Ireland and Iraq: Two Films, Two Struggles, One Message
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
June 13, 2007

Two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Páidric Delaney), fight for Irish independence against Britain's army of occupation. Credit: ICF First Take Films
Earlier this year, The-Edge attended press screening for two films that bring attention to the historic, political and social forces playing out in the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," offers an immersion in the social complexities and political contradictions that arose during the struggle for Irish Independence during the 1920s.

Philip Haas's "The Situation" is set in contemporary Iraq and focuses on the US occupation based on the experience of veteran war correspondent, Wendell "Wendy" Steavenson, whose reporting assignments have taken her from the former Soviet Union to Iraq.

The-Edge also had a rare opportunity to spend some time with the film's Danish star, Connie Nielsen, winner of the Bodil Award (Denmark's equivalent of the Oscar) for her portrayal of the tormented wife in "Brothers," whose world is torn apart by Denmark's participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Neilsen (who first came to wide attention in the US as Princess Lucilla in "Gladiator") performs in Danish and English cinema. She is a politically astute observer of both politics and American culture.

The Troubles: Ireland's Independence Struggle
The colonial tactic of divide-and-conquer at work. Teddy is compelled to order the execution his younger brother after Damien is deemed a "terrorist threat" to the British-sanctioned Irish Free State. Credit: ICF First Take Films
The Irish fight for freedom from British colonialism dates from the 12th century when Britain's feudal barons first set down stakes in the Irish countryside. There was a major insurrection of the United Irishmen in the wake of the French Revolution. The latest spate of rebellion was triggered by the 1916 Easter Massacre and the subsequent execution of John Connolly and other Irish nationalists.

The Sinn Fein ("We Ourselves") party won a decisive victory in general election of December 1918 and established an Irish parliament in Dublin. But when the parliament declared independence, Britain disbanded the parliament, driving the Republic underground and giving rise to the Irish Republican Army.

The struggle against Britain's colonizing army involved the creation of an array of parallel state structures including independent Republican courts and a politicized labor movement that refused to carry British troops or arms on Irish rails. In response, Britain unleashed the Royal Irish Constabulary and the dreaded Auxillaries (the "Blacks and Tans") who terrorized the populace, raiding homes, burning villages, looting, killing and raping.

Despite the many shootings that occur during Loach's film, people generally die without body-hurling impacts and with very little blood. Instead there is a reversion to a more dignified depiction of death -- a distinct contrast to the "people as slabs of meat" approach that has come to dominate post-Peckinpaw cinema.

This was a conscious decision, director Loach explains. "There is often a hypocrisy going on in war films. A large part of the entertainment involves all the explosions and the blood. It doesn't seem very anti-war to me if you're saying 'We hate killing' but 'Let's enjoy it while it's on the screen.' If you see a lot of blood on screen," Loach says, "it becomes a distraction and takes you out of the film."

Despite the relative lack of bloodshed, the film is extremely brutal and harrowing -- including an extended torture scene where an Irish detainee has his fingernails pulled out with pliers and is subject to a punishment that, years later, would be excused by the White House as a technique of "enhanced interrogation" known as "water-boarding."

The film's screenwriter, Paul Laverty, devoted considerable time to researching the Irish Rebellion but he also brought some direct personal experience from the time he spent in El Salvador and Guatemala in the eighties.

"I remember how terryfying it is when the security forces had license to operate with absolute impunity," Laverty recalls. "I met people who never selpt twice in the same house, trade unionists and human rights activists who were on the run. I met people with children kidnapped or who had relatives tortured and murdered. There's nothing romantic about that life -- it was terrifying and devastating. To be shot at, and too kill, is a very traumatic experience and it damages peoples' psyches. It's no surprise that people who have lived through wars just don't want to talk about it." But there was another lesson that Laverty brought back from his time in war-torn Central America -- a lesson that the masterminds of Bush's "war of liberation" failed to take into account: "Ordinary peoples' capacity for resistance is always something that the occupying forces underestimate, and assume they can crush."

Surprisingly, many of the most agonizing scenes entail a series of angry political debates that erupt following the signing of the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. After years of guerrilla war and bloodshed, the Irish people long for a Treaty that will put an end to their suffering. But former comrades in arms are forced into bitter camps when they discover that the new Irish Free State parliament will be required to "swear an oath of fidelity to the British Crown."

The pragmatists argue that the treaty represents the best opportunity available, especially since Britain has made it clear that the alternative will be "immediate and terrible war." The absolutists insist on continued war against the Crown, even though the military odds are against them. Neither option is attractive. One offers humiliation and relative safety; the other promises only renewed fighting with no guarantee of victory. Both camps argue with passionate intensity and irreconcilable stubborness. And there is no clear or satisfying solution.

There was a certain genius in the British decision to end the rebellion by creating an "independent" Irish government that the Crown "could do business with." British Major (later Field Marshall) Bernard Montgomery pointed out that it made sense to give the Irish "some form of self-government" because the leaders of the so-called Irish Free State could be enlisted to use British arms to "squash the rebellion themselves."

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, "a long struggle for independence was thwarted at this moment of success," Loach observes. Britain was able to remove its physical presence from the colony while maintaining its strategic interests. "That was the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead, et al.," Loach argues. "They sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands."

The film abounds in bitter ironies. A doctor is compelled to pick up a gun and kill. Brave men are compelled to stand by as their women are abused and their homes are set ablaze. And, ultimately, shifting politics compels one former revolutionary to carry out the execution of brother. An order that he carries out, as a matter of duty, as he sobs and chokes back tears.

The strategy of divide-and-conquor, "this manipulation by the ruling power, is a pattern you see again and again," Loach says. "Different interests will unite in the face of a common oppressor and then ultimately& those contradictions inevitably have to work their way out. I'm sure you can see it in places like Iraq now, where the opposition to the US and Britain brings together a lot of people who will find that they have different interests when the US and the British are finally forced out."

The Situation: Meltdown in the Cauldron of Iraq
Connie Neilson's undercover reporter will soon have the veil of illusion ripped from her face. Credit: Shadow Distribution
Philip Haas' "The Situation" (the title refers to the phrase Iraqis have come to use to refer to the endless foreign Occupation) takes viewers from the security and oppulence of the Green Zone (where the electricity never fails and where American soldiers, bureaucrats and intelligence operatives sip cocktails at the side of an Olympic-sized swimming pool) and pulls the audience deeper and deeper into the labrynthine web of Iraq's complex and competing power struggles.

Humvees rumble down streets, kicking up dust. Soldiers try to impose order out of a chaos that is fed by their very presence. Fire-fights explode and people are reduced to bloodied rag-dolls rolling in the dirt. After the press screening, everyone had the same question: "How the heck did the filmmakers manage to film this movie in the middle of a war zone?"

Haas, the director of the Oscar-nominated Angles & Insects, explained how his crew managed to "simulate a multi-billion-dollar war on an independent film budget." The Situation was filmed in Morroco. Rabat became Baghdad and a small village 20 miles from the capital city was the stand-in for the Iraqi city of Samarra. Steavenson told the film crew what it would take to turn Morroco into Iraq: "There has to be more rubble and it has to be a lot dustier and less colorful.... hardscrabble, kind of degraded, with a white, bleached-out sky."

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would probably be livid to discover that, during his shoot in Morocco, Haas "enlisted intelligence officers from the American embassy to help... accurately stage the battle scenes, and used [Pentagon supplied] Humvees, helicopters and tanks from the Moroccan army."

Still, the filmmakers had to improvise. The blank rounds that were purchased in Italy for use during the battle scenes were impounded at the Rome airport forcing the filmmakers to "mime" all the rifle and cannon fire. "All the muzzle flashes were digitally superimposed during post-production." Nonetheless, when Haas screened the film for an audience of soldiers who had served in Iraq, they applauded the film for capturing their experience -- "the complexity, the uncertainty, the danger, the violence and the lack of information."

The characters are vivid and uniquely drawn. Contrary to the nearly antiseptic killings in "The Wind," the deaths in Haas' film are sudden, shocking and brutal. One death, without visible bloodshed, is particularly moving. A young Iraqi boy has been playing soccer when a firefight breaks out. When stands up to get a better look at the battle, a bullet punches through his small body and he collapses like a punctured balloon. How fragile life is, in a world of bullets.

Civilians run for their lives during a firefight in Philip Haas' "The Situation." Credit: Shadow Distribution
Haas and Steavenson wanted to make a film that would allow an American audience to "get beyond the headlines" and feel what it's like to be an Iraqi during the Occupation. "You see the human toll but, at the same time, you're deadened by the newspaper reports," Haas explained. "You just can't get underneath it because you're bombarded by information, by reporting, by the numbers of injured and the dead. You become numb to it. And so it seemed that, if you actually tried to make a narrative of it, you might be able, if not to explain it, then at least to illuminate it. I didn't want to make the film look beautiful. What I wanted to do was make you feel like you're there."

Connie Neilson, who portrays the American reporter in the film, shares Haas' determination to get beyond the headlines. "The war had been going on for a while but I had no idea who the Iraqi people were," Neilson says. "All I saw on TV were reports of the dead. Then I read this script, but someone who'd spent a year there, during the conflict and I felt a kid of relief. I saw what their villages were like and who they are; what power structures are at work there."

The Situation was performed in English and Arabic with actors (and non-actors) from Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Tunesia and Morocco. One critical role was performed by a professor of theater at the American University in Cairo.

During her tour in Iraq, Steavenson met and fell in love with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi photographer. In the film, her alter ego, Anna Molyneux, falls in love with an Iraqi photojournalist named Zaid. Mido Hamada, an Egyptian-born actor living in London plays the photojournalist. "It was the first role in my career where I was playing an Arabian who was really human, and not portrayed as a stereotype. He has a normal job; he's a normal human being. I feel like we haven't really seen that enough in film."

Steavenson notes that, as a journalist, "it's sometime hard to show Iraqis or Lebanese as real people because they come from worlds and background that aren't easily translatable... but in film you can see them. They're right there  they're short, they're tall, they're grumpy. You can see how they interact.

"I don't think people understand how bad it is," Steavenson continues. "They don't understand the level of violence and insecurity and instability and corruption and infrastructure degradation and lack of water and electricity and health care that is the situation in Iraq.... People think it's just a car bomb here or a shootout there, but, in fact, it's everybody's everyday life. My boyfriend has been back in Iraq ... and he says now that there's not a family that he knows in Baghdad that hasn't been touched by the violence. It's not: 'Oh, I used to work with somebody whose son was killed.' Now it's more like 'my brother,' 'my uncle,' 'my sister.'

"When something is as complicated and as blood-covered as Iraqi is," Steavenson continues, "it's incredibly difficult to try to understand why that car bomb, why are these people being targeted, why this massacre in this town. You may think you have a reasonable explanation but, in fact, the lay of the land is much more complicated than that. It's very shifty, very kaleidoscopic. An assassination that looks political might be personal. A car bomb that looks like Sunni and Shia violence might be local bandits having a turf war. There are different agendas and different groups asserting themselves in different ways. Everybody is confounded and confused and appalled and frightened."

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