(07/02/08) – Two films concerning atrocities committed during the current war in Iraq raise several questions about how this war is perceived. Brian De Palma’s Redacted and Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha (pictured) look very similar and have many crossing points but each has a different focus and style. Watching these films brings up the question as to whom they are made for and what they can hope to achieve in this current world, as desensitised by media saturation as it is by an on-going list of war calamities that makes incidents once extremely shocking now seem like the norm, no matter how unacceptable that norm is.

It is hard not to admire the directors’ intentions in trying to expose attitudes and conditions that exist in the mess that is the current Gulf Crisis. But there is a concern that these films may preach to the converted and that the converted may often have an attitude that says, ‘This is the war that we protested against but it happened anyway.’ The fact that the protests were not effective and the acceptance of the war as the state of things may not prevent many viewers from receiving these films as little more than well organised documents of a situation most of them feel they neither wanted or created. If these films can inspire people to get beyond their jaded feelings, then their potential worth is great.

The cinematic representation of war may have arrived at the ‘seen it all before’ point. ‘War films’ can only work if they can strike a humanitarian chord and do so without employing traditional narrative techniques of manipulation. They may have some value and serve their directors’ intentions through a shifting of focus.

In the case of De Palma’s film, it is all about how war is recorded and reported, about the filmic techniques available in the modern war situation: the soldier’s home movies, surveillance film, soldiers’ and their families’ blogs, news reporting, documentaries and internet postings. The film is very cleverly devised to utilise these techniques. It tells its tale buy employing them and focusing on the central point of what you are allowed to see and what is expunged.

Nick Broomfield’s film tries to capture the experience of the parties involved in a roadside explosion and the resulting blind retaliatory massacre. The film eavesdrops on the mindset of all parties and the conditions under which they carry out their respective roles. Whether it is the overload pumping of music which keeps the marines in their hummvies in a constant state of hyper-alertness (read ‘kill mode’) while on patrol, or the shop assistant willing to help plant and detonate an IED (improvised explosive device) to see off the oppressive occupational force, or the families just trying to avoid being dragged into the conflict that is occurring all around them.

If there is a fault in the film it is that the viewer can almost detect the invisible microphone of the documentary maker placed towards the characters, who seem to carry out their actions whilst reporting their views on the situations going on around them. It is not that the statements made do not give an accurate insight to the intricacies of the conflict; it is just that the technique compromises the viewer’s belief in the characters themselves. The device is not too dissimilar to the technique utilised by Peter Watkins in Culloden. However, while Watkins’ decision to interview his re-enactors added credibility to the words, in Battle for Haditha there is something clumsy about the ‘state of things’ declarations. It dilutes the sense of reality created elsewhere in the film.

De Palma’s focus on the media and brilliant use of its forms to create a panoramic view of the situation manages to produce a strong sense of the action within the war that we think we know. It allows the film to tell its story through its images in a stronger way than Broomfield’s effort. The only difficulty is that, in trying to give an insight to the individual soldiers involved, the characters become a little stereotypical as representations of different viewpoints and motives.

Both films deserve great credit for the set design and for the use of lesser-known actors. The recreation of a war situation is impressive and necessary to create the sense of ‘documentary’ required for the viewer’s belief in the situations. This is further enhanced by solid performances by people to whom we do not already attribute feelings based on their cinematic track record. The acting in both films goes a long way to developing the sense of verity cinema aimed at by the filmmakers.

On the whole, both Battle For Haditha and Redacted give similarly strong and thought-provoking insights to the situation in Iraq. The two films carefully try to give a balanced view of things and probably achieve that. Their success may well rest in their ability to reach and educate their prospective audiences and provoke a discussion amongst them.

Battle For Haditha is playing in the UK now. Redacted will open in the country on 21 March. It opens in France on 20 February, in Russia on 21 February and Belgium on 27 February.