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Sharing brutal scenes of war

Friday, March 25, 2005

VICTORIA BLAKE The Oregonian

On a long flight from Paris to Portland in late 2004, filmmaker and writer 
Penny Allen sat next to a U.S. Army sergeant on his way home for a two-week 
leave. The sergeant, whose identity Allen has kept secret, talked nonstop 
about the war, about his wife and about a friend who had just died in the 
fighting. Toward the end of the trip, he pulled out his computer and played 
a video he made during the seven months he served in Iraq.
Allen couldn't watch the video then. The images were brutal and gory, 
showing bodies cut in two, burned corpses, brain matter and blood. 
Instead of looking, she listened. Allen's four-panel photographic novella 
"War Is Hell," hanging at the Mark Woolley Gallery as part of the 
"One Foot After Another: Photography" show, is a product of what she heard.
The piece is presented like a comic book, complete with stacked images 
and bubble quotes taken from the conversation Penny and the sergeant had on 
the plane. A viewer reads the piece from left to right, starting with a 
calm introduction to Allen's anonymous sergeant, who she dubs "Sgt. R," and 
ending with chaos, violence and death. The progression from order to 
anarchy is a powerful graphic representation of Allen's central political 
statement: War is a messy, emotionally ambiguous hell, and we shouldn't fool 
ourselves into thinking otherwise. Allen lost track of Sgt. R just after the 
Paris to Portland flight landed. 
About two months later, however, she received a package at her Paris 
home containing a disposable camera, a video on CD labeled "War is Hell" and 
a letter that simply said: "Here it is."
Allen, who moved from Oregon to France 14 years ago, culled about 90 
images from the materials Sgt. R sent and spent two months putting "War Is 
Hell" together. Half the images in the piece come from the still shots on the 
disposable cameras and the other half from the video. The still shots 
have a familiar quality, almost like informal family photos, except these are 
of men in camouflage fatigues standing on top of Army vehicles carrying 
guns. In contrast, the images taken from the video are full of energy and 
motion. Explosions happen in multiple frames, bridges collapse, smoke rises in 
stop-time progression.
The first panel introduces Sgt. R and sets up the conversation he and 
Allen had on the airplane. "Hi there, ma'am. Where you headed to?" the 
sergeant asks, as the images show tanks on the road and a man standing on top of 
a Humvee working as a scout. The first panel also shows an ambush site, 
but there are no bodies.
That changes in the second panel, where Allen includes a large image of 
two Iraqi men covered with blood. But that image is tame compared with some 
of the others. In the third panel, Allen shows a suicide bomber exploding 
and flying through the air. The eight-frame progression ends with a picture 
of the bomber's corpse torn in half, his legs and the bottom of his torso 
lying at a distance from his head.
By the fourth panel, the organization of the piece has deteriorated 
almost entirely. The frames are smaller, the images bloodier, the bubble 
quotes more confusing. There are images of burned American bodies, burning 
trucks, smoke, men surrendering in front of a tank, men with their arms raised 
and, in one of the last frames, a man whose head has been deflated.
"It was numbing, frightening," Allen said about the experience of 
watching the video over and over again to pick out the images she would use. "I 
worked myself into a terrible state."
Allen approached the images with an artistic eye, instead of a 
patriotic one. Perhaps because of this, the piece is not piously sentimental or 
overblown. And even though the piece is as likely to cause nausea as 
horror, the gore serves a purpose. In an elegant, nuanced and disturbing way, 
the piece shows the side of war we would rather not think about, the side 
that people like the sergeant have to think about every day.
"In the United States . . . the war in Iraq is sanitized and far away," 
Allen says. "And it's very unfair to the soldiers because when they 
come back nobody understands what's happened to them."
The piece is part of Allen's effort to bridge that gap. As Sgt. R says 
in one of the frames: "War is hell, man. . . . I want everybody to know it."

copyright 2005 The Oregonian
copyright 2005 OregonLive.com All Rights Reserved.


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thanks to Philippe Dulauroy and Jim Cuomo
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