Brian De Palma's Devastating Anti-War Polemic Reinmagines a Horrible Crime
More than with any film I've seen at the New York Film Festival so far, I've been struggling to find a way to talk about Brian De Palma's Redacted. The devastating reconstruction of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by American soldiers in Samarra in 2006, told entirely through "found" footage, the film felt like a well-aimed punch to the gut -- or perhaps a stab in the heart. Whether blunt or sharp, the film's impact is impossible to dismiss. Even though I thought I was handling the brutalities on screen well (usually by leaning over to scribble something in my notebook), I found myself unable to get up once the final credits started to roll; it had become physically impossible to move. Redacted sent me reeling.
Brian De Palma's Redacted(Magnolia Pictures)
The conceit of De Palma's highly charged imaginary reconstruction is that American TV networks provide an extremely limited and sanitized view of the reality on the ground. However, there is a wealth of material that we are usually not privy to: soldier's home videos, angry Iraqi TV news, artful French reportage, close-circuit security cameras, the eerie green footage from the troops' helmet-mounted night vision cams, video chats between soldiers and their families back home, YouTube clips from activists, whistle-blowers, and insurgents. Redacted is entirely made up of this "found" footage to recreate the appalling images which have been systematically removed from the "news" about Iraq.
What we see, at first, is the mundane boredom of one unit, captured by unofficial video diarist Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz). B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) play poker with pornographic cards, sweat in the brutal sun, and fall asleep while standing watch at the checkpoint. Then, all too common horrors sneak up on the men: a car that reveals its fragile freight too late is "lit up" with machine gun fire, an unfortunate soldier is torn apart on an IED. Through Salazar's lens, we witness the survivors deal with what they've seen -- or rather, not deal with it, because "we just did our job" and "you can't afford remorse."
Redacted is stylistically fresh and well-crafted, but the characterizations and psychology leading up to the nighttime raid on a defenseless Iraqi family are simplistic and predictable. The characters are types, the dialogue is cliched, and the divide between the hardened bullies, W.- Somerset-Maugham-quoting nerds, and meek followers is story-book obvious.
But Redacted is an urgent polemic, not psychological realism, and I suspect De Palma felt that he had no time for the niceties of layered characterizations and complex narrative devices. In fact, the infuriating familiarity of Redacted is exactly what gives it its overwhelming power: of course we know that war is hell, that it makes monsters of people, that innocents suffer and die in ways and numbers beyond our comprehension -- and yet, we still allow it to happen, again and again. By telling the story of one young girl, raped, shot in the face, her corpse burnt, her family slaughtered, Redacted restates truths that have been carefully edited out of our daily discourse about "troop surges" and "long term presence." As long as the war continues, the least we can do is listen and watch.