The War on Film: Reanimating the Post-9/11 Viewer in the Prisoner, Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

Article excerpt

"We have done nothing. ... Yes, you see that in the camera."

--Yunis Khatayer Abbas

The war in Iraq, officially launched in March 2003, has become the most filmed war in cinema's 114-year history. In its first six years, there have been news photos and footage, videorecordings of hostages and their executions, civilian-shot images, Army photos and images of air-strikes and other attacks, leaked photos and video-camera recordings of prisoner humiliation and abuse in Abu Ghraib, documentary films, and feature films. (1)

The audience for those films about the war, at least those shown at theatres or released on DVD, has been remarkably small. Even this paper's focus, the documentary The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair (2006-07) (2), although it followed the directors' critically-acclaimed Gunner Palace (2005), saw limited release in the United States and in Canada, only coming out on DVD in many cities; the directors' third Iraq war documentary, Bulletproof Salesman (2008), has not yet even been picked up for distribution in North America. Not only did polls find that, two years after the horrific photos were released, in "the summer of 2006 ... a majority of respondents hadn't heard of Abu Ghraib," but in cineplexes or rental stores, "given opportunities to see more of the war ... American audiences appear markedly averse". (3) Critics have focussed on an American, even North American (Canadian soldiers have been in Afghanistan since 2002), audience that hasn't been willing to watch the war through a film lens. But what if that is because they have been so used to watching war through a camera all along?

SETTING THE STAGE:

FROM FALLING TOWERS TO HUMAN PYRAMIDS

Jeff Birnbaum, a company president and a former fire chief and emergency medical technician, remembers what he saw on September 11, 2001 because of what "he says seems almost like a 'videotape in my head'": (4)

  The sight was amazing. I was just totally awestruck. ... I have seen
  plenty of death in my life, and burned bodies and so forth, but this
  was incredible. ... [Near the South Tower,] I stood there for a
  second in total awe, and then said, 'What the F[uck]?' I honestly
  thought it was Hollywood.

Birnbaum later cried at images of death on TV, was plagued by nightmares, and talked to a priest at a counseling center. But his initial reaction was a kind of "whoa! cool!" sense of awe, and he felt what he saw did not just resemble a movie, but was a movie. Then there is the memory of Lakshman Achuthan, who escaped from Tower 1, as reported in The New York Times the next day: "I looked over my shoulder and saw the United Airlines plane coming. It came over the Statute [sic] of Liberty. It was just like a movie." (5) The collapse of the towers and killing of thousands may have been "unthinkable," as the article's headline puts it, even unimaginable, but it was not, apparently, uncinematic. Cinema replaces the imagination here, the mind's eye and memory become cameras, and New York City is the screen onto which a disaster- or war-film is projected. Movies provided the precedent, especially three years earlier, when Armageddon (1998; dir. Michael Bay) showed meteors striking the World Trade Center. And most people saw the planes strike the towers on TV, over and over, in slow-motion replays, on all kinds of networks (I first caught the horrible news on MuchMusic). Bill Schaffer notes, "Viewers around the world found themselves cast in the role of real-time witnesses" with one Australian TV network miniaturizing the "moment of impact" "as a small animated icon permanently displayed in the corner of the screen, automatically resetting itself at the end of each momentary cycle" (6); did this repetition benumb viewers, creating a kind of atrocity boredom?

Five years later, then, the stage seemed largely set for a wide non-response to the Abu Ghraib photographs. …