Dir: Tony Gerber, Jesse Ross. US. 2008. 92 mins
American tanks roll under the desert sun, the minaret of a mosque stands out on the horizon, a wounded soldier spurts blood... a scene from the Iraq war, surely' Not quite - the tanks are real, but the mosque isn't, and even the soldier is a dummy. US documentary Full Battle Rattle is without a doubt the most bizarre film to emerge yet from the current Gulf conflict - an entertaining, often very funny, but ultimately revealing and unsettling film about a US Army camp in the Mojave Desert where Iraq War conditions are simulated for training purposes.
Full Battle Rattle's trenchant if understated - often implicit - satirical edge, and topical subject matter should see this digitally-shot, elegantly-finished film appeal widely to festivals and adventurous distributors alike, who may see the film picking up some fascinated controversy.
The film provides an insight into life at the US Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California's Mojave Desert, where a large tract of land has been set aside to simulate the conditions that US troops will face in Iraq. The site is used for strategic role-playing games - featuring scenarios known as 'Simulation Injects', devised by scriptwriting teams, or 'simulation architects'. The situation is referred to accurately by one of the team in charge as 'one large TV reality show.'
In these simulations, US soldiers play their own parts, while Iraqis living in the US have been enlisted to play the locals. Confusingly, other US soldiers play insurgents - routinely referred to by the military as 'bad guys'- a role they take to whole-heartedly, playing the parts rather in US gangsta style.
The film follows one batallion, operating around a mock village named Medina Wasl. Commanding officer Lt Col Robert McLaughlin, a thoughtful, cautious and likeable man, stresses that one of the functions of these exercises is to make US soldiers aware of the need for tact and cultural understanding in Iraq. In fact, the mood between the Americans and the handful of Iraqis at the base is not only amicable but at times jokily cheerful, but one serviceman makes a revealing comment when he tells how - after coming back to the camp after active service - he initially finds himself feeling hostile towards the Iraqis.
The Iraqis are the most interesting figures in the film, not least because they have interesting stories to tell. One of the most revealing comes from a young woman, Azhar Cholagh, who admits to feelings of guilt about taking part in the simulations, but says she needs the money to send back to her parents in Baghdad.
Sparingly narrated in on-screen captions, the film makes little explicit comment on the meaning of what it shows. However, the film's polemical point is in no doubt when a final caption tells us that the US Army is now refurbishing Medina Wasl at great expense - this time, as an Afghan village.
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