Nick Broomfield’s last film was a reconstruction that employed his skills as a maker of documentaries to forge a topical drama: ‘Ghosts’ examined the deprived, controlled lives of the Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
His latest, ‘Battle for Haditha’ is also a drama, and makes a similar attempt to discover the everyday reality behind a screaming, distorting headline. We’ve had several films in recent months that are either about or inspired by the ongoing war in Iraq, but, for my money, Broomfield’s is so far the most successful, partly because its aims are so clear – to depict all of its players with empathy and balance while at the same time constructing a straightforward drama that offers the power and opinion of a polemic with none of its distortion. Broomfield screams the simple truth loudly, and it works.
Haditha is the town in Iraq where one marine and 24 Iraqi civilians died after a roadside bomb, planted by insurgents, exploded on November 19 2005. Broomfield enters the fray the night before, offering a chronological, countdown approach to events, shot largely in the style of a handheld documentary: Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz) and his fellow marines are preparing to go out on patrol, while over in town two Iraqi civilians are collecting an improvised bomb from a local Al-Qaeda cell.
At the same time, a group of neighbours in the town are preparing a party for a young boy’s circumcision. The theatre is set for a catastrophe that directly contradicts the US marines’ official line after the explosion of the bomb: that eight Iraqi civilians died in the initial blast and 15 more perished in an ensuing gunfight.
In Broomfield’s Iraq, everyone is a victim and everyone is suffering the perversion of war, even if some of his characters make some terrible, unforgivable decisions in the heat of battle. That said, Broomfield also points the finger squarely at those on the edge of his drama: the marines’ supervisors, who are seen to give unconsidered orders with awful consequences, and, more vaguely, those high-up in the American government. The local sheiks who are seen to be recruiting young insurgents perhaps get off more lightly as their actions are so directly linked to personal tragedy, but there is also the suggestion that they are exploiting such traumas for their own ends.
Broomfield’s use of non-actors largely pays dividends, even if some of the Iraqis appear stilted and their dialogue struggles to avoid being too explanatory: we hear that the older of the two insurgents who plant the bomb was in the Iraqi army, not for Saddam but for his country and left with just $50 compensation (compared with the $1000 they receive for their one act of terrorism). It’s essential information but it sits awkwardly in the drama.
On the American side, the camaraderie and suffering of the soldiers must surely emerge from the real experiences of the cast. Again, a little of the amateur creeps into their acting but this is outweighed by the credibility of their behaviour. Hard rock plays out in their Humvees, they jokingly rib each other, and there’s a horrible irony to the face pulled by one soldier just as the bomb explodes. It’s one of many moments where the everyday meets the extraordinary in this crucial, moving film.