new battle

The New Face of War Documentaries

The past few years have brought a cavalcade of documentaries about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For better and for worse, most of these films have been political in nature, from the scattershot indignation of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The War on Iraq to the prosecutorial condemnation of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight and Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. Occasionally, there would be a film that depicted the soldiers’ perspective on the war without delving into politics. (Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes, and Ian Olds and Garrett Scott’s Occupation: Dreamland come to mind.) But most of the time, war documentaries focused as much on the filmmakers’ own opinions of the war as on the realities they were depicting. (That’s not necessarily meant to be a criticism, by the way: Films like Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure and the aforementioned Taxi to the Dark Side are dark, angry, and indispensable films.)

Watching the two excellent war documentaries featured in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this week, however, we couldn’t help but notice that the genre seems to be undergoing a real change. There are two films in the lineup about the Afghanistan War — Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, and Carol Dysinger’s Camp Victory, Afghanistan — and they both bypass editorializing about the war to instead give us a ground-level view of the conflict. The perspective, in other words, of those who have to do the fighting.

For the breathtaking Restrepo, Junger and Hetherington basically dug in alongside a platoon of U.S. soldiers in a remote fifteen-man outpost in Afghanistan’s treacherous Korengal Valley, where nearly one-fifth of all the combat in that country was taking place. We see a ton of actual fighting, we see the dead, we see interactions with the locals — sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly, always intense — but the film never leaves the soldiers’ point of view.

The heartbreaking Camp Victory is similarly non-judgmental in its vérité portrait of the attempts to build the Afghan Army. Dysinger shot nearly 300 hours of footage between 2005 to 2008, much of it focused on the Afghan Brigadier General Fazel Ahmad Sayar, an Afghan veteran who has been fighting since the age of 13, and the U.S. National Guard Officers enlisted with helping him turn ragtag groups of uncertain, impoverished men into a trained, standing army. Again, politics and meditations about the reasons for war are kept out of the picture. As Junger and Hetherington say in their directors’ statement: “Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality.”

These aren’t the only two recent documentaries that exemplify this approach. Last year the IFC Center screened Kristian Fraga’s Severe Clear, a hypnotic film culled from footage shot by First Lieutenant Mike Scotti during his service before and during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And it’s not just happening in the U.S., either: Just last week, Danish audiences flocked to Armadillo, a documentary following a group of Danish soldiers stationed in a forward operating base in Helmand Province, Afganistan. In the case of Armadillo, however, a political firestorm did erupt, over the film’s suggestion that the soldiers may have killed wounded Afghans — but even then, it appears that the left and the right are interpreting the footage differently, suggesting that the film has succeeded in its impartial presentation of facts. Regardless of your politics, this new flock of documentaries is a lot more bracing than endless footage of retired generals and professional commentators talking about what a jerk Donald Rumsfeld is. After so much opinion and analysis, one yearns for some kind of reality.

That reality could, of course, be a fictional one, too. In a way, one could compare these films to The Hurt Locker, whose grunt’s-eye view of the Iraq War succeeded critically while other fiction films’ why-are-we-there navel-gazing couldn’t. There are probably many reasons for this. Both filmmakers and audiences may be coming to the realization that it’ll take some time before anyone makes full sense of these conflicts. (No End in Sight, for example, attempted to present “the inside story” of the Iraq War … in 2007. The movie’s over, but the war’s still going on.) And the end of the Bush Administration probably quelled some filmmakers’ tempers, at least momentarily. Plus, it’s obviously of some significance that many of these new films focus on the Afghan conflict, a war whose run-up was generally less politically charged than that of the Iraq War.

It remains to be seen if this trend continues, however. There’s still some seriously indignant and politically charged moviemaking to come: Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story premiered at Sundance earlier this year, with its devastating, infuriating depiction of the way Pat Tillman’s death was covered up and exploited by the military hierarchy and American politicians; it’s due to be released in August by the Weinstein Company. So if outrage is what you want, the well hasn’t run dry yet.

The New Face of War Documentaries