Filmmaker Philip Haas tries to get behind the headlines

Director Philip Haas’ latest independent film, The Situation, is set in Samarra, Iraq, in 2004. It follows the story of an American journalist, Anna, as she tries to uncover who killed her Iraqi friend and trusted source, Rafeeq, and ultimately finds her own life in danger. Anna is modeled after the screenwriter, journalist Wendell Steavenson, who reported from Iraq. The film, which was released this winter and is playing in theaters in the United States, focuses on American and Iraqi characters and dramatizes the human stories, particularly those of Iraqis, behind the headlines. The DVD of the film will be released in late July. Haas, whose other independent films include Angels and Insects and documentaries about artists, is teaching screenwriting and documentary filmmaking this semester at Princeton. He spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.

Why did you make this film?

I made it to answer a question of my own, which was why I was becoming more and more deadened by the news [of the Iraq war]. The reporting seemed to contribute to it, because the numbers of people dying and being displaced were so overwhelming, and the reporting wasn’t personalized. And by not having a [military] draft, it’s less affecting. Also, the level of rhetoric coming from the administration obfuscates. The film tries to address that [by asking] what is the truth? And the character Dan Murphy [an American intelligence official], said, “Well, there is no truth.” The film tries to dispel the idea that there are good guys and bad guys.

How much of the story line is true to the screenwriter’s life as a journalist in Iraq?

The event at the bridge in the beginning, [when American soldiers throw two Iraqi teenagers off a bridge during an interrogation] is something that she covered. ... When I talked to her about writing it, the model was somebody like Graham Greene, the writer who lived in Vietnam and out of that experience wrote The Quiet American. So it’s a reworking of her life’s experience. I wasn’t so keen on the central character being a journalist, but that’s what she knew.

The film doesn’t have that glamorous Hollywood look. Was that intentional?

Yes. Part of it was to try not to have that look, to try to make you feel like you were there. The idea was to shoot it in almost a documentary vein, to not be overly conscious that it was a movie. We used handheld cameras, which gives it a kind of immediacy. Although there is a music score, we didn’t use it for the big battle. The dramatic stuff unfolds as if you were there, with no music. The violence is kind of deliberately gratuitous in the way that it is in Iraq. A kid gets shot and nothing is made of it.

At the screening in Princeton in February, a few audience members asked you how the United States should resolve the situation, as if you were an expert. Did that surprise you?

If you think of Vietnam films that came after the Vietnam war, like Apocalypse Now, I don’t think people were asking Francis Ford Coppola, “What do you think is going on in Vietnam now?” One of the exciting things about making a film about Iraq now is that you are part of the political and social debate, as opposed to commenting on it as something historical.

How have people who do support the war reacted to the screenings?

I originally thought the film would be preaching to the converted. But some of the strongest supporters of the movie have told me, “I’m a Republican. I voted for Bush. This is a fair movie.” I think if Bush himself saw the movie, and didn’t walk out, he would probably say, “It’s a crazy place over there.” If you look at it, probably the most corrupt person in the film is the sheikh. And the most corrupt American, the major, gets his comeuppance. It’s not like the Americans are bad and the Iraqis are good. The film is an investigation into why the country is so unsettled.