Truth a casulty of war?

Brian De Palma questions the reporting of the Iraq conflict and talks about the inspiration to make Redacted.

by Amber Wilkinson

Brian De Palma on the set of Redacted

Brian De Palma on the set of Redacted

To redact, means, “To make ready for publication; edit or revise” and Brian De Palma’s Redacted is a response the media’s editing of Iraq footage before it is presented for general consumption. Courting controversy in his homeland, the film – which is out on DVD now – concerns the fictionalised account of the rape and murder of an Iraqi teen by American soldiers and raising uncomfortable questions about the ‘truth’ of war. He spoke about his motivations behind the film at a Q&A with Village Voice film critic and selector for the New York Film Festival J Hoberman, last year.

The conference was most notable for a verbal sparring match between De Palma and Magnolia Pictures representative Eammon Bowles – you’ll see it around halfway through the transcript below – in which De Palma berated the company for having, in fact, redacted his film, by editing some real-life images that were originally to be used before the end credits. This was not a light-hearted incident but rather one in which more than 150 assembled members of the press, myself included, became witnesses to a real heat of anger from De Palma – whatever you think of the film, there is no denying he is passionate – and highly protective - of the project. The highlights below have themselves, naturally, been redacted (but only for length). It’s worth noting that the ‘black bars’ he talk about remain on the images on the DVD release.

JH: A powerful and polarising film and one that is disturbing even in the context of what have become almost daily atrocities and reports that you read in the papers concerning what is happening in Iraq. I thought I would start by asking whether the impulse behind the film was a matter of expressing your personal outrage at the situation or whether it was to raise public awareness?

BDP: It was kind of a unique sequence of events. Obviously, I was observing what was going on with the selling of this war for quite a while. Being a film director, you’re very - how shall I say it? - sensitive to the way that propaganda is presented. Having watched the Bush propaganda about the war for around about five or six years, going, ‘Wow, what a sell job this is’. I was in Toronto last year and someone from HDNet came over to me and said, “Would you be interested in making one of our movies?” They give you $5million and you can do it about anything you want, the stuff just has to be shot in high def. I thought, that’s an interesting idea, if I can figure out exactly what to express in high def. Certain images came to mind. I don’t know if you ever saw Baghdad ER on HBO, but that left quite an impression on me. Because it was shot in high definition it had a direct hold on the audience – it wouldn’t have been as effective on film.

And then, of course, I read about an incident which was almost a carbon copy of what happened in Vietnam that was the basis of Casualties Of War. I said, ‘This is happening again.’ I’ve always felt that Casualties Of War was the best metaphor for that war and, again, it would work for Iraq. Then I tried to figure out how to tell this story. In the process of researching it I found all these unique ways of expressing what was going on over in Iraq on the internet. News stories on blogs, postings on YouTube or montages of casualties. I said, well this is the way to tell the story and that’s what I did.

JH: Could you say something more specifically about the research that you did?

A scene from Redacted
De Palma is at pains to point out it is the situation the soldiers find themselves in that leads to many of the problems in Iraq
BDP: I wanted to use real news stories, I wanted to copy or use as much real material [as I could]. I wanted to mix the material on the web with my fictionalised material. But the problem was that these soldiers were all being prosecuted. I realised that suddenly anything I wanted to use that was real had to be fictionalised because it was too close to the real case.

JH: Speaking of the difficulties, perhaps you could explain to us how it is that Redacted is itself in danger of being redacted?

BDP: Well, Redacted is, in fact, redacted. The montage of photographs at the end – I had nothing to do with that. The film was submitted to all the film festivals unredacted, but because Mark Cuban, the man who financed the movie, was disturbed by the photographs.

It is at this point that the Q&A goes somewhat ‘off-road’ when a voice (later to be identified as Magnolia Pictures' Eammon Bowles), pipes up from the back of the hall, imagine the entirety of this following segment taking place across a room full of slightly bemused looking hacks, and try to picture the conversation volume climbing with every exchange, in the manner of a college student attempting to argue about something with his dad.

Eammon Bowles: That’s not true.

BDP: Excuse me?

EB: That’s not true.

BDP: Who is that?

EB: Eammon Bowles from Magnolia Pictures.

BDP: I’m sorry, Eammon, I have direct testimony to that. In any event, I’m protesting it and I’m trying to get the pictures unredacted.

EB: It’s a legal issue, but that’s okay.

BDP: Yeah, it’s a legal issue that we’re going to resolve. In any event, I felt that my cut was violated and I’m seeking to have those pictures unredacted.

JH [now addressing Bowles]: Are you saying there’s not a problem with the photographs?

EB: The problem is none of the people in the pictures had legally signed off…

BDP: How do you get releases for war photographs, Eammon?

EB: The problem is, we’re in an untenable legal situation. If anybody, someone’s parents… I really like the film, I appreciate it greatly, however, it is a legal issue. You cannot have people…

BDP [Rising to something of a crescendo that no longer requires a microphone]: A specious legal issue.

EB: It’s not specious. There is no legal recourse if someone put a case in. No legal recourse whatsoever. Brian, the photos are extremely disturbing as, in fact, I think thematically it even works better. On a thematic basis, I even like that.

BDP: That’s not your judgment to make.

EB: Who else would have made this film? What company?

BDP: I made the film.

EB: Okay, but what company would have made this film?

BDP: A lot of companies would have made this film.

EB: That’s not possible. I think we’re absolutely right to let the film go as it is with the only incident being the legal ramifications of this.

JH [taking on the ‘mum’ mediation role]: Okay, I think that we get the position of the distributor. Let’s see if there are any questions.

Amazingly – well done, JH - we’re now back in the groove and the conference continues – with questions from the audience.

Q: Young people today seem much more inured to violence on screen for a number of reasons [than they were at the time of Vietnam], that being the case, who is the movie speaking to?

scene from Redacted
A scene from the film
BDP: It’s more experimental than that. I, basically, had these methods of expressing what the soldiers felt and the pictures that existed – this is all stuff I discovered. So, if you go on the internet and search on various things that are in my movie, you will find carbon copies of what I did. And I’m interested in the way that the new media is finding ways to tell stories in these kind of fragmented ways. It is very interesting to me. I don’t know where it’s going and in a year or two years it could be more different than what I’ve been showing. Watching my daughter surf on her computer and look at these things in little pieces. It’s not like you sit down for five-act playable reels any more. We’re seeing these playable pieces of things. I don’t know where it’s going, I just found this amazing. There were the whole murders illustrated in Lego on one site called Legofest. I said, if I put this in a movie, no one will believe it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put it in the movie because of copyrights having to do with Lego.

Q: Just to clarify, the photos that were redacted at the end – or may be redacted were found...?

BDP: Absolutely, all those photographs were researched on the internet.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the casting. How much input, if any, did the actors have into the roles?

BDP: The casting was the most lengthy process in making the movie. I originally wanted to give them the structure of the scenes and watch them improvise their way through it. But I found that I had to find them material to audition with, so I wound up writing material for the scenes I was going to audition. In the process of auditioning, they would, of course, improvise off the scenes and they would get very much into their characters so the scenes would go many different ways. It was kind of exciting [it’s at this point that the second interruption of the afternoon comes… it’s De Palma’s mobile, playing – somewhat incongruously, given the subject under discussion – a jaunty bit from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (it’s Spring, the bit they use for The Horse Of The Year Show, in case you’re interested)] .

The shooting was really quite quick. The section I shot, I shot in 14 days and Eric Schwab shot the barrage sections… in four days.

I knew what the structure of the story was. The question was how could I put that in to some kind of reality television world.

Q: You have a lot of political controversy coming down on you with this film. In the past you’ve had sexual controversy [some of his films have been attacked for being anti-women]. Which kind is harder to deal with?

BDP: Being a misogynist or a traitor? Articles have been written about me – the man they love to argue about. I don’t know. I just sort of see it as it is. I’ve hardly ever been in step with much. But, to me, especially this war, has been so misrepresented in the major media, and it was consciously done by the Bush administration. I keep on saying all the time, where are the pictures? Where are the pictures? If we’re dropping bombs and occupying countries and killing innocent people – and I’m paying for it – then, can you please let me see the pictures? The pictures that I saw in Vietnam, got me out into the streets. You know, when this administration is over, all the things they did are all going to come out. Basically, we just want to end this war, by showing what the reality of this war is – to stop sugar-coating it.

JH: One of the things that is most disturbing to people in the movie is the soldiers themselves and their attitude and how callous they appear. We know that this event happened – so it’s not imagined. But I was curious, whether you thought this was characteristic of our soldiers there and where the responsibility lies?

BDP: The problem is that the language and the way the soldiers are truly reacting in their blogs and in the videos that they make and in the documentaries you see that are made from those videos. When you see those guys on television, they’re nothing but giving talking points from whatever they’re supposed to say, in order that the one specific image of how the war is going is supposed to be projected. It’s perfectly understandable. Also, the characters are very much like the characters in Casualties Of War. They were in a similar situation. You’re on a mission that, basically, makes no sense. It’s the Bruce Springsteen song, now – The Mistake.

You’re in a country you don’t understand. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. It’s like one of the characters says, it’s those kids out there, you don’t know if one of them is planting a bomb you’re going to step on. You can’t trust anybody. There’s a tremendous amount of paranoia. Of course, the difference in this war is that its unlike Vietnam, where you got to go home after a certain amount of time. Here you keep on getting redeployed and redeployed. The living conditions are horrendous. The heat – the thing is, in Vietnam there were the beaches, tropics, something. This is just a gritty environment to live in. You don’t understand the language, you don’t understand the people. The only logic you have is your buddies. You’ve got to look out for your buddies… then your buddy gets blow up. Then you’ve got this anger. You don’t know who’s an insurgent and who isn’t. And all this frustration and anger erupts.

We tried to make something extremely clear in this movie – this would never have happened if there wasn’t a wild card. These soldiers don’t do something unless there’s somebody that strikes the match. The one guy who’s just a little crazier than everybody else and drives them to do this horrendous act. We tried to be as even-handed as possible.

scene from Redacted
De Palma says he feels very much like hte McCoy charcter, left, played by Rob Devaney
But the big question is: Why are we there? Then there is the McCoy character, which is very much how I feel – I can’t stop this, I can’t stop George Bush. He keeps on putting more soldiers over there and spending more millions of dollars and we know that it’s still going on. Then there is the thing that all soldiers say – which is why the montage is so important – is they come back with these horrible images in their brain, “I can’t communicate them to you. I’ve seen things and done things. I don’t know who to talk to except my buddies. They’re the only people who understand.” And we’re going to be living with those soldiers for decades and decades.

Q: How do you make films for an audience desensitised to violence [there is an inference that it is the films of the Sixties and Seventies that are partly to blame for this]?

BDP: I don’t necessarily agree with that. The films we were making in the Sixties and Seventies, just in terms of the ratings board, we could never get these films past the ratings board now. I think the whole clamping down of censorship has been going on for quite a few decades. In terms of what you see on television in relation to what’s going on in Iraq has been completely sanitised. I think that when people react so strongly to this film, you feel it’s horrible because you didn’t see all the pictures we saw in Vietnam on television and the magazines. We were not as desensitised [then].

Q: Who are you supporting for president?

BD: I don’t think I’m going to let the right-wing bloggers have that. I’m still viewing the field, we have many months to make a decision.

You may think that that would be the end of the story, but the press conference went on to surprise one last time as producer Ryan Kilot took the stage to go back to that redaction issue.

RK: I’ve worked with Brian a long, long time. What has to be understood here is that Brian absolutely tried to indemnify Magnolia, Mark and Todd [Wagner], so did the other producers of the film. We were willing to put ourselves in line to try to get the unredacted pictures out there. But that was not legally acceptable. Ultimately, it’s their decision whether or not they want to take that risk.

What I think is really horrible here - there’s coming in the press a Cuban versus De Palma silly debate – but since 9/11 errors and omissions insurance has become incredibly difficult to get for American films and the fair use laws in America are completely unfair. They’re set up so we cannot use images of our own culture to tell the truth about our own culture and that is a restriction that occurs to documentaries as well as feature films and this is a much larger issue. Yes, Mark and Todd could take the risk. They think it’s a much larger issue than Brian thinks. They could take the risk to get these pictures out unredacted but they don’t have to. They’re worried, not just about financial concerns, but people associating them with unredacted images and people saying they’re showing massacres on screen.

Brian has been working incredibly hard to make a film that was as real as this. And he had to go through huge loopholes when writing this script because of the state of what ‘fair use’ is in this country and because of the legal loopholes we have to run through any time we make a film.

JH: It’s apparent that there are problems with fair use in this country, but they only way that will change is if that goes to court and I think that probably should be sooner rather than later.

Q: If it’s no longer possible to release the film unredacted, what will you do?

BDP: It’s a dilemma. The reason the film is being seen now with black bars [across the faces], is there was nothing I could do in the time to prevent it. But that’s not to say I’m not going to keep trying. Unredacted photographs, that’s my alternative.

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