Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 10/20/04 22:07:16

"Whether the war is right or wrong, just be glad if you're not living in it"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL: Although there has been a deluge of documentaries about the current war in Iraq making the rounds in the past couple of years, perhaps the reason I found BATTLEGROUND so engaging is that I have seen next to none of them. Or it could be the fact that it is, in fact, an honest to God documentary, refreshingly free of the kind of agendas that usually give slant to so many of the borderline propagandist films gaining notoriety in our current political climate. Either way, BATTLEGROUND is, to quote the Mill Valley Film Festival programming director’s introductory comments, “Fucking fantastic”.

Produced by “GNN” (the Guerrilla News Network), a primarily web-based “underground” news outlet, BATTLEGROUND is the journey of a documentary film crew through war-torn Iraq. Through their lens, we get to see many sides of this highly controversial conflict. The Asian-American reporter whose hotel was (accidentally?) bombed during the air war on Baghdad, and who hesitantly looks on the occupation as a mixed blessing. The American division commander who must juggle keeping peaceful relations with the civilian populace against rooting out that populace’s hidden insurgents who are dropping mortar rounds on his men every night. The angry Iraqi woman who serves as an English interpreter and looks upon the American presence as an invasion for her country’s resources. The farmer whose orchards were destroyed by American bulldozers, after they mowed the area down because it was providing cover for insurgent mortar teams. The Iraqi activist who is trying to spread knowledge about the fact that Depleted Uranium, or DU, from expended American anti-armor rounds is now contaminating the Iraqi soil and spurring a rise in cancer and birth defects – both for the local populace and the servicemen who are returning home. The former anti-Saddam rebel who was rescued by American troops in the previous gulf war, and returns after more than a decade to be reunited with his family. And dozens of Iraqi civilians and U.S. Servicemen who voice decidedly mixed opinions about whether the U.S. should be in Iraq.

All of these individuals, and their stories, are incredibly engaging, and BATTLEGROUND consistently delivers an unvarnished view of what things are really like in Iraq. It’s a strange air of resentment mixed with hopefulness, and while some believe that our intervention there can only bring about the downfall of their civilization, others hope for the best and foresee an era of prosperity that was not possible under Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted regime. What BATTLEGROUND does so effectively is bring the day to day reality of a war in a foreign country home to it’s target audience, giving one a stark sense of just what the day in and day out existence is like there.

Perhaps the most compelling element of BATTLEGROUND is the story of Farhan, the former rebel who is returning to his homeland after being away for over ten years and not being able to contact his family to even let them know he is alive. It’s ironic that the film’s most emotional story is the result of an accidental meeting of the film crew and Farhan on the long flight over to Iraq, and their subsequent idea to follow Farhan as he is reunited with his family, and have him serve as their interpreter and guide. The reunion of Farhan with his various family members is incredibly moving, and we see through his relatives that many Iraqis remain hopeful of preserving their sovereignty and culture, even in their current war-torn and abjectly poor conditions. In addition, the film gives small but fascinating insights into the Iraqi culture, especially when compared against our western ideals. In one scene, Farhan walks hand in hand down the street with his uncle (a common practice in Iraq between close friends or relatives), and points out “If we were doing this in Europe or the States, everyone would thing we were a couple of gay guys.” His uncle, amusingly, responds with surprise and disbelief.

Equally interesting are the various views on the war presented by American soldiers. One young serviceman merely looks at it as a war to “test the ability of our troops – something we seem to do about every 20 years or so by getting into a war”. Another soldier, a tank commander, expounds on the necessity of U.S. intervention in order to bring long-term stability and peace to the region. Meanwhile, their division commander comments on the surreal nature of the war, saying “Every day I wake up and go to work and feel like I’m in a movie – but I’m not”.

BATTLEGROUND won’t necessary polarize your political views, but it will sure as hell give you a much clearer idea of what both the Iraqi citizens and our own servicemen are up against over there. With neither our current President nor his opponent seeming to have any solid, clear-cut plans for how to get us out of Iraq anytime in the foreseeable future, that country is likely to remain a Battleground for quite some time. By all means, vote your conscious in the coming weeks – but just be grateful if you or any of your loved ones aren’t on the front lines.

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