The timing couldn’t be better for independent filmmaker Philip Haas.
His modest $2 million movie, “The Situation,” one of the first U.S. feature films to focus on the fighting in Iraq, opens this month amid the nationwide debate over President Bush’s plan to send more troops to the war-torn country.
Although the drama crafted by Haas and journalist Wendell Steavenson is set in 2004, its message of chaos and misunderstanding, mixed with violence, rings true for Iraq today. If anything, Haas said, the situation — the innocuous word Iraqis in the film use to refer to the war and all that goes with it — has only worsened.
“In a way, the film has become more timely,” said Haas, a New York-based director. “I think it is an unsettling movie because it’s very clear about why (Iraq) is so problematic and why there aren’t many answers.”
The 106-minute movie opens with a group of American soldiers throwing a boy off a bridge in Samarra. The fictional scene is reminiscent of the real-life incident in 2004 when an Iraqi curfew violator drowned and an Army lieutenant was ultimately sentenced to 45 days in a military prison for his role in the death.
In “The Situation,” that act triggers a chain of events that feed on the deep-seated rifts and corruption that permeate Iraq. Connie Nielsen stars as an American journalist who attempts to write about the incident, only to get caught up in the confusion and dynamics of Iraqi tribalism.
Her boyfriend, played by Damian Lewis, is an American intelligence officer living in the fortified Green Zone — complete with a Chinese restaurant and swimming pool — who is trying to win over the Iraqis with promises of hospitals and water-treatment plants. At the same time, he struggles to figure out who he can trust.
“There is no truth, you know,” Lewis’ character, Dan Murphy, tells an enthusiastic young officer who recently arrived in Iraq. “It’s not about locking up all the bad guys. It doesn’t work like that. There are no bad guys and there are no good guys. It’s not gray, either. It just that the truth shifts according to each person you talk to.”
“The Situation” opened in a few New York theaters Feb. 2. It is opening in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., on Friday and in hundreds of theaters across the country on Feb. 16.
Liaquat Ahamed, one of the film’s producers and Haas’ friend for 35 years, said it was difficult to initially secure funding. Documentaries about Iraq had not done well at the box office, and there was a hesitance in late 2004 and early 2005 to finance a project that could be seen as critical of the war.
But he said life in Iraq has worsened and support for the war has fallen to the point that “this movie has become part of the mainstream.”
Haas said he, too, thought the film might be seen as politically polarizing, viewed as a Michael Moore kind of anti-Bush movie. But he said Republicans, Democrats and even some soldiers have told him that the film is an accurate representation of the chaos that has enveloped Iraq.
“Of the audiences I’ve spoken with, there is a sense that everyone needs to see this movie because it gives everyone a common ground, sort of a microcosm of what’s going on,” he said.
Director's personal educationFor Haas, 54, “The Situation” marks a departure from his past directorial work, which focused on adaptations of novels, including “Up at the Villa” in 2000 and the Oscar-nominated “Angels and Insects” in 1995.
Haas said he didn’t make the movie to change anyone’s views about the controversial war. The only view he hoped to change was his own. He said making a film about a war that’s still in progress was an opportunity for a personal education about Iraq. Like his producer friend Ahamed, Haas said he had become overwhelmed by the daily news of the war zone, especially the numbers of dead soldiers and civilians.
Nielsen, who costarred in “Gladiator,” said she was drawn to the film for similar reasons.
“I wanted to work out some of the frustration I was feeling from watching the news,” Nielsen told an audience in New York last week. “I just felt, oh my God, finally, here is a story that attempts to describe a culture, but a culture that is in a huge state of crisis.”
Haas recruited co-writer Steavenson after reading a piece she wrote in the British magazine Granta about a young jihadi she followed in Iraq. Haas said he was impressed by Steavenson’s objectivity in the article, and how she was able to show the complexities there.
Journalist brought real experiencesHaas, who filmed the movie in Morocco, relied heavily on Steavenson’s experiences living and working as a journalist in Iraq. She was able to give him advice on numerous details, including how an Iraqi holds a gun and how much noise Iraqi women make at a funeral.
Working on an independent film budget, Haas was able to economize by hiring some of the special-effects crew from the film “Babel,” who had just finished working in Morocco. They liked the script and agreed to work for a fraction of their usual price. Haas also enlisted intelligence officers at the American embassy to help him stage battle scenes, and rented Humvees, helicopters and tanks from the Moroccan army.
All the camera work in the film was hand-held, to give a sense of immediacy and to make it feel as if the moviegoer is there. Unlike many big blockbuster war films, there are no sweeping, overhead camera shots in “The Situation.” It has more of a documentary feel.
President Bush might find the film enlightening, Haas said.
“We’ll deliver a print to the White House. He’ll like it,” he quipped.