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  • Can A Film End A War?
  • Ken Betsalel (bio) and Mark Gibney (bio)

Can a film end a war? The power of images to awaken, and in some cases reawaken, a commitment to human rights should not be underestimated. "They grow more terrible with familiarity," US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of Goya's series of prints known as The Disasters of War, which depict the Napoleonic Peninsular War (1807–1814). 1 According to the historian Richard Polenberg, Goya's prints, which illustrate the savageries of war largely as violence aimed at civilian populations by an occupying force, were a significant source of motivation for Holmes' reevaluation and defense of civil liberties in the time of armed conflict.2 Yet as the social critic Susan Sontag reminds us, a steady diet of horrific images of human suffering can also lead to immobilizing sadness, even boredom and cynicism. "Compassion is an unstable emotion," Sontag writes, "it needs to be translated into action, or it withers."3 What accounts for these seemingly contrasting points of view, and how can film awaken a sense of outrage at war and injustice without dulling our senses?

Much has been made of the fact that each of the commercial films dealing with the Iraq war or the "war on terror," such as Redacted (2007), Lions for Lambs (2007), and In the Valley of Elah (2007), have fared poorly at the box office and [End Page 522] left audiences numb to the violence.4 Perhaps this is no surprise. The Vietnam War spawned some of cinema's most potent anti-war movies. However, what is noteworthy is that the most successful films were made nearly a generation after the US withdrawal in 1975.

A clumsy film that sought to capture the magic of the World War II films by starring the perennial soldier, John Wayne, was The Green Berets (1968). However, the golden age of Vietnamera cinema came later. The first of these were Coming Home (1978), for which the lead actors and the screen writer picked up Academy Awards, and The Deer Hunter (1978), which took home another five Academy Awards. Interestingly, these anti-war films were followed by Sylvester Stallone's attempt to re-fight the conflict in Rambo: First Blood (1982), but even here the human impact of armed conflict played a crucial role. From The Killing Fields (1984), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987), to Errol Morris's Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamera (2003), potent anti-war films have resonated with audiences, but in each case audiences have been far removed from the conflict that spawned them.

This removal from the actual conflict provided something elemental to the appeal of these films; it provided authenticity, adherence to objective, and nuanced story telling and sparked actual visceral reaction without numbing the audience.This authenticity is missing from commercial films depicting US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ask the audience to suspend certain beliefs in order to support the Iraq war—WMD's, Hussein's support for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which the audience is simply not willing to do.

If authenticity is the great divider between films that galvanize social change and those that violently numb the mind, then there are a host of documentaries that provide this very thing. Here is our report on some of the more authentic films about the present wars.

The Road to Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom, 2005) is an enormously engaging film that tells the story of the "Tipton Three." It is a story of three British Muslim men who traveled to Pakistan for a wedding then to Afghanistan where they were imprisoned as Taliban fighters, and eventually making their way to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The film offers a unique and jarring combination of sobering interviews in combination with all too real re-enactments of the events visited on them. This film most decidedly blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. This is a thrillingly effective rendition (no pun intended) and perhaps the future of "documentary" filmmaking. Highly recommended.

Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki 2006) purposely takes its title from the...


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