'Haditha Massacre' Dramatized in New Film

Haditha

A relative of two Iraqis killed in Haditha by U.S. Marines. Akram Saleh/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Akram Saleh/Getty Images

A group of Marines in 2005 shot and killed 24 Iraqis in Haditha. Director Nick Broomfield discusses "The Battle for Haditha," a film that portrays the marines, an Iraqi family and a group of insurgents.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

It is time to get you caught up on the major headlines from the war in Iraq. It is the Week in Iraq.

(Soundbite of song "Teardrop")

PESCA: Focus, focus, focus. That's what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pentagon strategists should be doing on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instead of plotting out weapons systems and aircraft programs for wars that haven't happened yet. Here he is at a news conference on Tuesday.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Secretary ROBERT MICHAEL GATES (United States Department of Defense): I've noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called next-war-it is, the propensity of much of the Defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.

PESCA: Gate says the U.S. military should concentrate more on winning in Iraq, and preparing to fight other unconventional insurgencies, and less on possible big wars with other countries.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

A young suicide bomber killed at least 23 people Wednesday, in a targeted attack against the family of a U.S.-backed police chief in Fallujah. The bomber, believed to be just 12 years old, blew himself up at the funeral of the police chief's uncle, who'd been killed by insurgents the day before. Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they were proud that one of their younger soldiers targeted a leader of the so-called awakening movement, the predominantly Sunni groups working with U.S. troops to root out al-Qaeda in the area.

PESCA: A U.S. Marine will face a court-martial for killing an unarmed Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah, back in 2004. Sergeant Jermaine Nelson will be tried later this year, the Marines said Wednesday. The charge is unpremeditated murder and dereliction of duty. Nelson is one of three soldiers facing charges in this case, which occurred during fierce combat operations in Fallujah, on November 9th, 2004.

MARTIN: And almost exactly a year later on November 19th, 2005, a group of Marines shot and killed 24 Iraqi men, women and children in the city of Haditha. Since then, military courts and the court of public opinion have debated whether the Marines' actions amounted to a massacre of innocent civilians, or justified response to a deadly insurgent attack on their unit.

Eight Marines were initially charged in connection to the Haditha incident, though charges have since been dropped against all but three. This past Tuesday, a military judge pushed back the court martial of one of those Marines, who will now head to court on June 17th. The Haditha killings are dramatized in a new feature film called "The Battle for Haditha." It weaves the stories of the Marines of Kilo Company, an Iraqi family and the insurgents who planted the deadly roadside bomb that allegedly incited the Marines to target local citizens as reprisal for the attack. Here's a clip from the film.

(Soundbite of movie "The Battle for Haditha")

Unidentified Marine #1: I live in (bleep) barracks. Constant threat. I could get shot at any minute, through any window. I wake up every morning, do the same patrols every day. And basically the only thing I'm fighting for, that I know that I'm fighting for, is to make it home each and every day without getting killed. Because I don't know why we're here.

Unidentified Marine #2: I mean, I've seen a, I'd say about 60-year-old woman, and all dressed in black in a burka or whatever they call them, their dresses, pull out an AK from under her skirt and start spraying. Needless to say, she got - I mean, she became a combatant, you know? Like, man, woman, child, if they pick up a gun and start shooting at you, they're considered a combatant. And that's reality.

MARTIN: "Battle for Haditha" is the first dramatic feature film by director Nick Broomfield. He's known for his documentary work on films like "Kurt & Courtney" and "Biggie and Tupac." Broomfield spoke with us from our NPR Studios in Los Angeles, along with Elliot Ruiz, the 22-year-old former Marine who stars in the film. He joined us on the phone from Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of reverse playback)

MARTIN: I want to start by asking you, Nick, this is not a documentary. This is a departure from things you've done in the past. This is fiction, sort of. Explain why you didn't just go with a straight documentary to tell this story.

Mr. NICK BROOMFIELD (Director, "Battle for Haditha"): Well, I mean, it's very much a drama. We were working from a script. The final form of the film is very much from a script. But I wanted to use what I'd learned in my documentary background, which is working with real people. So I cast ex-Marines who had actually served in Iraq, and I cast Iraqi refugees who had recently come to Jordan as refugees from the war. And they were able to bring their experiences to make something which, I think, is much richer than if you had just used actors who were - who have no experience like this.

MARTIN: But how did you construct the narrative? As we all know, this was a very high-profile case. It's a case that's still making its way through the court system. There've been some debatable details, discrepancies about the facts as pertain to that day and the battle at Haditha. How did you choose which version of the story to portray? What sources or data did you consult?

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Firstly, we met with Marines from Kilo Company. Then we got hold of the NCIS report, 6,000 pages.

MARTIN: Which is the military investigative report.

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Exactly. We went through all the discrepancies of those statements. We also got hold of the testimonies of the survivors from the massacre, and put all these bits and pieces together and wrote a script which we felt was fair and representative of that day, and portrayed the mindsets that had caused this event to happen. It does - I think the film does not seek to judge the day of Haditha, but to - rather to explain how these kinds of things can happen.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, you chose to use Iraqis who were refugees living in Jordan and former soldiers, former Marines. Did you foresee that being a potentially explosive dynamic at all?

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Well, I didn't, naively. I'm an optimist by nature. And I thought it would be an interesting encounter and that people would probably have the first proper conversations and relationships that they've ever had. Initially, it was very rocky, because one of the Iraqis had lost three brothers in Fallujah. And when he learnt that some of the Marines had actually served in Fallujah, there was a very ugly altercation. And I kind of thought - wondered whether we would actually get through the film at that point. But you know, the miracles of the football have never ceased to amaze me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOMFIELD: And within 10 days, they were - everyone was kicking a football around and they were best of buddies. And when I showed the film back in Jordan, there were so many questions about various Marines and how they were getting on, and there was a kind of wonderful, very warm relationship.

MARTIN: Yeah, Elliot, what did you expect from that situation? I mean, here you are going into Jordan to film this movie with Iraqis, some of whom were in the military, some of whom were involved with combat against American soldiers.

Mr. ELLIOT RUIZ (Former Marine; Actor, "Battle for Haditha"): Well, I really didn't know what to expect at first, you know? And the last time I had been to an Arab country, you know, I left on a bad note. Being able to go back to Jordan just totally changed that, you know, being able to spend time with Iraqis.

You know, I actually got to learn about them and, you know, their culture, their language, you know, why they do some of the things they do, and they just explained a lot of situations. And we just talked back and forth from - we actually - it was probably the best thing about filming was being able to go back and just close that, you know, that chapter in my life, you know. It was just - it was wonderful.

MARTIN: Did you debate the war, or did you just agree not to talk about that?

Mr. RUIZ: At first, it was sort of like, you know, some tension. And then, you know, afterwards, it was just like, after some tea and some soccer matches, you know, everything sort of just blew over.

MARTIN: You were wounded in Iraq.

Mr. RUIZ: Yes.

MARTIN: You were part of the special ops unit that rescued American POWs in Iraq in 2003. You almost lost your leg, right?

Mr. RUIZ: Yes. Yes. We were sent over to Tikrit to pull the seven Army POWs out and I almost lost my leg.

MARTIN: So you come back. You're awarded the Purple Heart. You try to close that chapter, I imagine, to some degree. You pursue your acting career. Along comes this movie that requires that you totally re-engage in that frame of mind, and not just any kind of general plotline about the war in Iraq, Haditha, this very high-profile, very violent episode of the war. Were you hesitant at all to take part in that?

Mr. RUIZ: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. At first, I wasn't really sure where Nick wanted to go with this film. So, you know, I talked to Nick and I got the idea of what he wanted to do with it. And then also, you know, right - even before I was - I decided to take the role, I called my friends up that I'd served with in Iraq and I asked them, do they think that it's all right for me to do it, should I do it? And all of my friends said yes. It's a story that needs to be told.

PESCA: Elliot, do you think that you brought anything to the role that a non-veteran wouldn't have been able to either know about or just feel?

Mr. RUIZ: Yeah, I mean, how can just a regular actor even imagine what it's like to lose a friend in such a horrible way? How can he even picture or even wonder what it's like to feel all those emotions, all of that hate, towards a certain amount of people because they're sending you in to do things you don't want to do? Or what it's like to lose friends, knowing that you were in charge of them? Like, there's no way a person who hasn't been there can even think of what it's going to be like.

MARTIN: Let's listen to that before we get any further, Elliot. This is a clip from the film. This is a scene when your character has had a little time to process what happened at Haditha. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of "Battle for Haditha")

Mr. RUIZ: (As Cpl. Ramirez) (Crying) That I'm (bleep) going to live with this guilt for the rest of my life, man. No one (bleep) can understand it either, man. I feel like I'm personally responsible for all those mother (bleep) that died underneath me. That's a Marine that died underneath me. I feel like I'm personally responsible. Like I could've (bleep) changed it, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: As I understand it, that - a lot of that wasn't scripted.

Mr. RUIZ: Yeah. A lot of that was real emotions, that was real feelings that I've been holding in for so long, you know. I just think it brought the authenticity to the film, because it is real.

PESCA: Nick, when you have an actor doing that and he's accessing memories that are real memories, it's different than when you have an actor doing it, because with an actor, it's, you know, he's using techniques, it might not cause anything psychological. So did you tread carefully in that area?

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Well, yeah, obviously. I mean, and it's very much my experience, too, of working with real people in documentaries. You get a very strong sense of how far you can push things. And also, it's not like you can suddenly cut the scene and say, OK, let's stop here and get a reverse angle. It's very much, you have to go with what's happening.

MARTIN: Elliot, was there - how much creative control did Nick give you? Was there a moment where you had to say to him, or felt compelled to say to him, you know what, Nick, it really didn't happen that way? Or this scene would have happened like this, let me show you?

Mr. RUIZ: Well, what is wonderful about working with Nick is that he asks, you know, because he knew that that's what we did, that was our job for so many years of our life. So there was actually four Marines on set and me, and you know, he asked about things, like, hey, how would Marines do this? Or how would they do that? And we also did sort of a two-week boot camp for the guys who weren't in the Marine Corps, just to get them up on how Marines - everything from the dress, to how they talk, to how they move, and stuff like that.

PESCA: At some point, and it probably happened very early on in the process, the question was, do I call this the "Battle for Haditha?" And do I make it literally about Haditha, this battle is still being battled over, or do I make it about another city and just sort of allude to Haditha? So why did you want to call it the "Battle for Haditha" and make it more explicit?

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Because I think Haditha is something that is a symbolic event in the Iraq War. I think it's something - it's a reference point that people will go back to. People wonder, how does something like this happen? What was going through the minds of those Marines? I don't think that the film is the definitive answer. I don't think there ever will be a definitive answer. I don't think - I think the nature of those kinds of events, when so many things are happening so quickly, is that there is no definitive answer.

I think what we know, however, is that when we go to war and the normal rules of human behavior change, that these kinds of things happen. And they happen, maybe not on as dramatic a scale as Haditha all the time, but they happen every day. It's not a film about good and evil. It's a film about, how did this happen? At the same time, I think it's as accurate as we could possibly make it.

PESCA: Elliot, have any of your fellow servicemen, guys you served with, seen it? And what's their reaction been?

Mr. RUIZ: Well, actually, they're all coming to Philadelphia this weekend to see the film. We're having a screening here in Philadelphia. I can't wait to see what their thoughts are.

MARTIN: Nick Broomfield is the filmmaker. The film is called the "Battle for Haditha." Elliot Ruiz stars in the film. Nick joined us from studios at NPR West, and Elliot joined us on the phone from Philadelphia. Thanks, gentlemen, we appreciate your time.

Mr. BROOMFIELD: Thank you very much.

Mr. RUIZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: So as we all know, there've been quite a few films about the war in Iraq that have been released over the past few years. Not so successful, I think.

PESCA: I know.

MARTIN: A lot of people, you know, they're just saturated with the images of this and it's been hard to get people to go the box office and buy tickets and engage in that. So it's a risky business.

PESCA: Well, one very good one was the Tommy Lee Jones one, "Valley of Elah."

MARTIN: Was that good?

PESCA: Yeah. Some of them just haven't really been that good. If you look at it historically, it's just not something that's usually done, releasing a movie about a war while fighting a war. In the Vietnam War, there was one movie released that was very pro-war. It was "The Green Berets," starting John Wayne.

MARTIN: Usually there's some distance.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Some took - you know, you need for reflection and kind of perspective, usually requires some distance.

PESCA: Right. And maybe that's just saying not artistically, but just in terms of box office. And obviously Nick Broomfield was trying to do something different with this. It's a very small film. It's a quasi-documentary feel. I think there are some questions, in terms of him presenting it as near fact, when a lot of the facts are in much more dispute. I don't know if Nick knows exactly everything he says he knows in the film, but as a piece of art, it's really interesting, and I thought our interview got to that. And as a documentary, on the one hand he can say, it's not a documentary it's fiction.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, it's a slippery slope.

PESCA: But on the other hand, he could say, but everything you see is what I think happened. But that's - and that's fine. But you know, we should probably emphasize - or maybe he wouldn't want us to, but it's what he thinks happened. Best estimate.

MARTIN: Make up your mind. Go see the film.

PESCA: Or don't.

MARTIN: I did - or don't. But it is...

PESCA: I'll make up your mind for you.

MARTIN: It is compelling. I'm going to tell you that much. And Elliot Ruiz did a good job.

PESCA: It's a great - it's a good piece of art. So this is - and that is it for this hour of the BPP. We're always online at npr.org/bryantpark, and I am Mike Pesca.

MARTIN: And I am Rachel Martin. Thanks for joining us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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