Brian DePalma’s Scream of Outrage
Brian De Palma’s Redacted is hard to watch. When I first left the movie, the one word that held fast in my mind was “hard.” The message of the movie is hard. The truth of the movie is hard. The way the movie challenges us is hard. Based on the real life incident involving US soldiers who raped, murdered and then burned a 15 year old Iraqi girl, this movie is not easy. This movie is like De Palma’s scream of outrage. By whipping us back and forth through various video medium hand-held camcorders, internet video, surveillance cameras, and documentary footage , De Palma’s movie is a scathing and damming document that underscores the absolute absurd, irrational, and senseless violence of the war in Iraq. It also reminds us how sheltered we have been from the harsh truth of the bloodshed, murder and atrocities that are occurring on a daily basis (that are occurring even now as I write this). Redacted is an indictment of the war and the media censorship that has hidden the war from the public. It shows us how the reality of the war has been excised from mass media and the public eye, and it unveils in graphic and shattering detail the consequences of the war and media censorship.
Critics have had a hard time with De Palma’s movie. It’s jarring, confusing, and disorienting. It leaves us psychologically and physically shaken up. Watching it literally makes our head spin just from the sheer velocity of the images being thrown at us. The whole movie is layered with a kind of digital noise as our eyes and senses try to adjust to violently shaking hand-held video, dark and murky infrared shots, and gritty low volume surveillance footage. It’s a movie that is physically challenging to watch. It hurts our eyes. Our ears struggle to hear. We fight to make sense of what we are seeing. We leave the movie feeling a lot like this clip makes us feel.
At first I wondered what I could possibly say about this movie that slapped me so hard and left me so shaken. How can I possibly sit here and theorize a film when there is an actual war going on and people are dying? But the more I thought about the movie, the more I realized how brilliant, innovative, and important it is.
This movie is like a cinematic act of protest in which De Palma manipulates video media, gets in our face and forces us to confront the war and ask questions. It opens with the soldier Salazar talking into his own video camera, and we immediately lose our ground. We don’t know if we’re watching real video footage or a fictional recreation of real footage. Then De Palma uses authentic documentary technique and launches into a French documentary about US military checkpoints in Iraq. Again we are not sure if we are watching a real documentary that has been incorporated into the film or a simulation of a documentary. This disorienting effect goes on and on as we are pulled back and forth between our sense of what is real and what is simulated. There are a number of web videos presented in the film, including an American site dedicated to soldiers’ wives and an Iraqi site that shows the execution of an American soldier . De Palma has gone so far as to create entire web pages that fill the movie screen. They look so real that it is hard for us to fathom that they could possibly be fiction. The confusing line between fiction and fact itself makes us think about how manipulated we are by the media and the information we are given (not given) about the war. The information we are given in mass media is “redacted,” edited, manipulated and filtered so the actual war is removed from it. Whatever “true” images we are given from the war is provided by these outside mediums blogs, personnel camcorders, cell phone photos, or appropriated surveillance footage. We do not see the graphic representation of the casualties of war that deluged the media during the Vietnam War. Speaking of which, it’s interesting that the one overt film reference in the movie (because it wouldn’t be De Palma without an over film reference) is from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) in a scene in which we watch a scorpion get killed by ants. The Wild Bunch is ostensibly a Vietnam War movie set in the Wild West. The Wild Bunch is a fictionalized account of the massive senseless killing of the Vietnam War. It follows a troop of men and the uncensored violence and bloodshed for which they are responsible just as we see in Redacted. The overt reference to film further complicates the web of media that winds its way around us in this movie.
Interestingly, the effect of using hand-held video cameras, surveillance cameras and web footage should provide a more “immediate” and “real” sense of the war. Instead, it actually conflates the “real” and the “artificial.” While the presentation of the footage seems trustworthy as video documents given the intimacy of the medium, the actual digital medium itself also distances us. The technology of the medium leaves us feeling disoriented and unclear. Everything is pixilated, fragmented, grainy, and distorted. We simultaneously feel like we are watching something as reliable as a “home movie” but also feel like we are left outside the screen given the distortion of the medium. There’s an agitated realness coupled with a kind of electronic noise that simulates stasis.
Stasis is an effect of this movie as well. There are a number of long shots in which the soldiers do nothing. We sit and watch them holding their guns absent-mindedly at the checkpoint. They stare into the sun and dust and say nothing and do nothing. We get a sense of the ludicrousness of the war, that these soldiers are in Iraq killing time while killing people. We get a sense of emptiness and boredom laced with the threat of death and random violence. The flat affect of the soldiers compounds this effect. The two “villains” in particular seem as though they are operating on some kind of low budget sitcom set. Their banter seems canned and empty, like the entire depth of their existence reaches only as deep as a video game. The digital format of the movie exaggerates this effect. In addition, the soldiers distance themselves from the reality of war through their video cameras. Salazar is filming the war to get into film school and watches everything through his camera lens. He has turned his tour into a project and therefore distances himself from the reality of his situation, until he gets his head cut off in an act of revenge. He and one of his buddies who is also filming the war negotiate a trade of film footage should one of them die in the war. Without being overt, we get the sense that these men live mediated lives, whether through video/computer games, the internet, or their own camcorders. They are one-step removed from the violence in which they participate because they are insulated by the media. In fact, De Palma’s overall point is that the media insulates and manipulates us, so that the war and its ceaseless murder, torture and crimes can continue to be committed safely out of public scrutiny.
The overall effect of this film is unsettling and horrifying. It’s no surprise that De Palma, a master of the horror genre, has created a horror film about war. The effect of the film is like watching The Blair Witch Project in Iraq. We are violently tossed through the landscape of the film like we’re riding some kind of crazy roller coaster. The rape and murder scene reminds us of the final scenes in the abandoned house in Blair Witch when we finally arrive at the site of the horror. Indeed the house in Redacted is also the site of the horror. But this is a real life horror. American soldiers did rape, murder and burn a fifteen year old Iraqi girl. How do we process this information? De Palma gives us a fictionalized account of a real event. He manipulates media to show how we are manipulated by media. He conflates fictional violence with real violence, and he forces us to try to understand a situation that is beyond comprehension. As theoretically complex and interesting as this movie is to think about in terms of media and how it has filtered the war the role of blogs, camcorders and other personal media devices compared to mass media coverage , in the end we are left outraged and mortified.
De Palma ends the movie with a series of still photos of carnage from the actual war. Shot after shot after shot fills the screen. Dead bodies, dead babies, women screaming, men’s heads blown off, and finally the actual burned corpse of the girl who was raped and murdered. In this sequence, he shows us what we don’t see. We are no longer confused by the source of the material. This is not a blog or youtube. This is the real thing. What’s remarkable is how different the actual still photographs are from the video footage, how much more real they seem. We realize the extent to which we have been sheltered from these kinds of images of the war. While documentary photos were all over Time and Life magazine during the Vietnam War, we rarely see these kinds of pictures today. De Palma forces us to witness that from which we have been censored, and it is horrifying.
That is why it was hard for me to write about this movie or wonder what I can possibly say about it. More than anything, it is De Palma screaming his outrage. And we should be outraged. All of us. But now what do we do now? Writing a review of a movie certainly seems like an impotent act of self-indulgence after seeing that girl’s corpse on the screen. The real problem with the movie isn’t the movie itself or our inability to understand what De Palma is doing. It’s our inability to understand something that ultimately cannot be understood the war, the casualties, the horror. The real problem with the movie is not understanding what we should do now that we have seen this movie. Like I said, it’s hard. Real hard.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.