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Heavy casualties

History repeats in De Palma’s Redacted
By GERALD PEARY  |  November 13, 2007


VIDEO: The trailer for Redacted

In 1989, filmmaker Brian De Palma directed the potent Hollywood feature Casualties of War, taking his audience back in time to a vile true-life incident from Vietnam. A platoon of American soldiers raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl, then conspired to cover up the crime.

In 2007, it’s déjà vu all over again as De Palma induces his audience to confront, via fictional re-creation, the shameful 2006 incident in which American soldiers stationed in Iraq raped, killed, and burned the body of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmudiyah and also killed her sister and her parents.

Support our troops? Says De Palma: “I was watching the way they [in Washington] were selling the war and it was driving me crazy, me being a film director knowing how images can be manipulated.” Now 67, De Palma is old enough to have opposed both Vietnam and Iraq, and to hold the American military accountable when there is barbaric behavior. “If we’re causing this kind of suffering, we should be witness to it,” De Palma said at a press breakfast for Redacted at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September.

He acknowledged that the stories of Casualties of War and Redacted are depressingly similar. Was there a different way for him to approach the Iraq story? For inspiration, he reached back to his little-seen (mostly in France) Dionysus in ’69, a 1970 adaptation of an avant-garde Off Broadway play. Both the play and the movie featured a company of African-American actors in “whiteface,” more or less improvising an Artaud-influenced drama of violence, degradation, and rape.

For Redacted, De Palma replaced the star-driven Hollywood cast of Casualties of War (Sean Penn, Michael J. Fox, etc.) with young, raw unknowns. Embedded in military uniform, they operated as an alternative-theater ensemble, starting with a mock-Army rehearsal period. “There was boot camp for two weeks, and there was a real sergeant on the set. Whenever they got too ‘unsoldierly,’ he’d put them in line.”

After “boot camp,” the actors were transported for much of the shoot to Jordan, which stood in for Iraq. De Palma: “The most expensive thing was flying people out of the USA.” In Jordan, they were put to work replicating the duties of the accused American soldiers in Mahmudiyah: stopping Iraqi citizenry at checkpoint. (That’s where the real-life soldiers spotted the young girl whom they would rape and kill.) “They bonded like an actual Army unit” said De Palma of his cast. “They were all in their characters all of the time, like Dionysus in ’69. And as in Dionysus, you didn’t know what would happen every night. They could go wherever they wanted, the camera following, the cameraman as part of the ensemble.

“With High-Def digital, we shot very quickly, sometimes 27 different ways until the actors got tired. But the scenes at the checkpoint were beautifully composed shots, extremely slow, showing the boredom of the soldiers — without the film being boring.”

The music over this checkpoint sequence is the famous Handel sarabande that Stanley Kubrick chose for his 1975 classic Barry Lyndon. At Toronto, a journalist asked De Palma why he was using the same music.

“I loved the music, the ingenious way with Kubrick that time was slowed down,” said De Palma. “It was a great idea then — why can’t it be used again? The carriage rolling down the steps in my film The Untouchables — just because Eisenstein used it [in The Battleship Potemkin], we should never use it again?”

  Topics: Film Culture , Entertainment, Movies, Armed Forces,  More more >
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