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Interview: Nick Broomfield, Director of “Battle for Haditha”

March 19th, 2012 by Ben Collins Editor

It was nine years ago today that the Iraq War began. It’s been three months and two days since it officially ended. There has been talk about this being a forgotten war—not just for American troops that died in the conflict, but also for the Iraqi civilians that were caught in the crossfire—and Nick Broomfield didn’t want it to be that way.

That’s how “Battle for Haditha” came about. It’s an honest account of what happened on one of the war’s darkest days, when 24 Iraqi civilians were killed after an IED attack fatally wounded an American soldier. It’s ardently fair, deeply moving, and intensely hard to stomach. And it’s a reminder of the tremendous amount of loss that the war provided.

We talked to Broomfield, the film’s director, a month ago about the film. He said that it had received criticism when the film had initially been released in 2007. It was just after the surge of 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq and some took it as Broomfield dabbing at an open wound, saying that he did not support American Marines. Broomfield wanted to dispel this. He wanted to show the war in its most real and visceral context, to lend awareness to the 25 who lost their lives that day, and to show, truly, what soldiers went through in those harrowing nine years.

About how the film has even more poignance now that the war is nine years old.

Nick Broomfield: I always thought that the film had come out too soon. It was just too raw when it came out. I think that it has an enduring value because I think Iraq will be remembered by Haditha. I think that battle is such a symbolic thing for what happened there and the way it all went so hopelessly wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how it all gets resolved.

On how now is a good time to open the discussion about this war, now that most troops have been sent home.

I think it is. I think now is the time. In Europe, people were prepared to discuss it before. I think in the United States, now is the time. I think the exact same thing happened with Vietnam. It took some time to be able to discuss it, even though that was a much longer war.

What happened for a lot of the soldiers in Iraq is as surreal as scenes from “Apocalypse Now.” I think you need to get into that mindframe in order to realize what happened there, in order to understand what was going through the minds of these 18-year-olds who were suddenly let loose with the most sophisticated weaponry and very few rules.

On the film’s empathy to American soldiers, and how hard it is for 20-year-olds to be put in that situation.

We did a lot of interviews with the Marines. Three or four were in central California, so we went and saw them. It was hard not to sympathetic to them. They found the move coming back to civilization incredibly difficult to cope with because their experiences in Iraq had been so extreme. Some had been through the situation in Fallujah, and Haditha was their next piece of combat, so they were all completely wired up. So many were simply incapable of living normal lives. One of them had the job of taking photographs of anyone who had been shot that day. He had just completely flipped out. It’s a kind of weird mixture of the Marines high-fiving each other, in a way that you only understand when you watch Apocalypse Now—a mentality that’s their way of justifying the horror they’ve seen. But when he came home, he started drinking heavily and drove off the road and into someone’s living room in his truck. I found it impossible not to feel that they’re incredible victims.

On the film’s initial reception, when some believed it to be unpatriotic.

We had an AFI screening before this had initially come out (in 2007). Academy members had came to it. I went with about five Marines who had been in the film. Before the film had even finished, people were screaming from their chairs that this was unpatriotic, that we should be ashamed of ourselves for making the film. Obviously, the marines got extremely upset, considering that they all had come back, some wounded in action. I suppose that the strength of feeling in this country at that time was so raw that it was completely impossible to release the film in the United States at that time. The distributor that had it, Image, just dumped the film. They were mainly involved in doing family entertainment. We had to buy the film back and re-release it.

On having Iraqis as actors and extras in the film.

One of the interesting things that happened on the film, where we’d used real Marines, is that they’d never really interacted with Iraqis before—but they did on the film. And they all found out they really liked each other. Part of the problem with what happened in Iraq is that the soldiers were so isolated that they were able to dream up all these phantom ideas about Iraqis because they just did not know them.

On the Arab world’s emphasis on this trial.

I think that’s also the great symbolism in this Haditha trial: They’re wondering if justice will finally be done. I think, whether they’re Shia or they’re Sunni, they’re thinking, “Does any form of justice exist in the West?” I think it’s such a crucial thing. I think it has an enormous influence there.

On the film’s shooting challenges, as it was shot entirely in Jordan.

We were the first film shot with the help of the Jordanian Film Commission. The king’s brother came to Jerash to bless the project. It had a lot of sway with the local people. They kind of endorsed it. They had an incredible respect for it.

Plus, Jordan is crawling with Secret Service. The first time I remember we had American soldiers walking down a main street in Jerash—even though we had told them we were going to be making a film—people really thought they were being invaded. And they were Sunni, people who very much identified with the people from Haditha. Some people started shouting and screaming about the Americans. Our Marines were already antsy anyway. They never really could tell the difference between being in Iraq and being in Jordan. They would never go out, for example, to get a meal with the locals. They would just stay in their barracks.

There was some Secret Service who bundled all of the dissenters into a car, and that person was just taken into a car. He was around one second, and the next he was gone.

So, yeah, there was a lot of tension initially. I remember the Marines were nervous that at any second they were going to be shot.

On using actual Marines who served in Iraq as actors, and how that translated on set.

They were actually living in the barracks. They very quickly got into their military ways.

“Battle for Haditha” writer Marc Hoeferlin: We spent some time hanging out with them to see them at their most natural. They went back to their old ways. Some who had quit smoking and they picked it back up. Some were training early in the morning. That camaraderie began to take place. It was a flashback for a lot of them, I think, to get back in that situation.

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