How to make a drama out of the Iraq crisis

Audiences have turned their backs on films about Iraq, but a new BBC series on the aftermath of the war might buck the trend, says James Rampton, by avoiding the soapbox and easy sentimentality
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The Independent Culture

Waving a political banner – it's wonderfully rousing in a revolution, but fatally tedious in a drama. Overt political posturing is the enemy of art. Drama turns to tedious polemic the moment it mounts a soapbox.

In recent years, many American dramas about President George W Bush's foreign policy have fallen victim to just such a tendency. They have been lethally weakened by the desire to hammer home how frightfully liberal they are. The bleeding heart has obscured the drama.

Audiences seem to agree. The slew of movies trying to bash the audience over the head with an anti-neocon message about the War on Terror – Lions for Lambs, Rendition, The Kingdom, Body of Lies, In the Valley of Elah – have all tanked at the box office in the past couple of years.

There has been the odd exception – David Simon's compelling Generation Kill on HBO, for example, simply let the action do the talking. But overall it appears that anti-Bush film-makers have allowed their political sentiments to cloud their artistic judgement and have made movies that too closely resemble progressive sermons.

Audiences simply don't like being told what to think. It's off-putting and more than a little condescending. If viewers want a lesson, they'll sign up for evening classes. As Philip Pullman, the author of that great celebration of free speech, His Dark Materials, put it: "it's very important not be didactic. The function of Pride and Prejudice is not to teach us not to be proud and prejudiced. That's just one of the book's side effects."

The reviews of the American movies about Bush's foreign policy support this point of view. The Austin Chronicle, for instance, described Rendition as "an oversimplified and uneven attempt to arouse righteous indignation among its viewers."

The Village Voice, meanwhile, called Lions for Lambs a "terribly earnest, utterly terrible war drama... Less a war drama than a set of duelling position papers, it may be the gabbiest movie ever made about American foreign policy." The message is clear: filmmakers should leave preaching to those who occupy a pulpit for a living.

Of course, the Iraq war aroused – and still arouses – ferociously strong emotions. The fervour of the millions who took to the streets of Britain to protest against the invasion is not easily diluted. That ire should never be disregarded.

Like Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq has proved a draw for artists anxious to vent their anger about a conflict regarded as especially iniquitous. But those feelings of rage can sap the power of dramatists. Their potency is diffused if they focus on metaphorical pamphleteering rather than on simple story-telling.

All of which was very much on the minds of the makers of Occupation as they came to produce this gripping new three-part BBC1 drama about the aftermath of the Iraq War, which is showing on consecutive evenings from Tuesday 16 June. Those involved in the production were well aware that the offerings about the conflict from the other side of the Atlantic had been criticised for being too parti pris.

Penned by Peter Bowker, responsible for Blackpool and BBC1's modern-day reworkings of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Miller's Tale, Occupation is a drama about the human cost of war, not about the political fallout.

It centres on a trio of soldiers – Mike (James Nesbitt), Danny (Stephen Graham) and Hibbs (Warren Brown) – fighting side by side during the invasion of Basra in March 2003. Going back to a humdrum, everyday existence in the north west of England after witnessing the most unspeakable things on the front line, they all struggle to readjust to home life.

None of them can resist returning to the post-war chaos of Basra. Mike goes in search of an Iraqi doctor (Lubna Azabal) with whom he has become besotted. Danny, meanwhile, has nothing to keep him in England. Attempting to recapture the buzz he felt as a soldier and lured by the billions of dollars on offer for those helping with the reconstruction of Iraq, he sets himself up as a military contractor and recruits Hibbs to the firm.

The executive producer Derek Wax has form in this genre, having previously made Sex Traffic (about the trafficking of prostitutes from Eastern Europe) and Tsunami: the Aftermath. He emphasises that from the start there was to be no US drama-style political point-scoring in Occupation.

"A lot of the American films about Iraq set out to use their characters to embody a pre-conceived thesis or political point of view," Wax says. "They wanted to ram home their anti-Bush or anti-Cheney opinions. But Peter is a much more subtle writer – he raises questions rather than answers them. He presents characters' moral dilemmas and lets you work them out for yourself."

Wax reckons that, "certain films would have been launching into a diatribe against corporations and saying, 'look at Danny, he's a really corrupt bastard because he's a contractor.' But what Peter has done is more interesting. He's not trying to make big statements, just to explain why Danny has chosen this path. He shows us Danny's vulnerability and the fact that there is so little for him in this country.

"He is aimless at home, visiting a mother who no longer recognises him and seeing prostitutes in an attempt to lose himself. This incredible bond is formed between serving soldiers, and you can't get the same high putting on the kettle in your kitchen at home. Danny only comes alive as a front-line soldier."

So, Wax argues, "Peter's script helps us to grasp the characters' motivation. We understand where these people are coming from. They are not merely being employed as ciphers to illustrate a polemical standpoint or wave a banner."

Nesbitt takes up the theme. "Occupation doesn't take sides. It's not telling people, 'that was so wrong!' Unlike some of those American films, this is never preachy. The challenge was to find a way of telling a story about Iraq that the news hadn't covered. News is brilliant at informing us what is happening 24 hours a day. But it doesn't let you go behind the headlines.

"Peter came up with this notion of pressing the pause-button on the news and exploring the impact of it on the individuals concerned. We're not attacking the decisions made in this war, nor are we attacking those who took part in it. We're just telling their stories."

The actor adds that, "so many soldiers return home with traumas we have no notion of. We have no idea because they're kept out of the news. I really hope Occupation demonstrates just how much their lives are changed by what they do for us out there. Some of these guys are fucked. If they have served at a certain level of engagement, I don't know how they ever come back from that."

Brown concurs, chipping in that, "of course, people will have their own opinions about the war, but this is simply showing us what soldiers go through. It reminds the British public that the war is still going on and that people are still dying on our behalf."

Wax stresses that, "this is not an issue-based piece – it's not a docu-drama. It's a fiction that happens to be set against a real backdrop. It is inviting you into the lives of these characters and asking, 'what would you do in these circumstances?'"

Graham closes by highlighting another trap that the US films fell into which Occupation avoids: sickly, down-home sentimentality. "A lot of those American films failed because they romanticised things," asserts the actor. "We were very careful not to do that. We didn't want any schmaltz. This is an apple-pie-free zone. There's no apple pie with us – it's all just crumble!"

'Occupation' is showing on consecutive nights on BBC1 from 16 June