CIFF 2011: On the Bridge (L’âme en sang, 2010)

Director: Olivier Morel

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know about you, but I know exactly where I was on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell to Coalition troops—I was in an airport waiting to catch a plane. Big Brother-like and almost impossible to avoid, every television in the place was broadcasting images of some Iraqis trying to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city. They used ropes, they pulled with U.S. Army jeeps, it took a very long time. Finally, the statue fell. That was supposed to be the beginning of the end, right? In 2010, the war was officially declared over, but we still have 50,000 troops in the country who could be ordered to start fighting again. So, maybe we really are still at war in Iraq.

As a result of this seemingly endless conflict, a cottage industry in films about the war in Iraq has sprung up. In my interview with Errol Morris about his Iraq-related movie, Standard Operating Procedure, he said in defense of his approach, “If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.”

While I would argue about whether all these films look alike—they most certainly do not—their missions all point in the same direction: they want to make the war and its costs visible and understandable to audiences, particularly to Americans who bought the lies that started the conflict and who have had no truly personal stake in our actions abroad. Olivier Morel, a French photographer and documentarian living in the United States, focuses on soldiers who have returned to their homes, but not to their lives, because they are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He focuses all of his attention on the direct testimony of six individuals from various parts of the country who served in various capacities in Iraq, from tank driver to surgeon, and one family whose son committed suicide. Their stories are both particular and universal, a chronicle of tormented consciences, anger at bad-faith politics and bad-policy military orders, and soul-crushing terror at their helplessness to stop great evil from happening.

David Brooks is a career military surgeon who had been through seven wars. Iraq was his Waterloo, the one that cracked him into a million pieces that he is still trying to pick up. Wendy Barranco, another healer, was only 19 when she went to Iraq; now the head of Iraq Veterans Against the War, she is riddled with guilt and full of apologies for giving “200%” to try to save soldiers as young as she—only to fail. Ryan Endicott skateboards barefooted along Venice Beach, and angrily relates that he has to call suicide hotlines to find someone who will talk to him. We’re not convinced that he really doesn’t want to kill himself, unless it is the VA medical system that has let him down he really wants to kill; there is death in his voice and in his graphic songs of pain and destruction.

Lisa Zepeda is a Chicago cop, so what street horrors hasn’t she seen at home. Still, her service in Abu Ghraib is different, much different, and like Ryan, she finds that her fellow police officers won’t listen to her, preferring to spout jingoistic justifications for destroying the Iraqis where they sit. Vince Emanuele lifts weights and rails against the policies that made insurgents every day in Iraq; he wonders if these strategies weren’t part of a diabolical scheme to create a war that will last forever, and given what has transpired, it’s not hard to wonder with him. Jason Moon is a patriot—was a patriot—and brings out the three-page list of medications the doctors have tried on him, complaining that before the war, all he ever took was a multivitamin. He recalls when the news of Abu Ghraib broke that he sat appalled at the depravity of the torment Sabrina Harman documented for the world; his fellows in Iraq laughed at the sight and made him wonder what kind of an alternate universe he had stepped into.

Jeff Lucey, represented by his parents and sister, stands in for the two veterans of Iraq who kill themselves each week. The Luceys seem to be so even-keeled when talking about Jeff and his slow-building insanity. Mother Joyce looked up camel spiders on the Internet when he mentioned them, not realizing that he was hallucinating them in his room, and father Kevin accepted Jeff’s protestations that he was fine until Jeff snuck out of the house wearing his uniform and weaponry to buy beer. In a rage, Kevin broke every bottle against a tree; he still doesn’t know why.

The living casualties of war are as old as war itself, and these vets bear some self-inflicted scars/tributes. Lisa has a pair of dog tags tattoed on her shoulder, one written in English and one in Arabic. Ryan has a pair of bloody hands tattoed on his back along with the phrase “Forgive me for I have sinned.” There do seem to be people in the world, particularly those calling a lot of the shots, who have no such conscience as these two vets, nor that of Jason Moon, who told his commanders that he would be unable to run over children who might be blocking a U.S. convoy of tanks, thus defying a direct order. These honchos might not be so cavalier about wasting lives in the most gruesome manner imaginable if they had to face getting some brain matter on the Saville Row suits war profits help them buy—but, of course, that will never happen. So, well-intentioned, if misguided soldiers will keep getting thrown to the lions, will continue to have their mental health needs experimented with and ignored by an overwhelmed or uncaring system, and will fail to have their stories widely disseminated to prevent more young people from following in their ruinous footsteps. One thing’s for sure—for many Iraq veterans who have returned home, that war will only end with their deaths.

Another film about Iraq? We really can’t have enough. Go see this exceptionally moving one, an oral history of madness told by the people who lived through it.

On the Bridge will screen Saturday, October 8, 1:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 16, 6:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/09/2011 to 2:53 pm

    I had not previously seen that marvelous interview you conducted with Errol Morris, but I enjoyed it immensely. It was intelligent and offered off-the-beacon-track questions that wholly enlighten the subject you are covering here in this post.

    True, we can never have enough movies on Iraq, though it’s clear that even the independent companies are struggling to make ends meet. My favorite film on this subject is the documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, though I thought IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS was memorable, and even the flawed IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH had some worth. Obviously, Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 911 and Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER will enter discussion too. Another affecting work is GRACE IS GONE.

    In any event, I wasn’t a big fan of STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, but like other Morris works exceedingly.

    Your review of this omnibus film is compelling, and motivation to see the film if it lands a theatrical booking at some point.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/09/2011 to 3:26 pm

    Hi Sam. I’m off to the races again, as you can see. There isn’t really anything new in this film, but it is so emotionally close to the bone that it is well worth seeing. Actually looking at the reams of medical records and pages of medications Moon offered to illustrate his life as a guinea pig is a sock between the eyes, and there is a lot of contempt for military orders in Iraq and the ineffectiveness of the VA. There have been more suicides for Iraq vets than of any other war; I’d like to know more about why.

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