Gunner Palace (2004) ***
Directed, edited, produced, etc. by Michael Tucker and his wife Petra Epperlein. Photography, Mr. Tucker. Sound, Ms. Epperlein. A Palm Pictures release. 85 minutes. PG-13.
Mr.Tucker is Seattle-born in a military family, now (with his wife and movie-partner Petra Epperlein) living in Germany. "Gunners" is the sobriquet (nickname) of the 2/3 Field Artillery Division, in Baghdad, where they camp in a palace.
The Palace was built for Saddam Hussein's son (one of two, at least legitimate, and the maddest)) Quesay Hussein. He and his brother Uday were killed in a raid on July 24 2003. The Palace was bombed and partly destroyed. What has survived is in ornate, tacky Bordello style.
"Gunner Palace" is a documentary film with no script, no plot, no preconceived ideas. Rather, it is "Cinema Verite" that, in an acceptably chaotic style is presented as a puzzle with parts that fit. The parts, of course, are the Gunners. These are mostly young -in fact very young. And clearly from the poorer (financially) strata of America's society. They are white, black and --I suspect-Latinos. There are absolutely no traces of separations or discriminations. The comradery is a good omen for the future of the U.S.A.
Almost all those people are males. At least the ones we see. One female soldier, the good-looking SPC Billie Grimes, twice at least enlightens the filmmakers with interesting comments and explanations. There is a second woman, lithe and pretty in her swimsuit, seen from a distance across the royal pool of the Palace, dancing with a G.I. Note that the term G.I. is never, I think, heard in the film. Also, while there is none of the "men-without-women" reference so familiar from Hollywood World War II movies, there is an abundance of the f-word, which was a no-no in earlier days.
The soldiers hustle and bustle and train Iraquis, and take their Humvees all over - with care. They patrol constantly -and at their risk and peril. There's always the possibility of getting attacked, of stumbling on an IED -read "Improvised Explosive Device." In one case, a plastic bag becomes suspicious, and much cautious time is spent examining it. No, it was just a bag, but such items -like people-can fray your nerves.
De-fraying finds a solution in a first in wartime films: several of the Africa-Americans comment in ingenious rap and hip-hop, a contribution that ranges far and wide. A different contribution is the regular help to kids, whether in crossing nasty traffic or helping a child who has become a drug addict.
The vagaries of patrolling the city include the constant fear of bullets or small missiles hitting the U.S. vehicles. There's good reason, reinforced by the flimsiness of the Humvees metal (obviously a horrible lack of construction) which the soldiers try to reinforce with metallic junk. There's no doubt that the drivers and passengers also suffer from vehicular claustrophobia.
Yet the military circulate and circulate. Sometimes, especially in late afternoons, when the locals go shopping, when they go to coffeehouses, when stores turn on their lights, it all feels like a bustling, peacetime city. Cut, however, to a different world when the Americans are after suspects of past or future attacks, when the soldiers break into houses for clear or muddy reasons. In one case, we find them invading a home (reasons unexplained) and we get a parade of locals descending from the place, dad, mom, boys, girls, grandpa, grannie, etc, all seemingly beffudled, down to a very little girl. And sometimes the military arrest false-friends/collaborators and send them to prison. Go figure.
Things are murky, confusing, inconclusive, chaotic-like real life. Iraq (which the Americans pronounce "eye rack" to my distress) is another case of Occupation. But so unlike the savage, gratuitous, murderous Occupations by Nazis in World War II - not to mention the retaliations by the Soviets.
The oddest line of the film comes when an American soldier, near the movie's end, seriously exclaims: " God! I love this town!" Strange but significant. It could be a reaction to the speaker's sad life in some small town in the USA -- and perhaps it is also a ray of hope.