Battle for Haditha (UK 2007)

I remember enjoying and being impressed by one of Nick Broomfield’s early works, Soldier Girls (1981). His later high profile series of authored, ‘performative’ documentaries such as Biggie and Tupac (2002) tended to leave me cold. I could see that they were important in terms of introducing new documentary styles but I just found his presence irritating. I was therefore intrigued by his turn to documentary drama in Ghosts (2006) which I was glad I caught on the big screen. I wish that was where I saw Battle for Haditha.

Instead, I saw this film about the Iraq War on Channel 4. It was broadcast on the day it was released on DVD in the UK. It did in fact get a cinema release – one week in three cinemas according to the UKFC website. I assume that this was to get some reviews and to qualify for awards. This wouldn’t matter except that I was shocked to discover that the film was shot on Super 35 and the film print was ‘Scope 2.35:1. The Channel 4 broadcast was 16:9 or thereabouts (whereas Film 4 usually gets aspect ratios correct). I don’t really feel like I’ve seen a film properly if it is in the wrong ratio and coupled with the annoying ad breaks this ruined my concentration. More 4 screened a documentary co-directed by Broomfield’s son immediately after the Battle for Haditha ended. At one point they trailed the doc. in an ad break and I became confused – I thought the film had started again. If Channel 4 does get some public money after all its lobbying I suggest that Ofcom forces them to restrict ads to the gaps between programmes, not during them.

This long preamble is just to make the point that I find it difficult to judge a film that has aroused controversy – because its presentation was so flawed. The events depicted took place in 2005 and Broomfield recreated them in Jordan using non-actors with some connection to the original ‘players’ in the incident. The main American character, the marine corporal, was played by an ex-marine who had been wounded in Iraq (and who shows his battle scars in one sequence). The case of the marines who were accused of murdering civilians after a roadside bomb exploded has not yet been resolved. This has led to some attacks on Broomfield, as has the overall representation of the Americans. Yet the film does attempt to portray three sides to the argument in a dispassionate way – the marines, the ‘insurgents’ (both foreign fighters and locals) and the local families who were both innocent bystanders and victims of the conflict.

I don’t think it is Broomfield’s fault that I had least sympathy with the marines. I know soldiers have to be tough and that these young men have been brutalised by the war. In principle, I don’t hold them responsible for what Bush and Blair have unleashed. But I found it hard to engage with faceless guys in combat gear who seem to shout and swear most of the time. Most people would surely sympathise with the families, including the young couple pictured above, whose lives are shattered. Oddly though, it is the two men who plant the bomb who seem to be the characters we get to know best. At least they have a reason for what they do — and remorse when it goes wrong. The real villains of the story are the American commanders and the Al Quaeda/insurgent leaders.

The film is very well made on a tiny budget of $2 million, but in the end I’m not sure whether it ‘works’ in terms of the documentary drama style. It doesn’t, for me, have either the fluid action of Paul Greengrass, the melodrama intensity of Ken Loach or the real sense of ‘being there’ that Michael Winterbottom achieves. But if I’d seen it in a cinema I might feel differently about it.


  1. Nick Lacey

    I thought the film was terrific from the conception (the three stories), to the performances and formal qualities of the documentary style.

    Although it was shot as if simply capturing the action, it wasn’t without its overtly rhetorical direction. For example, a child is hidden under a bed, when the marines enter we see their boots from the child’s perspective and then a grenade is thrown toward us. After the smoke has cleared the boots leave leaving spent bullets all over the floor.

    I agree with Roy that Broomfield has become a much more interesting filmmaker but isn’t he making dramadocs rather than docudrama?


  2. Michael Brooke

    This wouldn’t matter except that I was shocked to discover that the film was shot on Super 35 and the film print was ‘Scope 2.35:1. The Channel 4 broadcast was 16:9 or thereabouts (whereas Film 4 usually gets aspect ratios correct). I don’t really feel like I’ve seen a film properly if it is in the wrong ratio and coupled with the annoying ad breaks this ruined my concentration.

    My press notes say that the film was shot on HD video – I’d be very surprised if it was 35mm, given the tiny budget and the fact that it had a distinct “video” look on the big screen.

    This interview with Broomfield also strongly hints that he shot both it and Ghosts in HD (scroll down to the last two paragraphs).

    Which means that the original aspect ratio was almost certainly 16:9, and the cinema version was in fact cropped from that. And I suspect Broomfield was well aware that the vast majority of people would watch the film in 16:9, given that few of his earlier films had much in the way of big-screen exposure, so I very much doubt the broadcast version was compromised.

    Commercial breaks are a different matter, though!


  3. Roy Stafford

    Hmm! I watched this film partly because someone asked me too and as I indicated I found it difficult to concentrate on the small screen. To take Nick’s point first, I use ‘documentary drama’ to refer to a fiction that uses a documentary style. Broomfield had to change the names and present it as a fiction even though it was based on real events, so technically it is a documentary drama. A dramadoc I take to be a documentary using the techniques of drama.

    In the interview referenced by Michael, Broomfield wants to avoid both these tags and also ciné vérité. I agree with him on the latter as ciné vérité is a poorly understood term that is usually misused. He is probably right to say we need a new term to describe what he and Winterbottom etc. are doing, but ‘real cinema’ isn’t the term in my view.

    Re the aspect ratio question, I foolishly went to IMDB first and it gave Super 35. I checked Michael’s review in Sight & Sound which confirmed the ratio, but didn’t give any other clues.

    A Mighty Heart, Winterbottom’s last film on release, was shot on HD from which 2.35:1 projection prints were made on both film and 2K digital formats as far as I am aware. On the other hand, I understand that Super 35 is now the standard film format for US TV shows scheduled for 16:9 broadcasts. Perhaps this is what has created confusion?

    Since most producers know in advance that they will need different ratios for different markets, they must shoot with them all in mind – which can’t be easy in this type of filmmaking. Gavin Hood told American Cinematographer that his film Tsotsi had to be available in 9 different versions, including 2.35:1, 4:3 and 16:9.

    I’ve now noticed that Battle for Haditha is being shown at the National Media Museum this week. Not sure if I will go to see it or not.


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