Speak, memory

A five-point look at Kino21's five-part war doc series, "How We Fight: Conscripts, Mercenaries, Terrorists, and Peacekeepers"
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(1) War demands chronicling as few human endeavors do, with representations spanning from cave drawings to cell phone photographs. German experimental filmmaker Hito Steyerl considers the volatility particular to the filmic war document in her elegant short November (2004), playing in Kino21's series "How We Fight: Conscripts, Mercenaries, Terrorists, and Peacekeepers" (kicking off Sept. 25 and continuing through October, with the last program screening Nov. 23). Steyerl's essay-film turns on her reexamination of some spunky "feminist martial arts" footage she shot of her friend Andrea Wolf in light of the woman's later martyrdom as a Kurdish freedom fighter. Competing renditions of Wolf commingle, each containing elements of documentary and fiction, with the only real truth being Wolf's sublimation as a "traveling image."

(2) The YouTube hell of the footage captured in Iraq and Afghanistan — as dramatized in Brian de Palma's angry Redacted (2007) and the damaged fictions of Michael Haneke — was perhaps foreseen by Walter Benjamin in 1936: "The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ." So it is that the crudeness of the digital loops shot by coalition forces and insurgents alike countervails the US military's computerized advancements. "How We Fight" opens with a compilation of this undigested material: footage from both sides synthesizing an implacable wave of mutilation. Insofar as any war can be said to have a film aesthetic, Iraq's is that of the surveillance shot — the natural complement of the conflict's signature weapon, the IED. As if we were watching some perverted version of the Bazinian long take, we observe, in a real time blighted by dirty pixelation and distorting zooms, as a convoy approaches an explosion.

(3) In an expanding field of unprocessed moving images, the documentary increasingly sees its own role shift to that of an interpreter of visual information already at hand. How else to explain all the recent documentaries dedicated to contextualizing id-like streams of footage from the battlefield and newsroom? It remains to be seen which of these works will deliver as lasting an indictment as Winter Soldier (1971), a collectively directed project that counterposes soldiers' colored 8mm footage from Vietnam with the mauve black-and-white of their testimonies. For "How We Fight," Kino21 screens the rarely seen Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), a short film that cuts to the same bone.

(4) The issue of how these films garner testimony is of paramount importance, as evidenced by Errol Morris' problematic probe of Abu Ghraib's "bad apples" in Standard Operating Procedure. Exemplary in this regard is Heddy Honigmann's Crazy (1999). The Dutch filmmaker is a master interviewer who treats her subjects as autonomous beings — Honigmann isn't afraid to prod, but she's not after dramatic effect. In Crazy, she stitches together interviews with Dutch veterans of United Nations peacekeeping missions by asking them to share songs they associate with their deployments. The music, which ranges from Cambodian pop to Guns N' Roses' take on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," opens the channels of memory in unexpected ways and midwifes the guarded soldiers toward reflection and emotion. The passages in which Honigmann holds close-ups of the veterans listening to their songs possess a plaintive mystery unavailable to Morris's occupied camera.

(5) In the singular, combat films of all kinds often extol the false premises and ideals endemic to war. But taken as a collective enterprise, war documentaries pull back the curtain on the state-sponsored stagecraft and reveal the threads connecting disparate battles.

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