T he word “docudrama”, when I hear it, tends to conjure up images of dodgy Channel 4 costume re-enactments, designed either to prop up shoddy documentary work, or inexplicably shoehorned in as an unwelcome distraction from the real meat of an interesting story or issue.
Of late however I have had to revise this view somewhat, largely because of the increasingly blurred cinematic line between documentary and drama shown in recent films such as Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts, both of which grant an emotional immediacy absent in straight documentary.
Broomfield’s latest film gives us an insight into the incident at Haditha in Iraq, in which US marines allegedly massacred 24 Iraqi civilians in retaliation for the loss of one of their own number to a roadside bomb. As in Ghosts, Broomfield films in pseudo-documentary style, going so far as to cast ex-marines and refugees from the Iraq war in the central parts.
The result is a provocative drama that deals with some of the most essential issues of the war. As Broomfield sees it, everyone at ground level is a victim, from the exhausted young marines working under extreme pressure, to a pair of angry local insurgents, headed by a disillusioned and humiliated ex-army man.
The film’s portrayal is persuasive – on both sides these are simply ordinary people placed in impossible circumstances. This is especially true in the case of the local civilians who are utterly trapped between fear of the Al-Qaeda fanatics and a genuine desire to stabilise their community.
Eventually we reach the expected climax, and though the explosion of violence is sickeningly visceral it highlights some of the film’s fundamental problems. Elliot Ruiz, who plays the central marine character and does a fine job otherwise, does not quite manage to convey the emotional impact that sparks the violence, and as a consequence we never quite feel the psychological pressures that Broomfield wants to depict until the end of the film.
Other elements fall short, especially the inclusion of an off-putting strand of heavy-handed explanation and self-justification which feels explicitly scripted and unnatural amid the generally convincing dialogue.
It breaks the suspension of disbelief, if only momentarily, which is a huge problem in a film so committed to authenticity. Similarly, there is a slightly clumsy parallelism between the cowardly military commanders and scheming sheikhs who are the real villains of the piece.
Despite these weaknesses, the film raises important questions and is certainly compelling, shocking, largely well constructed and most of all, admirable in its even-handedness and refusal to be judgemental. The realism of the whole just makes those false notes all the more jarring, and ultimately the film doesn’t always convince as a drama.