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Brian De Palma Q&A: Redacted

  Hollywood veteran Brian De Palma returns with Redacted, a drama-documentary that won the Silver Lion at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. Returning him to the days of his early low-budget films, it’s based on a true story of the rape of a 15 year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by US soldiers. De Palma has fictionalised the case and crafted what he calls a “dossier” of information – camcorder footage, YouTube postings, and even a French documentary film – for viewers to assemble in their minds. Introducing us to a wide variety of characters, including budding film student Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), and his comrades Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and McCoy (Rob Devaney), Redacted is De Palma’s most provocative film in years.

Q: How did this project start?

A: I was in Toronto in 2006, and a representative of HD-Net came over to me and said ‘Would you like to make one of our digital movies?’ He had $5 million and I could do anything I wanted, but it had to be in HD. I thought that was an interesting idea. And I’m always reading about what’s going on in the world, and I came across this incident that was extremely close to what happened in [my 1989 film] Casualties of War. I’m always politically engaged. To me, you would see this stuff going on and go, ‘How does this happen?’ You feel like some crazy person screaming in the square. Things like Weapons of Mass Destruction…where did they come up with this? When was this invented? Saddam Hussein is going to tie a WMD to a spear and throw it at us, so we better get over there and annihilate him! As a filmmaker you see how this stuff is being manipulated and sold, and you say, ‘Why is anybody buying this crap?’

Q: What problems did you face when you decided to make the film?

A: My problem was that I couldn’t really use too much of the real material. I had to fictionalise it, because there are continuing prosecutions going on. And you get a large book of things you can’t do from the lawyers. There are many lines that are really good, but I couldn’t use them because this is what these people actually said. So I had to make it similar…like the story structure of Casualties of War, it’s fiction but it’s inspired by real events. The similarities of the stories are striking. And presented to the audience in a form that tells them that this is fiction, but it’s based and inspired by real events, in lawyer misspeak. If you are curious, and want to do the work that I did, you can go into your search engine and put ‘US troops Iraq Rape Murder’ and you’ll find everything you want to know. And you can make your own comparisons between what I did and what actually happened.

Q: Did you talk to many people from the military?

A: I’ve talked to a lot of soldiers. You get the same story from all of them. ‘What are we doing here? I don’t know where the enemy is? My buddy gets blown up and I wanted to shoot them all.’ And it’s amped up in Iraq, because at least in Vietnam they could go to the whorehouse. There are no whorehouses in Iraq, as far as I can determine.

Q: Some of the soldiers are very negative characters, with not much humanity in them, don’t you think?

A: I protest! I protest! If you do read about it, we’re recruiting people that are sub-standard, because we can’t get anybody to join the army. So they’re taking people they would not normally take. People with emotional problems, people that have criminal records. Who would want to go to Iraq now? Who wants to sign up for this tour, unless you’re extremely desperate and they offer you a lot of money? So we’re getting the bottom of the gumbo barrel. And, yeah, nobody really starts to change. You try to show these circumstances that makes these soldiers become the unpleasant characters they emerge as: the endless repetition, the hostile environment, you can’t trust anybody. Then one of your buddies gets blown up next to you. It’s all there. It’s the same thing in Casualties of War. They had a beloved Sarge, who was trying to help the kids out and they’re set up for an ambush. That’s when the Sean Penn character just goes south. He’s like the most responsible guy, had been there longest, then suddenly he just gets this look – ‘I hate all these people and I’m going to get my pound of flesh.’ That’s what happens to Flake. The other guys are trying to hold onto some sense of morality.

Q: How do you think the army will react to the film?

A: This is not the way the army likes to see itself portrayed. They want to be seen the way the Administration portrays them: valiant people over there creating democracy – all that mumbo jumbo. But the reality, of course, is the way that they communicate with their fellows and their wives…and when they get out of the army, and tell you what actually happened, it’s the same thing.

Q: Of course, you’re not alone. This is not the only film to deal with Iraq recently…

A: I’m surprised they haven’t come sooner. This war has been going on a long time. The effectiveness of the Bush administration, and keeping the horror of it away from the American people is why you haven’t felt this huge [surge of] anti-war protests. The pictures are what got everybody into the streets in Vietnam. There’d be these huge pictures in Life magazine and you’d go, ‘My God, what are we doing over there?’ We don’t have that.

Q: Did you feel, after a series of genre movies, that you wanted to go back to some more reality-based cinema?

A: I’m interested in all kinds of filmmaking styles. I started out making films much like Redacted, with Greetings and Hi, Mom! So to me it’s something that I hadn’t done really in decades, but it would seem to be the natural way to tell the story. I had used unknowns, like I did in my early movies, when I couldn’t afford to hire anybody. It had to look like a documentary, so there had to be people you hadn’t seen on screen or television. I created a little repertory company that could do the scenes, and improvise off of them anyway they wanted. Then I basically shot it very quickly, with very fixed camera positions for everything. Then I evolved the style, dictated by the story.

Q: Can you talk more about the style of the film…

A: This is a movie where the style evolved from the material. Form was created through content. As I say, if you put these things in the search engine, you will see the websites, you will see the soldier’s wife’s blogs …I’m putting it in the context in which I discovered it. It’s like you were assembling a dossier on what happened in this case. You’re basically assembling all this material.

Q: You obviously changed details around the incident, including blacking out the photographs of real victims at the end. Why?

A: Using real stuff, you run into a minefield of lawyers. I’m very unhappy with the way the photographs have been redacted. I think it’s a crime to make these people – that have suffered – faceless. The whole point of the movie is to show the snapshots of McCoy’s mind. That’s what you hear from old soldiers – they can’t express what they’ve been through and seen. Anybody that’s been through any horrific experience, trying to express it to somebody that hasn’t…you can’t communicate. You don’t understand. And those pictures were very important to me, but I couldn’t get them through the lawyers – and I’m still trying to do it.

Q: So do you think you should be allowed to show them?

A: Those montages are on the web. All the ideas for this movie came from stuff that exists in my research. Go on the web and put ‘Montage Iraqi Casualties’ and you’ll come up with similar sequences. People that have been blown up or are suffering, with very moving music played to it. Again, you want to show the snapshots in McCoy’s head. Those are the things that they’re remembering and they can’t forget.

Q: Do you think censoring of images is a problem of this conflict?

A: Yes. The journalists have the same problem. I got the pictures from the photographers that couldn’t get them published. Many have appeared in the Arab media, but you can’t print these things in newspapers or put them on television [in the US]. If you talk to journalists, who have been covering the war, you always get their frustration because they can’t tell the story that they see. Nobody really wants to hear it. You can’t take pictures of any fallen GIs. You can’t show funerals. We don’t want to see any of the collateral damage at all. It doesn’t get into the mainstream American media. You wonder what’s going in America, well they’re not seeing what you’re seeing.

Q: Do you have any military experience yourself?

A: No, but my father was a navy surgeon, so needless to say he used to go in and take the bodies off the beaches and sew them back together. I had many stories of the horrors of the Pacific. And I have spent many hours in hospitals with my father – I’ve seen all this stuff.

Q: Did you protest yourself during the Vietnam War?

A: Absolutely. I thought it was as silly as this war.

Q: Do you think this will have the same impact as news images during Vietnam?

A: One would hope, but you’re going to get a lot of anger. You’re showing the troops like nobody has ever seen the troops before. And you know in America, you cannot criticise the troops. They’re going to be ranting and raving about it without having seen it. They’re already doing it. It’s all over the web already. I’m already a leftwing wacko traitor who should be horsewhipped. It started already.

Q: Are you afraid it will damage your career?

A: Not really. I’ve made pretty wild movies before and somehow survived them. You should have been around for Body Double and Scarface. It was not pleasant. Body Double was exploiting women and the feminist movement. And Scarface, the language and portrayal of these gangsters was seen as horrendous.

Q: Can you talk about the film’s relationship to truth?

A: What I’m trying to do is to make the viewer aware of the techniques that are used to present supposedly the truth to them. They sit there and watch their television screens, and see these embedded reporters and infomercials from Iraq, and how well things are going in Iraq, and they think that’s the truth. In anything on television, somebody is selling something – whether it’s a product, whether it’s a policy. You look on television, this is a commercial medium and everything is for sale. Once you understand that, then you can understand the medium a little better. The web is not so corrupted because there is not that much money involved. Believe me, when the money gets in there, it will probably go the way of television. We’re living in an era where everybody is performing all the time, and posting their performances on the web. Plus there’s reality television, where you’re supposed to believe all this stuff is real, and of course it’s made up.

Q: Was it essential that you used unknown actors for the film?

A: Of course, they all had to be unknown. Most of them are right out of acting school or off the stage. I made basically this repertory company out of these young actors. The Sarge in there is a real Sergeant. He’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan. Every once in a while you hear them say, ‘Shut up!’ That’s the real Sarge. When we sent them to basic training, the Sarge took them over as a unit and put them through their paces, so you see a kind of cohesiveness in the group.

Q: Do you think the film is relevant to people from outside the US?

A: This is a story about armies occupying places they shouldn’t be, people they don’t understand. This has been going on for the history of war. I don’t think this is difficult to understand in any country. These kinds of incidents always occur. It isn’t the bulk of what happens but it’s like something McCoy says, where he notes, ‘If you’re going to send us over to some place to kill people, it better be for a fucking good reason.’ And that’s what puts these guys in this moral dilemma all the time.

Q: Was the scorpion sequence a nod to the scene in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch?

A: I had to find boring activities. The fact is there are a lot of big insects over there and there are a lot of ants. So, yes, it goes back to The Wild Bunch. But we had other insects – a camel spider and a centipede that were overtaken by the ants. Unfortunately, the downside of digital, unlike film, is that it can be erased and be gone forever. And the first shot of the ants overtaking the camel spider was erased. So I had to send Eric out to shoot it again, but it was so cold that the ants were lethargic and the centipede was sleeping…so we had to settle on the scorpion. It was a whole day of prodding insects!

REDACTED is released 14th March for more information on the film, please visit the website - http://www.redactedmovie.co.uk/
Author: Graeme Clark.


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