An Iraq documentary like Full Battle Rattle was inevitable. "There are actors in the film who read lines from scripts and play parts in preconceived roles," says co-director Tony Gerber. "One of the things that tickled us ... is that Full Battle Rattle walks a fine line [between documentary and fiction]. The current administration used showmanship to sell the war. Look at the rescue of Jessica Lynch, and Bush landing on aircraft carrier."
Funny, surreal and sometimes disorienting, Full Battle Rattle is a venture to the Mojave Desert where the U.S. Army maintains a battle training facility equipped with mock Iraqi villages and populated by actual Iraqi exiles playing civilians. Gerber and his co-director Jesse Moss filmed a battalion from Fort Bliss, Texas, as they spent a couple of weeks fighting to win the hearts and minds of a B-movie village called Medina Wasl (Arabic for "Junction City").
The Iraqis play villagers much as actors would—each has a very specific character and set of motives. Fake weddings are staged, fake town hall meetings are held, and Gerber and Moss get a running joke out of the actor who plays the village's deputy mayor but would rather play the mayor. Meanwhile, "insurgents" are played by Army regulars who seem thrilled to be assigned to create utter havoc. The battalion is led by Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin (since promoted to colonel), who speaks to the camera in dead earnest about the challenges facing his men in Medina Wasl—and indeed, the simulation controllers throw in surprise variables, called "injects," every day.
Gerber and Moss met five years ago at the 2003 Full Frame, a festival memorable for the cancellation of a film deemed troublesome in light of the just-launched Iraq War, and for Moss' Speedo, a portrait of a Long Island demolition derby driver that earned him the Audience Award. "Tony was working as an AMC rep and was commissioned to create an off-center brand," Moss says. Moss pitched an idea about Republicans in Hollywood and the partnership was born.
Both men have diverse résumés; Moss graduated from college in the early 1990s and parlayed his work on Bill Clinton's campaign into a job on Capitol Hill while Gerber began his career working in the New York theater scene. And both continue to work on fiction narrative projects—Moss is even developing a narrative version of his Speedo doc.
They came to the simulations through another project. After hearing about the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., "It created level of curiosity on my part," Gerber says. "We did a two-day scout at NTC and brought cameras. We were blown away, gazing at a vast ocean but only standing on the shore."
Moss adds, "There were lots of news articles, but they only scratched the surface. I think we were both trying to make sense of the war. The simulation struck us so odd yet possibly revealing of how the war being waged ... the way the army had miniaturized the war."
Do they think these simulations are an effective way to prepare for battle? "How would you define effective training? One thing they do is prepare soldiers for death," Gerber says, referring to a mock soldier's funeral seen in the film, in which mourners can be seen shedding real tears. "Some would say that if you're training for death, you've already lost."
Gerber and Moss will be present for the Civic Center screening of their film at 10 p.m. Friday.