Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Narration and Visualization of Rape and the Inadvertent Subversion of the Anti-War Message in Brian De Palma's Redacted and Casualties of War

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Narration and Visualization of Rape and the Inadvertent Subversion of the Anti-War Message in Brian De Palma's Redacted and Casualties of War

Article excerpt

Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007) takes as its subject matter the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by US soldiers in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, in 2006. This is not De Palma's first attempt at a cinematic dramatization of an actual event; Redacted is a variation on Casualties of War (1989), based on the real-life incident portrayed in Daniel Lang's "Reporter at Large: Casualties of War" published in The New Yorker in 1969. Casualties of War and Redacted are emblems of anti-war cinema, yet their importance lies elsewhere. They are evidence of how ineffective is the appropriation of rape in a medium that by its very nature fictionalizes history for the indivisible purposes of politics and entertainment. They are also evidence of how cultural representations of wartime rape (in documentaries, histories, literature and film) belittle the trauma of female victims by shifting the meaning of rape from a criminal sexual assault to a metaphor of the violence and dehumanization instigated by war. This is, in truth, nothing else but a rationalization of rapes committed by soldiers in the allegedly exceptional circumstances of military conflict.

Casualties of War is the more conventional of the two films and it is precisely the orthodoxy of its Aristotelian pattern comprising an overt beginning (introduction of the characters and the launching of the action), development (the kidnapping, rape and murder of the Vietnamese girl), and end (Eriksson's quest for justice) that is morally unsettling. How can human suffering be subordinated to a simple narrative pattern? How can one allow the irrevocability of a girl's death to be subsumed by a conclusion that offers an ethical and emotional catharsis? The paradox of the film is that, on the one hand, its structure is too contrived to be convincing as fact, but, on the other hand, there is too much adherence to factual details to persuade the viewers to see the behavior of these soldiers as typical of the overall conduct of American GIs in Vietnam. Furthermore, the choice of recognizable faces for the leading roles (Sean Penn as Sergeant Meserve and Michael J. Fox as Private Eriksson) creates an unintended theatrical effect, i.e. the actor is "visible" in the character, which shatters the meticulously constructed illusion of the "real."

Redacted deconstructs its intended moral meaning and undoes the possibility of empathic involvement by different methods. It begins with the following information "typed" on the screen: "This film is entirely fiction, inspired by an incident widely reported to have occurred in Iraq. While some ofthe events depicted here may resemble those ofthe reported incident, the characters are entirely fictional, and their words and actions should not be confused with those of real persons." One by one, words are crossed out from this introduction; but the first words that are obliterated are "fiction" and "fictional," thus changing the initial message of the introduction and deliberately confusing the viewer as to whether this will be a fictive or documentary reconstruction of events. The film proposes an intentionally fractured structure of narration comprising separate visual segments: the video journal of PFC Angel Salazar; a French film by Marc et François Clément entitled "Barrage" with extremely conspicuous background opera music; ATV breaking news on the wounding of a pregnant Iraqi woman; images from security cameras at the US military base camp; short films on YouTube; a blog site "Just a Soldier's Wife"; the psychological evaluation of PFC. Angel Salazar; an ATV interview with the father of the raped girl; the ATV coverage of the kidnapping of an American soldier; a video film of the execution of Salazar; video depositions of the soldiers accused in the rape and murder; and a series of actual photographs from the Iraq War entitled "Collateral Damage." Moral outrage can be effectively counteracted by the cinematic medium when the viewer is allowed insight into its techniques and strategies. …

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