De Palma revisits American nightmare

November 22, 2007

De Palma revisits American nightmare

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Nov 17, 2007 04:30 AM


MOVIE CRITIC
The story of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a multi-mediated account of an atrocity perpetrated by American soldiers at war, begins in two places: on the ground in Iraq and in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Toronto.

“It was at the festival here last year,” says the director on the occasion of his 67th birthday during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “I was talking to Laird Adamson from HDNet Films. He said, `You make a movie for $5 million about anything you want. Except you have to shoot it in high-def.'”

The proposal intrigued the director of Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables, but he felt he needed an idea that suited the technology.

“Then I saw a movie here about a squad in a war,” he explains, “a very disturbing movie by Bruno Dumont called Flanders, and that got me thinking about the war we were in. Then I read of this incident that was very familiar and very much like the incident in Casualties of War, and I said, `This is happening all over again.'”

De Palma is referring to his 1989 movie, which proved a lightning rod for controversy upon its release. Based on an account of the kidnapping, rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by a squad of American soldiers, Casualties of War bears some astonishing resemblances to the real-life case – the March 2006 rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl in Mahmudiya – the director would ultimately recreate, nearly 20 years later, in Redacted (see sidebar).

But while the circumstances depicted in the films are similar, the means of articulating the narratives could not be more different. Where Casualties of War bore all of the director’s trademark gloss and polish, Redacted, in theatres now, is deliberately splintered and ragged: a grim tale told through a multitude of digital prisms.

“I asked myself, `How would you tell the story?'” says De Palma. “And in researching the incident, I went on the Internet and all these things came up, whether they were blogs and video postings, or websites or montages of photographs of civilians who had been killed in the war. So I said, `This is like speaking to me. This is the form in which this movie should be told.'”

Made with a cast of unknowns and shot through myriad lenses, Redacted unfolds as a cacophony of “unofficial” images: home video footage, surveillance recordings, Internet postings, blog excerpts, websites. It’s the war you see only on the Internet, and it’s not the war its architects – to use the filmmaker’s phrase – want you to see.

“Having lived through Vietnam,” De Palma observes, “you just can’t believe America would get into this kind of situation again. It’s inconceivable. And the architects of this war all worked in some phase of the government during Vietnam and yet here they are and it’s all happening all over again. You just go, `How can this be?'”

For De Palma, the truly terrifying thing is the repetition, the fact America seems doomed to be living out its worst nightmares all over again, and that the lessons of history can go so perilously unheeded.

“I told that story in Casualties of War,” he reminds you. “But when it happened again, I had to tell it again, because for me it’s like a metaphor for these types of invasions and occupations we get ourselves into. You to go war under made-up pretences that you find out don’t make any sense when you get there. You’re in an extremely hostile environment that’s nothing like you’ve seen back home. You’re surrounded by a people who are speaking a different language and are so alien to your culture you can’t get a handle on it. The only sense you can make out of it is, `I protect my brother’s back and he protects mine.’ You band together and that’s the only sense you can make. You’ve got orders and you protect your brother soldiers.”

For De Palma, this is a recipe for atrocity, especially when you stir in inexperienced kids who have enlisted out of poverty, ignorance or a misplaced sense of patriotic duty.

Not surprisingly, Redacted has already been attacked for undermining the efforts of American soldiers in Iraq, but De Palma, a veteran of aggressively negative publicity campaigns, shrugs the charges off.

“I know the movie’s going to fall into that cliché of being anti-American and aiding the terrorists,” De Palma says, “just like one of the characters says at the end. But that’s been going on for years and years now. I’m just going to be another log in the fire.

“They’ll argue about it, there’ll be the pro and the con, it will be just more fodder for the cable channels and then they’ll move on to something else.”

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