I remember enjoying and being impressed by one of Nick Broomfield’s early works, Soldier Girls (1981). His later high profile series of authored, ‘performative’ documentaries such as Biggie and Tupac (2002) tended to leave me cold. I could see that they were important in terms of introducing new documentary styles but I just found his presence irritating. I was therefore intrigued by his turn to documentary drama in Ghosts (2006) which I was glad I caught on the big screen. I wish that was where I saw Battle for Haditha.
Instead, I saw this film about the Iraq War on Channel 4. It was broadcast on the day it was released on DVD in the UK. It did in fact get a cinema release – one week in three cinemas according to the UKFC website. I assume that this was to get some reviews and to qualify for awards. This wouldn’t matter except that I was shocked to discover that the film was shot on Super 35 and the film print was ‘Scope 2.35:1. The Channel 4 broadcast was 16:9 or thereabouts (whereas Film 4 usually gets aspect ratios correct). I don’t really feel like I’ve seen a film properly if it is in the wrong ratio and coupled with the annoying ad breaks this ruined my concentration. More 4 screened a documentary co-directed by Broomfield’s son immediately after the Battle for Haditha ended. At one point they trailed the doc. in an ad break and I became confused – I thought the film had started again. If Channel 4 does get some public money after all its lobbying I suggest that Ofcom forces them to restrict ads to the gaps between programmes, not during them.
This long preamble is just to make the point that I find it difficult to judge a film that has aroused controversy – because its presentation was so flawed. The events depicted took place in 2005 and Broomfield recreated them in Jordan using non-actors with some connection to the original ‘players’ in the incident. The main American character, the marine corporal, was played by an ex-marine who had been wounded in Iraq (and who shows his battle scars in one sequence). The case of the marines who were accused of murdering civilians after a roadside bomb exploded has not yet been resolved. This has led to some attacks on Broomfield, as has the overall representation of the Americans. Yet the film does attempt to portray three sides to the argument in a dispassionate way – the marines, the ‘insurgents’ (both foreign fighters and locals) and the local families who were both innocent bystanders and victims of the conflict.
I don’t think it is Broomfield’s fault that I had least sympathy with the marines. I know soldiers have to be tough and that these young men have been brutalised by the war. In principle, I don’t hold them responsible for what Bush and Blair have unleashed. But I found it hard to engage with faceless guys in combat gear who seem to shout and swear most of the time. Most people would surely sympathise with the families, including the young couple pictured above, whose lives are shattered. Oddly though, it is the two men who plant the bomb who seem to be the characters we get to know best. At least they have a reason for what they do — and remorse when it goes wrong. The real villains of the story are the American commanders and the Al Quaeda/insurgent leaders.
The film is very well made on a tiny budget of $2 million, but in the end I’m not sure whether it ‘works’ in terms of the documentary drama style. It doesn’t, for me, have either the fluid action of Paul Greengrass, the melodrama intensity of Ken Loach or the real sense of ‘being there’ that Michael Winterbottom achieves. But if I’d seen it in a cinema I might feel differently about it.