[published: February 27, 2008]
Before U.S. Army soldiers go to “the theater” in Iraq, they play out the war on a stage set in California’s Mojave Desert. An excerpt from the upcoming documentary of the surreal simulation, Full Battle Rattle, followed by an interview with director/producers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss.
Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss are filmmakers from New York City. A couple years ago, they heard about a training program for U.S. Army soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq. The soldiers spent three weeks in a “virtual Iraq” — a billion-dollar urban warfare simulation populated with hundreds of Iraqi role-players, including a fake Arabic news network. Intrigued, Gerber and Moss managed to get unprecedented access to the fake Iraq in the California desert, in a sense embedding with the soldiers and the role players. The result was Full Battle Rattle — a sympathetic portrait of individual people trying to do difficult jobs, and a subtle critique of the United States’ strategy in the war — set to debut at South By Southwest in March. Along the way, the filmmakers were occasionally mistaken for role players themselves – sometimes at (fake) gunpoint – bringing the feedback loop of war making and movie making full circle. The code word to get out of the game? “Not In Play.”
LE: Why do you think the Army gave you what you admit is a startling level of access, particularly for independent filmmakers?
JM: It wasn’t easy, particularly because we are independent filmmakers, because we aren’t affiliated with a broadcast network or a mainstream newspaper. We were an unknown commodity to them. Their initial response was, ‘We don’t give access to unaffiliated filmmakers without distribution.’ So there were some initial hurdles in terms of basic access to prove to them that we were serious filmmakers.
But the bigger question is, why did they open the simulation up to us? If you look at it, the news from Iraq has been so bad for the Army that I think they were looking for what they saw was a good story. They are spending an enormous amount of money on the training, and the simulation. They had allowed some journalists to come in and write stories about it, and most had gone in for an hour, or an afternoon, and traveled around like a safari, and said, ‘Wow, gee whiz, isn’t the Army doing fantastic training.’ And that’s what I think they thought we were going to do. And when we said, ‘No, no, no, we actually want to live in the simulation’ they didn’t know what to make of us. But we had a very supportive contact in the Army who said, ‘Well, what the hell.’ In their minds, there was a story that we were going to write, or a film that we were going to make, or a three-minute news package. I don’t think they really understood that we were going to make a feature-length documentary, and it was not going to be a series of interviews, it was going to be an observational film.
TG: I think they were making an assumption that we would have created a narrator-driven, garden-variety television documentary, which ultimately would play into their objectives of seeing that this positive story from the war in Iraq was told, because I think they seem very forward-thinking from the training.
JM: There was a version of the film that the Army wanted to do, which was about training, or the training value of the simulation. And we still get people who ask us why we didn’t do more of that. And I think we felt like, to talk about the simulation in those terms was a trap. We are interested in that question and I think we explore it in the film, but we were interested in something different. It was to kind of use the play that they put on there as a mirror and a prism to refract the real war, and to see in that play hopefully something of value about the war.
LE: Have you gotten any response to the film from the Army?
TG: We haven’t yet, actually. Our soldier characters will see it for the first time at South By Southwest. They’ve been reading drips and drabs of the press from Berlin, which has been interesting.
LE: Are you still in contact with them?
TG: Very much so. We were in email contact with them while they were in their 15-month deployment, too. I think that the word documentary tends to smell of liberal persuasion, right? So I think there’s a sort of fear that we’ve done a kind of Michael Moore hatchet job on the simulation. But I think through sheer force of personality and the people who are Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber we’ve gone quite deep in a relationship with these characters, and we both feel very, very close to them. And we are quite concerned for them during the deployment, and feel that the film is observational. It’s not a hatchet job by any stretch of the imagination.
JM: Which is not to say that the film is without politics. I think we are quite comfortable with the political view that we think is embedded in the film, and what it says about the war, and the war machine, while at the same time being very sympathetic to the men and women in the movie. But people were bringing a great deal of their own views on the war to the film in Berlin and I’m sure they will in Austin as well. It colors their response to what they are seeing on the screen, and what they perceive the politics of the film to be. And we think that the great strength of the film is that it doesn’t play to the choir, so to speak, of the documentary community. I think it does speak to those people, but it hopefully speaks to a broader audience, engages them and doesn’t make them feel comfortable in their received opinions.
TG: We’ve allowed a very complex subject to remain complex. And we’ve found a graspable package to absorb that complexity, and that in many ways is the beauty of the film. Too often complexity in American film is reduced to bite-sized pieces. I think you can feel revulsion and admiration at the same time, and I think in our film you do. I don’t know of other films that are succeeding in doing that. I feel very proud of what we’ve done.
LE: I thought one of the more interesting things was that what helps you grasp that package, in some ways, is the scenario in the script that the army makes up. It’s kind of wild, the fiction within nonfiction. Did doing the film give you any insight into the relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon?
TG: We had to go through an office in Hollywood to get approved to make this film. Simply going to that office was a kind of very strange experience. I think it’s in Century City. You could be going up very easily to an office on a back lot.
JM: I think it’s on Wilshire Boulevard, which is the same street that the Sundance Institute is on.
TG: It’s quite ironic. They’ve got MREs in display cases. All this stuff that, on one hand, is the bread and butter and the sustenance and the tools by which soldiers survive. But suddenly put into a glass case in an office on Wilshire Boulevard, they become props. And that’s why that office exists. That’s the office that acts as outreach to the Michael Bays of the world. When Michael Bay needs an aircraft carrier, he goes to an office and flips through a catalog of the newest hardware, and he casts that hardware in his movie. So there is and has been for a long, long time a complicity between the military-industrial complex and Hollywood.
JM: The other thing that we had heard initially about the simulation which intrigued us is that Carl Weathers, who you may know from Rocky, had been advising the architects and had been making guest appearances there. That just struck us as completely bizarre, not that they’d be reaching out to Hollywood, but that of all people it would be Carl Weathers. We were just curious about that. It ends up being not a big part of our movie, although the special effects technician sergeant who is responsible for the prosthetic limbs and robotic mannequins does do special effects for zombie films, and has one foot in Hollywood and one in the simulation, which seemed kind of appropriate somehow.
TG: Our movie does raise questions about what is real. One thing that popped into my head was, OK, yeah, it’s a documentary, but we’ve got actors on the screen speaking lines from a script. OK? Many people would say that’s the definition of a fiction film. Another aspect of the film is it blurs this distinction, and it raises questions about what is real. Many people have asked us why we have included George Bush in the movie. Well, it’s a film about role players. And in many ways he’s the role player-in-chief. So the film is this wonderful Escher print in many ways.
LE: One of the other things I thought was really fascinating was the role the fake media played in the simulation. Were you surprised by that?
JM: This was another aspect of the simulation which initially was kind of outlandish to us, that there were not one but two entire fake news networks, the English-language CNN, which they call INN, and the Arabic language network, which at the time was called Al Jazeera, spelled differently, but they had to change the name for political reasons. It was a reminder of the degree to which they’d brought the complexity of modern battlefield to Medina Wasl. There was this kind of feedback loop where events in Medina Wasl would be reported on and filter back to the brigade, and influence the decisions that they made. And perhaps we didn’t get a chance to get as far into the role that the media has played in the real war, but it’s there as a player on the battlefield and very important in the colonel’s mission to win the hearts and minds of these people. And it brought authenticity to the play which would have otherwise gone on a cheap set. It’s a very complex three-dimentional space on which they were operating.
It was funny to sometimes be mistaken for role-playing journalists and be held at gunpoint and then have to say like a code word, like a code word you’d use in S&M or something.
TG: Not in play.
JM: ‘Not in play’ was what we’d have to say. It was like a get out of jail free card.
TG: I had the turret of a tank turn 180 degrees to get me in its sites. I was ordered to put down my camera until they realized that I wasn’t wearing Miles gear [the military equivalent of a Laser Tag harness – Ed.]
But getting back to the journalist as role player, one of the things I found so delightful was, in terms of casting, the guy who’s in our film, who’s the heavy, the news anchor. The fact that he’s such a chucklehead, and that they cast him as a kind of Dan Rather tells you so much about their respect or lack of respect for the fourth estate.
JM:The press in the simulation, the way in which it operated was a kind of fiction. We were there in August 2006. The press in Iraq could not move the way they could in the simulation. You just can’t do that. You couldn’t go into a real village and cover events on the ground without getting killed or kidnapped. So I think they work hard to make it real, but it is still something of a fiction.
LE: What did you learn about the real war from this fake one?
TG: Personally, I became much more connected to it, through investment in these soldiers who are going over there. I found it – again, I’m speaking from the experience of making this film, I’m not talking intellectually – but personally, it became much more real to me, much less of an abstraction. I learned that good intentions don’t win a war.
JM: What I saw come right away was how complex their mission was, and it was not simply a military mission, but a humanitarian mission, a social mission, and you see what the Army has been asked to do in Iraq, and how difficult that is. And I think it’s fair to ask the question if they are the right organization to be given that mission, if you think about what they are really trained for, seeing these young lieutenants sitting across from an Iraqi mayor. He may be a role-player in Medina Wasl, but it would soon be real.
TG: A great lesson for me was a lesson about America. Not just about the war. I feel like my real take-away was that there is a huge gulf of understanding in our country right now that somehow has to be bridged. We are so far apart. Jesse and I talked about the simulation as being a kind of subculture. But actually we as New Yorkers – these intelletual, filmmaking New Yorkers — are the subculture, and the real, dominant American culture is the military. This was a real immersion process for us in another culture that happens to be American culture. It was a real lesson for us in mainstream American culture and values.
TG: The real motivation for us to make this film was wanting to understand the war, and why the war was going so badly. The appeal of the simulation was the way it reduced the complexity to terms we could grasp in our film. Whether it was insurgency, a hostile news media, sectarian violence, a cultural divide that separates a predominantly Christian institution and a predominantly Muslim nation. I think that’s hopefully what we’ve been able to capture in the story of Medina Wasl, the collision of these very complicated forces, but hopefully in terms that people can understand. They were made clear to me in ways that previously they hadn’t been clear by just reading the New York Times and watching the TV news and hearing the various pontificating speeches we have had to listen to. That’s what I did find, and I hope that our audience will find some of it too, in the simpleness of the play, a greater understanding of why we’ve had the problems we’ve had in Iraq.
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