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Cinema Signal:

The Fall of Baghdad
by Jon Lee Anderson


Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos
. "Gunner Palace"

This is a reality show that's not going to have anyone accusing it of being secretly scripted. No, this is war in Iraq and it's our troops in their day-to-day personalities while on their mission as recorded by directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein ("The Last Cowboy") with their digital camera and embedded presence.

The 2/3 Field Artillery, or the 1st Armored Division, (aka, the "Gunners") stationed in Giessen, Germany, have taken over the partially destroyed pleasure compound of Uday Hussein, one of Saddam's sons, and branded it "Gunner Palace." Signs of its palatial appointments are in evidence, as is the life-style of its former resident, an essentially greedy, despotic character who lived high on oil revenues as most of his fellow Iraqis were starving. His enemies now have turned it into a headquarters, a place of refuge and military discipline in a volatile corner of Baghdad.

Which does not at all describe the technical aspects of this documentary. Storytelling discipline is missing, as is any comprehensive narrative flow. It records a series of night patrols and surprise attacks on suspect houses which depend on intelligence from sources that are less than reliable. These short clips of night raids and daytime street patrols are intercut with interviews of even briefer duration with soldiers who are only too glad to express their thinking, and a series of thankfully brief G.I. rap performances.

The thoughts expressed by our guys are candid and down to earth, if not earthy. There's a lot of talk about death in the captured dialogue between the troops, and the dirtiest words and thoughts in the language fill the lyric of the raps. The "F---" word is used 42 times throughout the film, mostly in the songs of protest. Which does nothing to elevate their stature in the spectrum of class or free expression.

That aside, the value of this film is in its brutal, totally unglamorized honesty. If you want to get a feel for what our guys are experiencing in Iraq, complete with attitude and personal enrichment, you need to see an account that cuts through the bullshit, the candy-wrapped White House descriptions, staged events, edited media clips and other filtrations. This is the real thing -- or, as close as you're likely to get to it without having your own boots on the ground.

We recognize in our guys the kind of people we see everywhere -- fellow Americans who aren't sophisticated or devious enough to put on airs or lie for the camera -- even to support official propaganda and euphemistic political interpretations. This is as unalloyed a look at who our people are in the Iraqi theatre of war and how they're conducting themselves as anything recorded.

Tucker and Epperlein's film is a series of vignettes with a purpose, not letting a pre-determined story distort the reality. Their being there in the thick of it gives us a vivid sense of the feel of the place and the mortal dangers, the use of translators, the interaction with Iraqi families and children on the street, the range of feeling towards American troops by city residents, and the soldiers holding up a courageous face in spite of the fear of what may come at them from any direction. Dealing with hidden IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and suspect packages on the streets... the possibility of sudden death... business as usual in this zone.

One of the film's telling moments comes from a young G.I. who describes the line of reason that allows him to endure killing someone because they could kill him. We recognize ourselves in the need to rationalize an action that is anything but natural except in a combat situation. Killing doesn't become automatic just because of boot camp training. In that camp, taking lives is theoretical. On the ground in Iraq, it's a requirement, however alien to who we are.

Highly recommended as must viewing for all young, potential enlistees.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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