In Phillip Haas’s The Situation, a film about the war in Iraq, there is no happy ending. On the bright side, as one of the film’s protagonists, a U.S. intelligence operative, says to his war-weary journalist girlfriend, “It’s just Iraq. Don’t let it get to you.” Haas’s latest film sets out to tell the story of the American occupation of Iraq concurrent with the actual event. Haas’s vision has driven this project from the outset, commissioning the script from former Iraq correspondent Wendell Steavenson—her first screenplay. When I questioned the director about the unfinished state of the actual situation that inspired the film, Haas replied, “It’s a Shakespearean tragedy—you’re in Act Three.”
The Situation is the first film of its kind: no other filmmaker has yet attempted to imagine a fictional account of the war in Iraq—a fact that has earned it mixed reviews. Some of the ambivalence towards this film may be result from the lack of other fictional films dealing with this subject matter, in a sense forcing the burden of these nonexistent films upon it. “This is not meant to be the only film about Iraq,” Haas said with genuine encouragement in his eyes. “Let the next person try.”
Haas readily admits that he is not a politically driven person. “But the truth is indigestible,” he says, “this is a disaster of epic proportions…Why is everyone being quiet?” Nevertheless, viewers should not expect an exhaustive newsreel mired in seemingly distant historical events. The world of The Situation is chaotic and personal. Haas avoids aerial shots that would allow for both physical and metaphorical perspective: the viewer is meant to be placed on the ground, at once deeply engaged but also robbed of the situational awareness afforded by a bird’s-eye-view or establishing shot.
Though the film never explicitly established the exact time period of major historical events, the relative freedom with which the characters move about the country ostensibly backdates the film to the Iraq of 2004, the year in which the American government officially handed power over to the Iraqi interim government. An audience of news correspondents who had covered the Iraq war stated that The Situation spurred them to feel nostalgia for what they called “the good old days” when reporting was safer and easier than it is today. Haas, however, feels that the film is in some ways timelier now than when it was made as it centers on the internal Iraqi conflicts that the American government only recently has acknowledged to be outright civil war.
Haas felt impelled to create something immediate: the filming took a total of five weeks. When asked how long it took to get the whole project together, Haas quipped, “About as long as it took Bush to get us into Iraq.”
While much of the film’s reception has focused on whether or not the film is harsh on the U.S. Armed forces, The Situation is not about the troops. Instead, Haas places an unprecedented amount of agency in the hands of his Iraqi characters. There is no universal commentary on the Iraqi character; they are portrayed as neither martyrs nor terrorists.
“It’s not that everyone is playing a good Arab,” says Haas, rather each character is significantly developed. “Even the Sheik who is possibly the most corrupt person in the film is a fully fleshed-out character.” Perhaps even more so than many of the film’s American characters, the Iraqis are multifaceted: there is everyone from the Iraqi ambassador who trades information to Americans for a one-way ticket to Australia to the photographer who receives his first passport and wonders about the sound that snow makes underfoot.
“Most people who have written the big books about Iraq are not Arab,” Haas said. “Wendy [screenwriter Steavenson] had access to the Iraqi life others haven’t.”
Steavenson, though not Arab herself, is engaged to an Iraqi.
The Iraq of the Iraqis portrayed in The Situation is a messy one where a civilian is damned if he speaks to the Americans (he is branded as a collaborator) and damned if he does not (red-flagged as a terrorist for speaking with fellow Iraqis then carted off to Abu Ghraib in the night).
“The film traffics in uncertainty,” Haas said. He did not seek to create a politically charged film, feeling that Americans, much as himself, were “deadened by the news.” Instead, Haas’s film revolves around a love triangle. Haas defines his goal to “illuminate the tragedy” as aiming to attract viscerally an audience in a country that makes relatively few war films in comparison to the hundreds of romances made annually. Haas hopes to create characters that attach a story that is comprehensible to a viewer who knows Iraq only through repeated “faceless statistics.”
Haas allowed some of his directorial control by insisting on the imposition of a language barrier between the Arab characters and the audience. Haas himself speaks no Arabic. “I was very blunt,” he said, giving directions along the lines of “speak louder” or “don’t raise your eyebrows so much.” This move signifies the importance in the film of presenting a fair view of the Iraqi people to an American audience.
“All the [Arab actors] were thrilled to be in a film where they weren’t playing terrorists,” he said. One of the few lead actors that may look familiar to the American audience, Omar Berdouni in the sympathetic role of Bashar, was last seen as one of the hijackers in United 93 a role he admits now that he was “sickened” to play. He wanted to play the role of Bashar from the outset though he knew it was a minor role. In the end, he said that he found it much more satisfying than his role in United 93. The leading male in the film, Mido Hamada playing the role of Zaid, refuses to play terrorists altogether—“others don’t necessarily have that choice,” Haas said regretfully.
In his quest for authenticity, Haas casted local prostitutes to play the roles of Iraqi call girls. In spite of this attention to accuracy, the film’s existence itself calls into question the purpose of creating a fiction out of such an unclear truth. In a particularly poignant monologue, a leading U.S. intelligence officer explains to a coworker that there is no truth, that there are neither good nor bad guys. Instead, he says fiercely, the truth of Iraq is kaleidoscopic: always shifting according to the agenda and the intentions of the persons in power.
At a Q&A featuring Princeton scholars following the film’s New Jersey premiere, panelist C.K. Williams, a professor of poetry in the University’s Program in Creative Writing, expressed his appreciation of The Situation’s willingness to show “the intricacies of everyone’s interests” in Iraq after years of an administration that he felt recounts the events only in a tone of “exasperated certainty.”
Haas explained that the film acts as a Rorschach test for the viewer who cannot help but impose his personal political beliefs upon the message of the film. He joked that “if Mr. Bush sat through the film he’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s a crazy place over there.’” The president is present in the Iraq of The Situation only in his official portraiture on the walls in the Green Zone that Haas promises is not doctored—a goofily grinning displacement of the ubiquitous and omniscient portrait traditional of a dictatorship. Haas admitted he believes the final product of The Situation to be biased to the left but he was quick to add that it is “gratifying to show the film in Princeton, but it will be especially gratifying to show it in the Red States.”
Haas asserted that The Situation traffics an uncertainty, but, significantly, the film also traffics in emotion. As the crackling of automatic gunfire and the thud of distant bombings that punctuate the film crescendo, a blonde journalist, Anna, and her Iraqi photographer friend, Zaid, share escape-fantasies about leaving Iraq. He tells her that her six-month stint in Iraq is too long for anyone though he himself has never left in all his 29 years. She tells him that she dreams of going to a beautiful Aegean beach by the ruins of a sun-bleached, ancient temple. Zaid firmly shakes his head and says, “No ruins. Everything has to be perfect and standing up.”