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A Conversation With Brian DePalma

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While Brian DePalma's new film about the Iraq war is based in the oldest propaganda cliche in the world -- let's show the soldiers on the bad side of the war raping innocent girls! -- what makes him original in the use of this emotionally-charged technique is that the bad guys happen to be us. Still, for an intellectually savvy audience, it is difficult to watch his flat interpretation of soldiers, each acting as if a cardboard cartoon of evil, let alone the predictable and unnuanced scene of rape and torture. Evidently DePalma's aim is a mass audience, the kind who might very well be taken by this "revelation" of evil in our American troops in an absolutely unjustified war. As he put it in the below interview from the Venice Film Festival, there just are not enough popular films showing the Iraq war as it is. One would hope, though, that more anti-war films would come out that are not based in broad-stroke cliches, where instead the drama comes from nuance, taking cue from some of the more startling investigations out today, such as Jeremy Scahil's, Naomi Klein's, and Greg Grandin's recent denunciatory pieces on the war. Appealing to the lowest common denominator makes for an awkward, although well-intentioned, film.

What was your aim in making this film?

The movie is an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people. Unlike in Vietnam, where we saw the soldiers being brought home in body bags, Iraq is not in the mainstream media. The terrible thing about the war is that we don't see these images. The media is now part of the corporate establishment. Journalists have been told by their employers that they don't want photos like that. Many have appeared in the Arab media, but you can't put them on American television. Journalists are frustrated. They can't tell the story they want. For example, where did they come up with the idea of weapons of mass destruction? Did Saddam Hussein have these weapons of mass destruction on a spear? Why is everyone buying this crap?

What I am trying to do is make viewers aware of the techniques used to control the reality they see. Anything on television involves someone selling something. It is a commercial medium and everything is for sale. The web is not so corrupted but the more money gets in there, the more it will become so. We live in an era where everyone is performing. I use techniques that tell the audience that what they are seeing is fiction, inspired by real events. If you are curious, you can go to the web and put in Iraq, soldiers, rape, and you get the events that inspired my film. I try to make this look like a video, an assembly of a dossier of images from the monitors, an assembly of interrogation materials put together. Something about video gets closer to reality. The downside of digital, though, is that if you erase something, it is gone forever. There is no negative. We also used what we saw. I wanted to use ants in one scene, but they were too lethargic and the centipede was sleepy. That is why we used a scorpion. We put the insects together.

With the Vietnam War, I remember picking up Life magazine and seeing pictures that would horrify me. The pictures are what will stop the war. If we put these pictures in front of a mass audience, maybe we can stop the war, The hope is to get Americans to be incensed enough to stop the war. Americans have not learned from their past mistakes because the architects of this war are the same that were right there in . Maybe they feel they should have stayed in Vietnam. Are we doomed to repeat history over and over again?

How did you go from Black Dahlia (2006), a thriller based on James Ellroy's novel, to Redacted (2007), a docu-fiction film about American soldiers in Iraq?

I researched the incident that occurred [the rape of a 14-year-old girl by American soldiers] and it inspired me to make this film. I had previously made Casualties of War (1989) about the Vietnam War, where the story structure was also inspired by real events. This is the same film in different form. With Black Dahlia, I simply kept to the structure of the book. This is the way Ellroy wrote it, this is the way I will direct it. With Redacted, the form of this movie came out of my research on the internet. The strategy was quite simple. It had to be in sequence. I rehearsed the actors with the camera people and we made the movie in one shot. We let the actors keep on acting. The form was dictated by the material, by what I found on the internet. I was just trying to play this information to a bigger audience.

You have experimented with so many film genres in your career. How does Redacted fit in with your other work?

I am interested in all kinds of filmmaking styles and I started out making films like Redacted. I hadn't made a film like this in decades. It seems like a natural way to tell a story. I had to have unknowns. I could not afford actors. I made it look like a documentary and basically shot it very quickly, with a very fixed camera positions. I evolved the style.

How did you get this project started?

The way it happened: I was in Toronto and a representative of HD Video met me and said, "Here's five million dollars to do a film, but it has to be an HD film." The most expensive part of the budget was to fly the actors to where we shot in. My actors were right out of acting school. They were so happy to be there. They came on their own dime, some of them.

Besides your investigation on the web, did you do any direct research into the situation in Iraq?

I talked to a lot of soldiers. They all had the same questions: What are we doing here? My buddy got blown up. Sexual frustration is high. I also checked their correspondence with their families back home. The reality comes out in how they communicate in letters to their wives.

What was the challenge of making this film?

Soldiers cannot express what they have seen. They cannot communicate to people their horrific experience. I want to convey the snapshops in the soldiers' heads. Salazar has a camera in his helmut. Like the audience, he is forced to confront the scene from his point of view. For each scene, we had to decide the best position of the camera, so that it would not be hokey and would be believable. In this era of reality television, we needed to make sure the spectator would believe in it. I also wanted to convey the boredom of war. The reason I use the music from Barry Lyndon is because I wanted to emphasize the endless repetitive acts in Iraq. I wanted everything to slow down, and no film is slower than Barry Lyndon, and that is why I used the music. I also told my camera man to shoot the scenes as slowly as in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Why are your soldiers so one-dimensionally bad? You don't show their humanity.

I protest. Flake is like "what am I doing here!" The army is taking people they would normally not take, people with emotional problems. Who would want to go to Iraq now? You are getting the bottom of the barrel. Nobody tries to change. You try to show the circumstances that make these soldiers do what they do in the horrible environment. It is the same thing in Casualties of War. They are set up for an ambush. The Sean Connery character just goes south. This is what happens to Flake. The other guys are trying to hold on to some moral.

Why are the images "redacted"?

The main difficulty of making this film is the minefield of the reality. Once I put something in the script, I will get a notice from a lawyer saying you can't use that, it is real. The pictures in the montage are not redacted. This is terrible. We don't even have the dignity of the faces. I think it is a crime to make people faceless. The great irony of Redacted is that it was redacted. I couldn't use too much of the original material. I had to fictionalize it. You get a large chunk of things you cannot use.

What do you think of the wave of anti Iraq war films, like Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah playing here at Venice?

I am surprised there haven't been more movies made before. This shows the effectiveness of the Bush administration to get the war out of the imagination of the people. When my film comes out in the US, there will be some lively press conferences. You are going to get a lot of anger. People will rant about my film without having seen it. I will be called a leftwing wacko traitor. The anger Body Double got was intense too: they accused me of exploiting women. Scarface was attacked for the language, for its horrendous portrayal of gangsters. I don't expect anyone to give a helping hand.

Michael Moore and Michael Winterbottom are also very effective filmmakers. The right-wing tries to accuse them of being Communists. The good thing about Moore is that he has managed to get into the mainstream.

Have you had any personal contact with war?

My father was a body surgeon in the war. I have spent much time in hospitals. I was a protestor in the Vietnam War.