REVIEW It has been seven years since W. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in that time enough documentaries about the war have been made to warrant a Wikipedia page on the subgenre. From its explosive opening sequence, in which an Iraqi village endures a surprise attack from insurgents, Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss' documentary Full Battle Rattle could be placed alongside Gunner Palace (2004) or The Ground Truth (2006) as another vérité-style portrait of daily life "on the ground." It's 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 a three-week long, intensive simulation meant to prepare US soldiers for conditions overseas.
Gerber and Moss follow one unit, led by the even-handed Col. McLaughlin, through the entirety of a training session as they attempt to win the hearts and cooperation of the fractious village of Medina Wasl. The villagers are actual Iraqi refugees, who despite their Shia, Sunni, and Christian backgrounds, have formed a genuine communal bond. As the deputy mayor, who used to be a Baghdad playboy in the '70s, says: "I can't even tell my wife, but after three years this feels more like home." The insurgents, on the other hand, are played by fellow American soldiers, and contribute to some of the most surreal moments in the film when they speak of taking out McLaughlin's unit with unrestrained glee. The topsy-turvy world of Fort Irwin is further underscored by a commanding officer's seemingly-contradictory comment that he hopes "the soldiers get lost in the reality of the simulation." Indeed, Gerber and Moss happen upon some unexpectedly candid moments amid all the play-acting: the tears shed at a mock funeral service for "fallen" comrades are real. Unfortunately, reality truly hits when the soldiers have to board an Iraq-bound plane at the end of the training. For some it will be a return trip. In the strange feedback loop between Iraq and the Iraq of Fort Irwin, Full Battle Rattle captures the seeming endlessness of the war.
FULL BATTLE RATTLE Fri/17, 7:30 p.m., $12.50. Premiere Theatre, Letterman Digital Arts Center, Presidio, SF. www.sffs.org