Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Redacted

When The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it was a refreshing choice. Instead of going with the manufactured posturing of Avatar, the Academy voters instead were drawn to a more original subject: the addiction of war. (The only other recent film that tackled this subject with intelligence and imagination was the 2008 Israeli picture Waltz with Bashir.) While some decried that The Hurt Locker by-passed the political issues surrounding the Iraq War, I think the examination of a different kind of technological war, where cell phones do as much damage as an air strike, has a political aspect that transcends dogma.

Although we've already seen dozens of movies about the Iraq War, few have come close to making sense of its meaning. Allowing that people of different political persuasions will have separate views of just what that meaning is, most dramas (like 2007's Rendition and In the Valley of Elah) have only reduced the conflict to tired platitudes, or banal melodrama. Perhaps The Hurt Locker succeeds so well because it doesn't attempt to summarize what is still in process, but rather, seizes on an aspect of the war that can now be understood. (Let's not forget that during the Vietnam era there were no Hollywood movies about Vietnam - not, at least, until the conflict was over.)

The Hurt Locker, however, wasn't the only picture to provide an original perspective on Iraq. Back in 2007, director Brian De Palma made a low-budget and formally experimental movie that looked at the war using one horrific episode, the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl by American soldiers, in order to illuminate it. Redacted is a daring, unsettling and irresolvable work for more reasons than just its subject. Rather than simply dramatizing this disturbing story, De Palma, who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival that year, did something far more incendiary. He's designed a modestly abstract picture that eschews dramatic narrative in order to daringly call into question how we interpret what we see and why we are inclined to repress the things that disturb us. Redacted, which refers to text that is blackened out, or censored, is not just a tract about the government spin as it's applied to the news; it goes further to raise questions about the manner in which we consume images - and how we interpret them.

Essentially, De Palma returned to a theme he explored in one of his best movies, Casualties of War (2009), about a similar rape and murder that took place during the Vietnam War. But in Redacted, he abandons the sweeping expressionistic style that he used in that film, and perfected in thrillers like Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Carlito's Way (1993). He opted for the more lean guerrilla technique he employed early in his career in the underground political satires Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom!(1970). But those low-budget films, made at the end of the sixties, parodied our voyeuristic tendencies while also lampooning political targets. Redacted takes place in a more advanced technological age of voyeurism in which everyone has access to a camera, whether it's digital or a cell phone, providing multiple points of view. And that's what De Palma deploys in Redacted - a dizzying array of perspectives that force us to interpret what we do - and don't - wish to see.

The story opens with the deployed U.S. squadron casually filming each other with their digital cameras. Before long, De Palma introduces other sources into the movie, including a faux French documentary on how the Americans detain Iraqis who may be potentially carrying explosives. When one of the soldiers does get killed, a raid is led on the family of a young woman who crosses their checkpoint daily. The fallout from their crime is presented through a variety of visual media that provide contradictory responses to the horror of what we witnessed. By the end, De Palma confronts us directly with unsettling still images of victims of the Iraq War that, ironically, are redacted for legal reasons.

Those final photos ultimately (and ironically) contributed to the picture's box office failure. The distributor, Magnolia Pictures, were worried about potential lawsuits arising out of using authentic photos of Iraqi war victims, so they redacted the images to protect themselves. De Palma, however, felt that their actions censored his intent. While I believe De Palma has an arguable point, the redacted photos ended up inadvertently adding to the very meaning of his work. The victims become the hidden, indistinct fallout of warfare. In the end, the conflict between the director and distributor escalated to the point where Redacted got swallowed up by the controversy. It never had a decent chance to be seen.

Fortunately, Redacted is on DVD with special documentaries on its making. Although it would be best to see it in a theatre, the intimate scale of the movie also fits any format. However it is viewed, Redacted is a provocative, multi-layered anti-war film whose power sneaks up on you.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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