Thursday, November 03, 2011

Gittoes at AFA: Soundtrack to War

George Gittoes is a filmmaker who is not afraid of a little controversy. However, when Michael Moore rather casually lifted scenes from Gittoes’ boots-on-the-ground Iraq documentary, it was the sort of media kerfuffle he would never expect his work to generate. While Gittoes has been critical of the war in Iraq, and all wars in general, his films are never kneejerk, which is why he was somewhat leery of finding himself associated with Moore. Indeed, his film in question, Soundtrack to War (trailer here) deserves to be considered separate and apart from subsequent uses, “fair” or otherwise, when it screens this Saturday as part of the Gittoes retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

Rather than trying to trick soldiers into revealing troop movements, Gittoes went to Iraq to learn what was in the American soldiers CD players. Intuitively, it seems like there is a great deal of validity in Gittoes’ unspoken premise: if you know their music, you will know the soldier. Who were they listening to? Diana Krall.

Okay, so that was only one squad listening to Krall and it was never during times of battle, but it is still a cool endorsement. As one might expect, rap and heavy metal were far more popular, particularly to crank up during times of tension, including even combat engagements. Country is also represented, as is Gospel, which again fits our preconceptions of military tastes and values. There were also the occasional punks, but they were rather few and far between.

As Gittoes talks to the soldiers it is becomes plain some have no idea why they are there and are openly skeptical of the justifications for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. (Obviously, this was the real music to Moore’s ears.) However, many soldiers expressed unabashed patriotism and pride in their mission. Indeed, the latter were often (but not always) the more articulate of Gittoes’ interview subjects. The real take-away is that the military is not monolithic. There are considerable differences of opinion within the ranks. Yet, when deployed, they must act as one.

Although it is ostensibly all about music, most of the rap and metal tunes heard on Soundtrack’s soundtrack have a one-note repetitiveness. Still, there are a handful of originals performed a cappella or with Spartan guitar accompaniment that are quite engaging.

While Soundtrack might offer an up-close, beyond-the-headlines perspective on the realities of everyday life for American military personnel in Iraq, it is even more revealing about Gittoes’ approach to filmmaking, at least when seen in the context of AFA’s retrospective. Somehow, the servicemen immediately open up to the old school gonzo journalist. The respect is also clearly mutual, prompting his concern when their words taken out of context in Moore’s propaganda broadside.

Gittoes does not simply point, shoot, and forget. He also follows up. In fact, he would revisit one of the soldiers he documented rapping in Uday Hussein’s “gangster palace” when he returned to the mean streets of Miami in Rampage, which also screens during his upcoming retrospective. Notably balanced and once again shot at some risk to his own well being, Soundtrack is not a mind blowing revelation like Miscreants of Taliwood, but it is certainly well worth seeing when it screens this Saturday (with Rampage to follow) at the venerable Anthology Film Archives, currently celebrating its fortieth anniversary.