The Killing of Innocents Faces a Dry-Eyed Dissection
In “Battle for Haditha,” the British filmmaker Nick Broomfield revisits a wretched chapter of the war in Iraq. On Nov. 19, 2005, marines stationed in Haditha, a Euphrates River valley city northwest of Baghdad, killed 24 Iraqi civilians, including at least 10 women and children, from toddler age up, who were in their homes. The reasons for the killings remain in dispute, though not this evidence: no weapons were found in the houses, most victims died from close-range gunfire and at least five were shot in the head. After various investigations, murder charges against four marines were dropped; one still faces reduced charges.
Although Mr. Broomfield has made his name with spiky, pugnaciously personal documentaries like “Biggie and Tupac” and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” this new film is a dramatization, complete with actors and a semblance of a screenplay. Shot in Jordan with mostly nonprofessional performers, including several former marines who fought in Iraq (including in Falluja) and many more Iraqi war refugees, the film is located at the familiar intersection of nonfiction and fiction, where raw documentary grit receives an imaginary glaze. The Middle East dust in this film looks chokingly authentic because, much like the prostrated Iraqi women keening over their dead and much like the battle scar that runs along one marine’s upper leg like a zipper, it is.
Elliot Ruiz plays a Marine corporal in “Battle for Haditha.”
That scar belongs to Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz, a former Marine corporal turned actor), a brutalized young squad leader who’s trying to protect his men and his own increasingly besieged mind. (Corporal Ramirez has been based on Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the enlisted marine who was the squad leader during the Haditha massacre, though it’s unclear how much the character owes to the real man.) The movie, which was shot in good-looking if not the glossiest digital video (the trace of digital artifacts adds to the documentary vibe), opens with a succession of young men addressing the camera with varying degrees of cynicism and confusion, voicing the same question that is repeatedly intoned back home: Why are we here?
Mr. Broomfield doesn’t presume to know the answer to that question. Somewhat surprisingly, given how subjective his documentaries skew, “Battle for Haditha” isn’t a jeremiad against the war, the American administration or even the quick-triggered marines. Rather, with dry-eyed intelligence, he takes the killings at Haditha and returns the incident to the historical moment from which it has been removed by politics and propaganda. He points fingers, suggests reasons and explores rationales, showing sympathy for the war-ravaged marines without letting them off the hook. He introduces the insurgents who planted the bomb that killed a marine, apparently precipitating the massacre by the dead man’s squad. And then with sickening realism, he shows how those innocent Iraqis, caught between the insurgents and the marines, died.
Even as he creates an almost unbearable level of tension in his film — mostly through deft parallel editing that draws the marines, the victims and the insurgents inexorably together — Mr. Broomfield maintains a level of cool detachment throughout. That’s to the good of the movie, which, though technically exemplary, falters dramatically on occasion, becoming dangerously close to overheated whenever the characters speak for any length. The performers apparently did a fair amount of improvisation, and too often their talk veers into exposition, which, however heartfelt and true, paradoxically sounds (badly) scripted. At times there is a kind of therapeutic quality to the entire enterprise, almost as if the marines, the Iraqis and Mr. Broomfield were collectively trying to work through a nightmare from which none have awakened.
BATTLE FOR HADITHA
Directed by Nick Broomfield; written (in English and Arabic, with English subtitles) by Mr. Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford; director of photography, Mark Wolf; edited by Stuart Gazzard and Ash Jenkins; produced by Mr. Broomfield and Ms. Telford. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is not rated.http://www.nickbroomfield.com/haditha.html