Brian De Palma is angry, about the war in Iraq and about the fact that his Iraq movie, Redacted, has fallen victim to the very censorship it is, in part, a reaction against. When the director submitted his kaleidoscopic reimagining of the events leading up to the 2006 rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl by five U.S. soldiers in the town of Mahmoudiya to the producers at impresario Mark Cuban’s HDNet Films, it concluded with a montage of real combat photographs of Iraqi civilian casualties — photographs of the sort that have largely been absent from mainstream American reportage of the war. In the version of Redacted that screened at film festivals this summer (including Venice, where De Palma won the Silver Lion for best director) and arrives in theaters this weekend, the photographs are still there, but the subjects’ eyes have been blacked out (à la the offending genitalia in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) so as to preserve their anonymity. The film’s distributor, Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures, claims it made that decision strictly to absolve itself of any legal repercussions from the victims’ families, none of whom signed releases authorizing De Palma’s use of the pictures.
De Palma, though, isn’t so sure. In a heated (and much YouTube’d) moment from the Redacted press conference at this year’s New York Film Festival, the filmmaker suggested that the photos had made Cuban personally uncomfortable, then proceeded to engage in a spirited shouting match from the stage with Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles.
“Somewhere down the line I think somebody in the company looked at [the photos] and said, ‘Oh my God, he wants to put these in the movie?’ ” a still-feisty De Palma, outfitted in the trademark safari jacket with which he has weathered 40 years of real and ideological combat zones, told me over lunch the next day. “When those bombs go up on TV, we only see the sparkles. But they do come down, and people are hurt. If I’m going to be financing a war that I’m completely against, I’d like to see the pictures of what I’m blowing up.”
Having seen both edits of De Palma’s film, I can attest that Redacted undeniably packs a greater wallop in its uncensored version, the eyes of the dead Iraqis staring out from the screen, daring us to avert their lifeless gaze. But even in censored form, Redacted is still a far grislier report from the frontlines of Gulf War II than one is likely to encounter on the evening news (unless your cable provider happens to carry Al-Jazeera), and the Magnolia-imposed redactions only add an unintended layer to De Palma’s complex questioning of the trust we put in recorded images.
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Excepting the photographs at the end, Redacted is less documentary than docudrama — an elaborate roundelay of purportedly found images presented in a mix of traditional and new-media formats, shot in HD with a cast of largely unknown performers. The film begins as the video diary of a U.S. Army private titled Tell Me No Lies, morphs into a French documentary called Barrage about a platoon of soldiers manning a border checkpoint, later becomes a Muslim fundamentalist Web site’s streaming video of IED attacks on U.S. soldiers, and sheds its skin nearly a dozen more times (including incarnations as American and Arab TV news reports, a Web site for video messages left by soldiers’ wives, and surveillance-camera footage of soldiers’ barracks) before it’s over. Each piece of the perspective-shifting puzzle was inspired, De Palma says, by things he encountered in cyberspace while researching the movie.
“I would come across things that I’d never seen before. The soldiers’ wives’ Web site, the montage of the pictures — that was all there,” he says. “Something that’s not in the movie is Legofest — a Web site that illustrates the rape and murder of this girl in Mahmoudiya using Legos. I said to myself, ‘If I put that on the screen, people will think I’m crazy.’ But of course, I couldn’t put it on the screen, not because Legofest wouldn’t give it to me, but because everyone was worried about being sued by Lego.”
If the narrative of Redacted is rife with intentional echoes of De Palma’s masterful 1989 Vietnam drama Casualties of War, which depicted the fact-based rape and murder of a teenage Vietnamese girl eerily similar to the Mahmoudiya event, the radical form of the film hearkens back to some of De Palma’s earliest work as a director — the prankish, X-rated, Godardian features Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970), which followed a beatnik De Palma surrogate (played by the young Robert De Niro) on his seriocomic odyssey from unsuccessful draft dodger to amateur pornographer. Back then, De Palma found himself at the center of a thriving counterculture distrustful of government-issued propaganda and receptive to new forms of artistic experimentation. Whether Redacted, which arrives on the heels of a slew of acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Iraq-themed features and documentaries, can connect with a generation that De Palma says has grown up “living in the green zone,” remains to be seen.
“The movie is saying that there are consequences of our invasion and occupation that you don’t want to look at, or which are being kept away from your eyes,” he says. “Of course, anybody who really wants to find out about these things can. But you encounter a certain apathy. ‘What do you want to look at pictures of blown-up babies for? What are you, sick?’ ”