Making Another Quagmire
Personable in informal remarks introducing The Situation, director Philip Haas contrasted the historical perspective of “wonderful” Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket with the still confused immediacy of current involvement. Echoing a late ‘60s Chomsky essay on the Final Solution, Nam and the benumbing results of body-count statistics, he had already been considering fiction as the best available means for approaching the present undigested morass, as distinct from the “anaesthetizing” effect of media coverage (and, he might have added, a spate of documentaries).
A “totally objective” Granta article prompted phone and e-mail correspondence with journalist Wendell “Wendy” Steavenson, whose “Osama” centered around two brothers who choose opposite sides in Iraq and split their family. Told, in answer to her doubts, to do “the kind of script you can write,” the first-time screenwriter (and brief TV newswoman in the film) turned to her own magazine reporter experiences in the Red and Green Zones, added other characters and plausible entanglements, and set out, “if not to explain, then at least to illuminate” the situation through dramatic story instead of a narrated compilation of archival-actual data.
Aside from whatever personal elements, one tried-and-true method of humanizing war behind the headlines is romance set, not against, but into the conflict. Love thus became the thread for the separate but interconnected beads, and although the blonde foreign journalist-dark local photographer attraction is obvious from moment one and does not grow less so, the two characters are real and preferable to the stick figures who serve parallel purposes in, for recent example, John Boorman’s Apartheid-truth In My Country and Fernando Meirelles’ Capitalism-truth The Constant Gardener.
More subtle in that it does not take one side or another apart from the human, the Haas-Steavenson vehicle emphasizes, rather, the complexities following upon flawed initial missteps. Thirty-four-year-old writer Anna Molyneux’s (Connie Nielson) red-headed Intelligence Officer “sometimes sort of” boyfriend Dan Murphy (named for a Christian Science Monitor correspondent and played by Damian Lewis) is squeaky idealistic, the problem as much as the solution, but nowhere near the lopsided caricature that is Pyle in The Quiet American. A saint alongside dangerous know-it-all assistant-of-two-weeks Wesley (Shaun Evans), Dan comes to realize helplessness in the face of events and the Melvillean rainbow-fringed relation between truth and moment.
Unquestioningly violent resistance fighter Walid (Driss Roukh) is yet loyal and Old Testament just; ousted by incoming Kurds, diplomat Duraid (Mahmoud El Lozy) will sell any information, but his cause is safety for son Bashar (Anna’s driver and translator, played by Omar Berdouni) and pill-dependent wife (Nezha Regragui); powerful at least for the time being, venal Mayor Sheikh Tashin (Saïd Amadis) cunningly hands out rewards but toes a delicate fine line.
They are all guilty, they are all innocent. If there is a human villain, it is the Selim (Hamid Basket) who kills out of pure lust (and surely that, too, exists in war). Even the stupid young GIs who commit the opening, precipitative senselessness, and the officer who would shield them, are brought before man’s military justice. Their initial act, tossing two Iraqi teens from a bridge, is not dwelt on but is one of several fuses that detonate the unstable powder keg.
As factions jockey for power, money or safety, for freedom or peace, Anna turns to respected, gentle Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia) for entrée and access to information. Obliging but sensibly skittish under such volatile conditions, this old friend pays for his fatalistic courage, though motivation for his killing turns out different from what is hinted. Guiltily suspecting that association with her was the cause, nearly burnt-out Anna briefly calls her father, promises herself that this reportage will be her last here, and pushes body and soul and Bashar to investigate what is personal and, she believes, political.
Wearing a burqa, increasingly in the line of fire, she learns what she already knows, that she and well-meaning Dan are not a couple. And she grows to admire and trust Zaid (Mido Hamada), an apolitical agency photographer (inspired by Steavenson’s fiancée) five years her junior and a Christian. As she helps him get a first passport, listens to his dream of travel to the sea and a snowy climate, meets his brother and the grandmother (Khadija Kanouni) with whom they live, she finds an instinctively gentle, courteous soul mate.
Shot in Morocco, where military units and hardware were rented to cut costs, and using many local non-actors, the moderate budget highly professional film avoids the panorama of sweeping shots, cranes and overheads. Instead, using handhelds throughout, it draws the eye down into the human pieces that will one day make up history-book summaries. In that small world, there are errors of interpretation and judgment on both sides, there are good and bad Americans and Arabs (the latter speaking subtitled classical, rather than localized Iraqi, Arabic), and aside from three seconds of a pair of presumed Saudis who unknowingly bring about deadly resolution, there is no insertion of outside players. In the end, there are only people, trapped in the quicksand.
(Released by Shadow Distribution; not rated by MPAA.)