As befits the US's bloodiest misadventure since the Vietnam War, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have provoked a series of soul-searching American feature films. Hollywood waited a few years before it dared articulate the immense impact of Vietnam on the national consciousness. This time the big studios haven't been nearly as tentative, releasing films such as Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs and Rendition even as thousands of US troops attempt to prosecute their president's disastrous foreign policy.
Timely they may be, but none can claim to have the immediacy of Nick Broomfield's take. With Battle for Haditha, the British film-maker is tackling one of the most notorious incidents of the conflict to date: the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by a company of US Marines in the western Iraq town of Haditha.
The subject seems unlikely for Broomfield. Over the past 30 years, he has made his name with a series of idiosyncratic documentaries about personalities as diverse as the South African white separatist Eugene Terreblanche, the musician Courtney Love and the serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And as celebrated as his films have been, Broomfield is as well known for his trademark appearances in them, headphones askew on head, sound boom in hand.
But Broomfield's apparently bumbling, droll presence was notably absent in his last film, Ghosts (2006), a reality-based drama about the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay. And in Haditha he again remains behind the camera. Is the 59-year-old getting more serious in his old age?
"I'm hopelessly obsessed with what's going on in the world," he says. "And this single incident [in Haditha], to me, encapsulated the Iraq war. It said something without getting overwhelmed by the fog of statistics."
In person, Broomfield is a blend of dishevelled academic and casually confident charmer. A tall, louche figure in smart jacket and jeans, he lolls back into the sumptuous sofa and looks as if he might nod off at any minute while talking about his move from documentary into "reality-drama".
The undisputed facts upon which the film is based are that at 7.15am on 19 November 2005 a US armoured car, carrying Marines from Kilo Company patrolling Haditha, was blown up by a bomb, killing the driver and injuring two others. Shortly after, members of Kilo Company shot dead five men in a taxi and then entered nearby houses, killing another 19 civilians, including seven women and several children, in what has become one of the war's most controversial incidents.
"The most important thing was to approach it with an open mind," says Broomfield. "Over six months I met with the survivors of Haditha from all sides. The facts had to shape the story. We're not seeking to blame the Marines, but I think we have to examine the values and philosophy behind the Iraq conflict."
The civilian deaths were initially explained away by the US military as a result of the bomb. However, a local journalism student handed over to Time magazine what he said was a video record of the results of the massacre, filmed in the houses and the morgue. While there is dispute over the integrity of the tape (it has since been claimed by the American battalion intelligence officer monitoring the day's events that it was made by an insurgent propagandist trying to foment further anti-American feeling), it did force an official investigation. The consequent US military criminal hearings are ongoing at Camp Pendleton in California. So far three of the four marines charged with the killings have been exonerated while the verdict on the sergeant, charged on 17 counts of murder, has yet to be reached. "It'll be interesting to see the eventual verdicts, but the ultimate challenge of the film was to show the Marines as victims themselves," says Broomfield. "These guys are scapegoats, really: they are going to take the fall, not the commanding officers."
Broomfield based the film on his own intensive research and a 6,000-page document on the incident issued by the US Naval Criminal Investigation Service. "What we portray is a very mild version of what happened and I stand by it completely," he says. "The greatest influence in making the film was The Battle Of Algiers; I wanted to emulate that multifaceted view of conflict."
Gillo Pontecorvo's classic Battle Of Algiers (1966) re-enacted the Algerian uprising against the occupying French with non-actors in real locations. Similarly, Broomfield's cast are all non-actors – the Marines played by young veterans of the war and the civilians by Iraqi refugees from Jordan (where the film was shot), many of whom had family members killed in the conflict. "The Iraqis all had a gruesome story to tell," says Broomfield, "but they don't hate America; in fact, most of them aspire to life in America. It's George Bush they hate with a passion. But they're more concerned with surviving than anything else."
The film's remarkable young lead, Elliot Ruiz, is a 22-year-old former Marine who, at 17, was the youngest US serviceman deployed to Iraq. Invalided out after being seriously wounded in the leg while on a mission near Saddam Hussein's birthplace, Tikrit, Ruiz's physical scars are displayed in one scene, but it was the psychological damage that became evident during filming. "The scene where Elliot breaks down was a real nervous breakdown; it wasn't scripted," says Broomfield. "The Marines were living in barracks so we replicated the conditions in Iraq and it brought it all back to him."
Such reality is what Broomfield was trying to capture. "Modern wars are about unarmed civilians caught in the middle of conflict," he says. "I wanted to place the audience in the reality of that situation. There are a lot of Iraq films out there but few deal with what it's like to live there right now."
So, have we seen the last of the archetypal Broomfield screen persona, chasing after his bemused subjects and fiddling with his sound equipment? Broomfield has made 21 films in a career spanning four decades, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s, when he split from his wife, Joan Churchill, a fellow film-maker, that Broomfield, the son of a British father and Czech mother, developed his characteristic style. And it was in 1991, with his film about Eugene Terreblanche, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife, that he achieved his breakthrough. "I just got so tired of seeing myself on screen," he says. "Originally it was liberating and humorous. But that style became so adopted by so many people it became a crowded world."
Although, for once, he has no specific projects planned, and is ready for some time off after four years of constant work, Broomfield would like to return to "reality-drama" and do something like Haditha again – "something with a backbone of reality. I think I'll always work in that area. I like films which have something to say." *
'Battle for Haditha' has its cinematic release on 1 February and will be shown on Channel 4 on 17 March as part of a season marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq
Iraq on celluloid: Five films tackling the 'war on terror'
A drama in which Reese Witherspoon searches for her Egyptian husband after he is spirited away by the CIA under the US's "extraordinary rendition" laws
In the Valley of Elah (released on Friday)
Tommy Lee Jones as a taciturn ex-Marine investigating his soldier son's death after his return from Iraq
Redacted (set for release on 21 March)
Brian De Palma directs a montage of brutal scenes of rape and murderby rampaging US troops in Iraq
Stop Loss (set for release on 11 April)
Ryan Phillippe stars as a young, disillusioned Iraq veteran who refuses orders to return to war after coming home to the US
Grace is Gone(release tba)
A low-key John Cusack, numbed by the loss of his wife killed in Iraq, takes his two young daughters on a road trip across Middle AmericaReuse content