Reno Flake (Carroll), bookish Gabe Blix (O’Neill), and the noble, idealistic “Lawyer” (literally) McCoy (Devaney).

Alfa Company’s main duties are to police a military checkpoint at the city’s entrance, which the French documentary crew captures for the slick, earnest documentary "Barrage". Their HD cameras record an explosive moment when an Iraqi family panics and attempts to break through the barrier—a struggle in which Flake shoots and kills a young pregnant women with troubling ease.

Investigating reports of a nearby terror cell, the Company raids an Iraqi household where a terrified family recoils as their simple homestead is ransacked but ultimately declared free of threat. But later that night, Rush and Flake, stoned and resentful and full of lust for the family’s 15 year old daughter, ignore orders and make an unauthorized return to the house. McCoy returns to base in disgust. Salazar’s helmet camera captures their gang-rape and murder the girl. Rush and Flake coldly assassinate the remaining family.

Retaliation comes swiftly and without mercy. The checkpoint is bombed. Then, one of the soldiers is kidnapped. The next morning, his body is found, beheaded. The website of the radical Islamic group "Shuhada' ul-hurriyya" ('Martyrs of Freedom) posts video of the execution, with a vow that more will follow.

From America, an Army wife documents her grief through her video blog. And on another site, a college-age rebel posts her rant against the U.S. government and sympathizes with the radicals.

Back at Camp Carolina, McCoy is haunted by his implication in the horrific tragedy and reports the crime, only to find out the hard way that the military looks after its own…

Coproduced with Canada's The Film Farm (the folks behind Sarah Polley's directorial debut Away From Her), “Redacted” was shot in Jordan, with unknown actors in only two weeks on a meager budget of $5 million dollars provided by Mark Cuban’s HD Net.

As with Casualties, which began as a New Yorker article by Daniel Lang, DePalma was inspired by a news article about the 2006 Mahmudiyah killings, in which fourteen-year old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi was raped, murdered, and burned along with her parents and sister by U.S. soldiers. Acknowledging the thematic similarities, he wanted to explore the subject in a “different way”.

Outraged at the lack of mainstream news coverage of the Iraqi conflict (at least the Vietnam War was played out on the nightly news, he argued in the Q&A, which fueled America’s take-it-to-the-streets dissention), DePalma found inspiration in “Citizen Journalist” and the “alternative” media that have dared to document since 2003 what the “official” sources can’t or won’t touch. Redacted is constructed entirely from faux-"found" footage and rotating points-of-view, each simmering with its own agenda: a formal French documentary, the camp’s security tapes, an Arab TV channel, American and Islamic fundamentalist web sites, camera phone recordings, and, primarily, a soldier's video diary (come to think of it, it’s a little bit like Patrick Sheane Duncan’s 84 Charlie MoPic, which came out four months before Casualities). What it lacks the technical pizzazz of DePalma's thrillers or mainstream works is made up for by its energy (90 brief minutes blow by) and collision of styles that make its sense of outrage all the more palpable and unnerving.
Whereas the recent crop of Iraq dramas like In The Valley Of Elah, Rendition and the upcoming Grace Is Gone have been solemn, “fair”, and focused on the home front, DePalma drops us into a turbulent hotspot in medias res, where young soldiers struggle with boredom and a lack of defined purpose while facing potential hostilities at every turn: civilian vehicles that could be car bombs, gifts from local children that could be poisoned, suspicious piles of rubble that could contain IEDs, the very threat of which can amplify paranoia and resentment, particularly in those who, like Flake, enlisted in the service purely as an outlet for their own anti-social tendencies. He condemns the pack mentality of the military, the way that combat encourages the dehumanization of “the enemy”, and how “moral standards” are too often regarded as disloyalty to one’s country.
While there’s been some criticism from advance festival screenings that the characters are prone to self-illuminating monologues, I think much of the on-the-nose speechifying (to steal a term from Yosemite Sam) can be defended by one look at YouTube, which proves that consumer level devices and the availability of bandwidth brings out everyone’s inner performer with alarming vanity and lack of self-censorship.

The more formal, faux-documentary from the French crew is particularly well-done, utilizing classical music (Sarabande by Handel, which was first used effectively in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), portentous narration (of the 2000 Iraqis killed at check points, only 60 have been confirmed as insurgents), and artful images (ala Gunner Palace, et al) of soldier’s weary faces and sun baked buildings that both damns and fetishizes the American iconography of the occupation.

Redacted's most controversial moment comes--ala Lars Von Trier’s anti-American Chomsky-meets-Brecht screed Dogville--at the very end: After McCoy’s teary confession to friends back home, DePalma closes on a blistering montage of unseen and censored stills of the victims of “collateral damage”, but mixes in some faked images of incidents staged for the film’s narrative. Devotees of DePalma’s hypnotic, often eroticized images will find themselves pummeled by his rage and conviction. This is powerful, one-sided, in-your-face stuff.

(UPDATED 10/13/2007: “Redacted” has since been “redacted” for real (more here)! The closing credit photos have been blacked out, a “Boycott Redacted” website has been launched accusing DePalma of treason, and Mark Cuban has offered to sell DePalma his film back so he can have nothing to do with it. Conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly's pissed with it, of course, and the critical reaction from the mostly Liberal media is, true to form, “mixed’. I can only hope this long time provocateur is laughing and shaking his head at another “mission accomplished”.)

©2007 Robert J. Lewis