Crime Scene in San Sebastian: How Do We Investigate the War? By Esin Küçüktepepinar

in 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

A significant number of movies about the ongoing war in Iraq or the war on terror were shown at the 55th San Sebastian Film Festival in various sections. What do these stories have in common? Simply, the message “war is bad and nobody’s safe!” cried out loud is not enough by itself. It’s the nature of crime that the more cried out loud we investigate the war, the less we find the human heart.

Four films first ask us to be the witnesses of crime. But while being very careful not to offend either party while focusing on the tragedy in the battlefield or outside of it, most of the films try to connect with our human side. Emphasizing our inner demon in a second layer of the story line, the danger in these investigations is to assume that we, decent citizens, can stop all the tragic mess against political and economical corruption. In a way it’s a nice and romantic assumption that brings east and west together in one field. This is a very dangerous field. In order to find a common language, cinema is often used as a communication tool trivializing empathy and sympathy, although this behavior can destroy the art form and distort reality. But then again, we welcome all the different perspectives while we need to stick to facts in our investigations.

It has been a short while after Mr. Richard Gere’s peaceful statements against war at the press conference when we heard about ETA’s planted bomb just a few miles away from San Sebastian, a beautiful and elegant seaside resort of the Basque country. This small news of course was another reminder of the current situation of our world’s current turbulence and how it’s about to collapse if it hasn’t collapsed already. Where the war starts or when freedom begins, both questions remain blurred.

Also it reminds us of Terror’s Advocate, the study on the old saying that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Director Barbet Schroeder’s documentary is about Jacques Verges, a French attorney who has made a career defending unpopular individuals, some of them are considered to be war criminals and terrorists. But as a young lawyer during the Algerian war, Mr. Verges was involved in the anti-colonialists’ cause. He had defended Djamila Bouhired, a young Algerian woman who symbolized her country’s hopes for freedom. He obtained her pardon after she was sentenced to death and later married her. But it’s not that simple. As Mr. Schroeder underlines his intention with the title Terror’s Advocate was to wipe outall our sympathies when Mr. Verges also decided to play a role in the Palestinian cause. In that moment, while Mr. Schroeder seems to demand us to probe the moral complexities of a man capable of defending those who commit heinous crimes, actually in very subtle way, he also draws the line between a freedom fighter and a terrorist on his own perspective. It’s a very dangerous field. Not only for Mr. Verges who went all the way defending figures such as the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, but also for the audience to think Mr. Verges’ international links within terrorism is enough to describe the connection between war and crime.

From this perspective, perhaps Nick Broomfield’s Battle of Haditha which won the Best Director Award in San Sebastian points it out in a better way. The Bush administration continues to claim its experiment in building democracy through war is on track. Since an invasion in 2003, a multinational coalition of forces, mainly American and British, has occupied Iraq, and famed British documentarist Broomfield shows his interest and concern as a responsible citizen. His humanist drama photographed with documentary like immediacy is based on the true story of the November 2005 massacre in Haditha, Iraq. A roadside bomb sets off to kill a US soldier and wounding another two. Overwhelmed by anger, the other soldiers allegedly killed some 24 Iraqis that day, including women and children.

While the director is recreating the massacre, he tries to point out the soldiers’ state of mind and their trauma. They describe Iraq as “a giant butthole on the body of the Earth”. They do not know anymore why they are there. It is not a war in uniforms (on the Iraqi side) Mr. Broomfield emphasizes. And it is not a fair battle as US soldiers locate their targets by satellite and the Iraqis fight with effective but still almost primitive weapons. But while the movie tries to see humanity in all his characters, mainly falls far from authenticity with the distinctly amateurish cast only exacerbating the film’s many problems. The script suffers from too much sympathy for the ‘not familiar side’, and the every day’s life of Iraqi civilians is too cliché. It’s like the reflection of a distorted mirror, seems real as an image but fails to reflect the realty in the dramatization. Therefore, Broomfield’s inability to create complete characters makes it virtually unbearable. Just an example of an adorable young couple kissing around does not definitely work with the film concept — as Hollywood filmmakers often try to find a solution to create the human touch. This leaves Mr. Broomfield as a good will ambassador with a welfare westerner’s view of the war.

He is not alone in searching for empathy and sympathy in the Middle East. Awarded with the Special Jury Prize in San Sebastian, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (Buda as sharm foru rikht) is a micro-budgeted tale of a child drawn into intolerance, directed by 19-year-old Iranian Hana Makhmalbaf. The film tells about a young girl, Baktay (Nikbakht Noruz), who wants go to school. Of course that is not easy at all. This is a very simple but effective story depicting Baktay’s first attempt to barter some eggs for pen and paper she’ll need for class. Young Makhmalbaf leads the little girl successfully on her way, as she’s menaced by a callow cabal of boys playing ‘Taliban’ and then American soldiers. The movie’s best achievement is to display how Baktay and the boys are traumatized in different ways. Also very clear is the intention to create sympathy with this adorable poor little girl. But Iranian cinema seems too sweet to swallow, and one only wishes the director had settled for a shorter movie instead of a long one frustrating by the repetition of the scenes. Very touchy and clever on the surface, but again, loads of emotion needs a different amount of economy. The film is targeting directly to the heart of the westerner audience along with a simple culture study, but also a heavy humiliation for limiting their big heart and understanding. If it’s so, why still ask for further apprehension?

So what happens on the western front? They have enough problems on their side as they caused the trauma, and they are also traumatized. After four years of war in Iraq, Hollywood comes to the conclusion that the war over there is not the answer — if it ever was. Inspired from a true story In the Valley of Elay by Paul Haggis takes place in America, not overseas where the combat is actually happening, it focuses on the families left behind. Bringing the war home is a risky business, one of America’s most polarizing issues. The star-powered movie (otherwise it would have been difficult to find audiences) fails as a CSI procedure. Either one of its leading characters’ grief is not impressive enough to keep us focused until the end. But at the same time, Mr. Haggis surprisingly displays the trauma of not only the families left behind but also of the American soldiers in Iraq. They were existentially cut out of conscience and therefore become able to kill their soldier friend in cold blood and hack him to pieces with dozens of stab wounds. We understand that American directors have to play safely in order reach a wider audience. Though showing the torn American flag at the end of the movie, actually and eventually the film is not anti military. As the retired army officer (Tommy Lee Jones) questions his dedication for his army in the investigation procedure of his son we can feel his limbo. But in a way the film also glorifies his daily habits or obsessions from his past army days as if there were any glory in being a soldier, and somehow yearns about the decent good old days. It has to frame its intention saying that this dedicated man does not deserve what he’s been through. It is clear that director Paul Haggis is trying to be very careful to not offend his audience while focusing on the tragedy and cursing this needlessly bloody war although still keeping his respect for military.

Overall, thankfully, all the movies display the damages the war of crimes caused. While again welcoming all the different perspectives, we need to stick to facts in our investigations in the movies and try to find a common language to communicate not only counting on showing affection. Otherwise we all keep looking through the distorted reflection of a distorted mirror.