Director Nick Broomfield on 'Battle for Haditha'
Dave Calhoun talks to Nick Broomfield about a tragedy in Iraq and why his new film will highlight the plight of America‘s marines as much as Iraqi civilians
|Nick Broomfield puzzles over the direction of his new Iraq drama, on set in rural Jordan (image © Phil Fisk)|
Nick Broomfield is talking from Jordan on a weather-beaten mobile-phone line at the end of a tough day’s shooting in a remote village about an hour’s drive from the country’s capital, Amman. A few hours earlier, the British director best known for his popular documentaries such as ‘Kurt and Courtney’ and ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ was shooting a scene for a new film – a drama – in which a group of Iraqi women in the town of Haditha grieve over the deaths of their husbands and sons at the hands of US marines. This may not be a documentary, Broomfield explains, but the scene was still a grim one to capture. Most of the actors were Iraqis who now live in Jordan and have experienced such loss themselves. To keep it real, Broomfield shot the scene in a single, 40-minute take. It would have been impossible to do anything else, he reasons. How could you recreate those same emotions a second time round?
‘I knew it was going to be hard-going and I had to get amazing performances out of them,’ Broomfield continues. He gathered the male actors in one room with their relatives’ bodies lying on the floor shrouded in white sheets and gathered the women in a room next door, as is customary for Iraqi funerals. ‘There was this one woman who had herself lost a son – he was literally shot on her doorstep in front of her husband – and she offered to lead the grieving. The women danced and sung and beat their chests and tore their clothes. She started this, and within 20 minutes every single woman was in tears, beating their faces. They’d all been through these experiences.’
Broomfield’s new film is ‘Battle for Haditha’, which he has been filming in Jordan since the beginning of March. Controversial as ever, it’s a dramatisation of the events which led to 24 Iraqi civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha being shot dead by US Marines on November 19 2005. Exactly what happened in this small town 150 miles to the north-west of Baghdad is still emerging 18 months later. What’s for sure is that a roadside bomb, planted by insurgents, exploded in the town on the morning of the 19th, killing 20-year-old Lance Corp Miguel (‘TJ’) Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee in a convoy of four. An initial US military statement stated simply but outrageously that 15 Iraqi civilians also died from the blast of the bomb and that eight additional Iraqi insurgents were killed during an immediate gunfight with US soldiers. But a very different version of these events came into play when an amateur video, shot the day after the deaths, was passed to an Iraqi human-rights organisation and, in turn, Time magazine at the beginning of 2006. This film clearly showed the bodies of women and children who had been shot in their homes. When questioned, Iraqi eyewitnesses suggested that US soldiers had gone on an armed rampage in the town in revenge for their colleague’s death and that was how most of the 24 Iraqi civilians had died – at least six of them children aged between two and 14. Subsequently, the US army launched a criminal investigation last March, several officers have resigned, and four marines are now on trial facing charges of unpremeditated murder.
And so Broomfield is again reconstructing the context to a calamity, following on directly from his last film, ‘Ghosts’, for which he recreated the events leading to the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in February 2004 (and which screened on TV last month). Both that film and ‘Battle for Haditha’ were commissioned by Channel 4’s digital sister channel, More4, and again Broomfield is applying devised drama to current affairs, this time filming in Jordan as a stand-in for Iraq, which is still too volatile. Starting last June, Broomfield and producer Anna Telford made several research trips to Jordan (‘We didn’t go to Haditha itself, it was too dangerous’) and held long conversations with ‘five or six people from the town, all of whom were there on the day and knew the people who were killed’. They travelled to the US several times too, initially to meet the mother of a marine who was a close friend of ‘TJ’, the marine killed by the roadside bomb. ‘She arranged for us to meet a couple of other marines who were there on the day. They were clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress and were in a very bad way. A lot of these chaps had been through Fallujah, in a hardcore unit. It took them a long time to open up.’
What Broomfield found during these discussions was that his Iraqi sources and his informers in the marines told the same story: that the marines killed indiscriminately in Haditha as a knee-jerk reaction to their colleague’s death. ‘The story was pretty much the same, there was confusion as to the exact time order, but basically it was the same.’ From the marines’ conversations, Broomfield concluded that ‘their standard operating procedure rules are so fucking hardcore. If, for example, a house is described as “hostile”, then you just kill everyone in the house. It doesn’t matter if it contains two-year-olds or the elderly, which is what they did in Fallujah – where these guys had come from.
‘But the deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realised it was to take a side,’ Broomfield considers, admitting that ‘at first his story was much more judgmental against the marines.
‘I realised that these soldiers were very, very poor kids, who had all left school unbelievably early. It was the first time they had all been out of the United States. They didn’t speak a word of Iraqi. They had no idea what they were doing in Iraq, and they felt let down by the marine corps. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers.’
Broomfield is using a handful of professional actors, both American and Iraqi, but his cast is mostly amateur: ex-marines, or at least ex-soldiers, and Iraqi civilians he has persuaded to lend their lives to the film. That said, he doesn’t name specific names of marines who served in Haditha, despite taking a strictly journalistic approach to the film’s plotting and basing events on his research and conversations with those who intimately understand his characters’ culture, whether Iraqis or marines.
One reason for not pointing the finger at individual marines is that the trial of the four already accused of murder is ongoing. Another is that he doesn’t see Haditha as an isolated case but rather a symbol of a wider crisis.
‘I think there have been lots of Hadithas, and there are lots of Hadithas every year,’ he reasons. ‘The difference with this event is that the aftermath just happened to be filmed and now there’s an inquiry. It’s much more convenient for the US government and the marine corps to make scapegoats of these guys than actually deal with its policy and rules of engagement in Iraq. I’m sure it happens on a lesser scale every single day.’
‘Battle for Haditha’ is out in cinemas on 1 February.
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