Again utilising a stripped-down skeleton crew and drawing on the aesthetic of Ghosts, a harrowing and authentic account of the plight of Chinese immigrant workers in the UK, Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha is another compelling human drama drawn from real-life events. On November 19, 2005 in the western Iraqi city of Haditha twenty-four men, women and children were killed by four US Marines. Initial reports claimed that Marines had returned fire after ‘gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire’. A day after the incident, a Haditha student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred, which provoked a Time Magazine article disputing the original account. A subsequent Pentagon probe alleged a retaliatory US massacre in response to the death of a unit member in a roadside bomb attack. Commentators in certain sections of the media immediately began to refer to the event as ‘Iraq’s My Lai’.
Widely acknowledged for his documentary work, and specifically for his re-invention and re-popularisation of the discipline, Broomfield has continued to use extensive research as the foundation of his recent pursuit of ‘fictive’ filmmaking and his ongoing quest for truth. Before a single page was written Broomfield and co-writers Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford spent over nine months on research, scouring government and witness reports and conducting lengthy and revealing interviews with Marines, survivors of the massacre and insurgents. The journalists who had been involved from Time Magazine and The Washington Post were also sought out and consulted. The result of this meticulous drive towards authenticity is the fact that the viewer often feels uncomfortably close to events. More importantly perhaps, it allows Broomfield to achieve his stated objective of making the film as ‘an attempt to understand the event from the three different points of view in a very human and compassionate way’.
Though still relatively low-key in terms of scale and budget, the brilliantly balanced Battle For Haditha undoubtedly operates on a broader scale than Ghosts and it is in this regard that Broomfield shows his progression as a filmmaker. Again casting non-professional actors, many of whom are actual Marines and massacre survivors who improvised dialogue under instruction, the director offers a visceral recreation of the sounds and images of combat to ultimately reveal the cost of this combat in terms of human life. There’s a startling realism to the presentation of the language of war which makes the consideration of how humanity is compromised by acts of barbarism and conflict all the weightier.
The film was shot in Jordan, where the conservative and traditional Muslim culture presented numerous problems, not least a difficulty to enlist the on-screen participation of family members and females. The incredibly diverse backgrounds of those cast to appear and the hostilities that divide them would also, one assume, make for a tempestuous filming environment but Broomfield claims that tensions were evaporated due to an incredible letting of emotion and the seizing of an opportunity to share experiences. Offering conclusive proof that the director, who cites Battle of Algiers as his inspiration, has found a method of working with which he feels entirely comfortable and which intelligently blurs the line between documentary and ‘real’ cinema, Battle For Haditha is a work of both authority and integrity.
Jason Wood is the author of Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons (Faber).