On set: 'Full Battle Rattle' gives new meaning to the phrase 'theater of war.' (Photo courtesy SFFS)

'Full Battle Rattle' On the Endless War

Matt Sussman October 16, 2008

It has been seven years since Dubya launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in that time enough documentaries about the war have been made to warrant a Wikipedia page on what has become an established subgenre. Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s engrossing film Full Battle Rattle has to be the first such documentary to so candidly explore "the ground truth" of Iraq without ever setting foot in the country. Although its explosive opening sequence, in which an Iraqi village endures a surprise attack from insurgents, sets it up as another verite-style portrait of daily life within the war zone, it’s only when the smoke clears and an ice cream truck pulls up that we realize something’s amiss. This isn’t Iraq, but Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, and what we’ve just seen is part of an intensive simulation meant to prepare U.S soldiers for the conditions they’ll experience overseas.

"The film exists at an interesting boundary between comedy and tragedy and fiction and reality," said Moss when I spoke to him and Gerber over the phone. "It’s a tonal mix of a Ridley Scott film and a Monty Python skit." The two filmmakers will be on hand to discuss Full Battle Rattle at a San Francisco Film Society benefit screening at Letterman Digital Arts’ Premiere Theatre this Friday. "What we found in the simulation," added Gerber, "was this conflation of documentary truth and artifice."

Indeed, the set up at Fort Irwin certainly adds new resonances to the phrase "theater of war." The film’s narrative follows the idealistic and pragmatic Lt. Colonel McLaughlin, as he and his brigade attempt to bring peace and stability to the fractious village of Medina Wasl. Their mission has been planned by a group of simulation architects, who, like Olympian gods or some conspiratorial fantasy of a secret government cabal, frequently throw out curve balls—surprise attacks, uncooperative local authorities, assassinations— to test the soldiers ability to respond to unforeseen events similar to those they might encounter in Iraq.

During the three-week simulation, Gerber was embedded with McLaughlin’s brigade, while Moss lived alongside the villagers and "hidden" insurgents in Medina Wasl. Even though the military was initially hesitant about letting them film due to their lack of "professional affiliations," they were granted complete editorial control over their footage and given unprecedented access to all aspects of the training. "What we found was that this process of making a model tells you more about the folks who are doing the model-making, rather than the actual object the model is based on." Gerber explained. "And for us as documentary filmmakers, this was fascinating."

For example, in one of the many ironies of the simulation, the villagers are played by actual Iraqi refugees, who despite their differing Shia, Sunni, and Christian backgrounds, have formed a genuine community within the set they call home for weeks out of the year. As the Deputy Mayor, who used to be a wealthy Baghdad playboy in the ’70s, says: "I can’t even tell my wife, but after three years this feels more like home." Others, like the Chief of Police whose real world job is stocking merchandise at a convenience store, hope their participation helps their efforts towards becoming U.S. citizens. American soldiers, many who have already done tours of Iraq, play the insurgents.

What makes Full Battle Rattle such compelling viewing aren’t just the myriad moments that illustrate the surreality of the simulation— the Iraqi actor who proudly shows a video of his mock-execution by jihadists to his horrified family, the pile of bloody, wounded mannequins used to train medics, the laser tag-like skirmishes. Rather, it is that these moments underscore the terrible, complex realities of the actual war that remains off-screen. When Lt. Colonel McLaughlin admits defeat after the 4th brigade is pummeled by an insurgent ambush near the end of the session, his candor is almost shocking. A memorial service for "fallen" soldiers might be part of the script, but the attendees’ tears are real. Some of them have already been in this situation. The film’s last shot is of the 4th brigade boarding a plane headed for Iraq.

Full Battle Rattle
doesn’t push an overtly anti-war message. But it doesn’t need to. The seeming endlessness of the U.S. presence in Iraq is captured in the strange cycle that keeps funneling U.S. soldiers and Iraqi ex-pats between Fort Irwin and the battlefront. The film provides plenty of evidence that there will be no easy way out and that the reach of the war has extended beyond clear-cut geographic or ideological lines. During an election season in which talk of withdrawing from Iraq has almost all too quickly given way to vaguely hawkish recommendations of "how to deal with Afghanistan," keeping sight of the larger complexities involved with the war is especially critical (the film’s postscript notes that many of the village sets are being converted into Afghani towns). If Gerber and Moss have any agenda, it is this. "As filmmakers, we know painfully at times, there is a hunger for absolutes, for narrative." Gerber explains, "But there’s almost a political imperative to talk about the beauties of complexity, especially in regard to how the war is being talked about. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with this movie."

SF360.org editor’s note: Shown with Full Battle Rattle will be a short film by Adam Keker, "On the Assassination of the President," winner of a 2008 Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Short. Ticket information on the screening at SFFS. The San Francisco Film Society is the publisher of SF360.org.