AN UNUSUAL PHOTO-STRIP
By Anne Marie Mergier
Sergeant R., a U.S. soldier, and Penny Allen, a documentary film maker and creator of photo-strips,
met on an airplane. He was on leave from the battlefield in Iraq and told her about his terrible
experiences. But he also showed her pictures. This encounter resulted in War is Hell, a photo-strip
that has been exhibited in several countries and that was published last week by the French newspaper
Libération. Allen gave Proceso the exclusive publication rights for Mexico and told the story
of this unusual photo-strip "entirely devoid of humor".
A year ago, Penny Allen had an experience that is still an obsession for her. Sitting in an airplane
that was about to leave Paris, destination U.S.A., she saw a young man board and take the seat next
to hers. She could see he was very distressed, agitated, extremely excited. Almost immediately he began
to talk to her. He told her right away that he was a sergeant in the U.S. army, that he had left Baghdad
that same morning, that he had taken several flights in order to get to Paris, and that the day before
he had seen one of his comrades die in an ambush. "The first moments of our encounter happened exactly
as I tell it in the strip", Penny Allen said to this reporter. "Sergeant R. talked for ten hours almost
non-stop. He was traumatized by the violent death of his friend…. I understood that he had not been able
to talk about him and that as a result he was in a fragile state. At first I felt that it was important
for him that I listened. But soon it also became very important for me as well to listen to him.
Painful, but important…"
Allen is an artist who defines herself as "politically engaged". In the seventies and eighties
she was mainly active as an independent film maker and made several documentary and feature films
about the American way of life that were presented in many international festivals. Later she focused
on the creation of photo-strips, mixing reality and fiction and continuing to deal with her country’s
society in a satirical way. The First Gulf War frightened this artist who had actively participated
in protests against the Vietnam War. "I was furious when I understood that at the bottom
of all that there was just the imperialist desire to control the flow of oil. I was shocked by
the consensus this policy generated in the U.S.", she emphasizes. The atmosphere in her country
seemed so suffocating that Allen decided to leave (…) Oregon where she was born and had her roots
and moved to Paris in 1993, where she is still living. In 2001 she published her first novel in
the U.S. and the second one is soon to come out. Meanwhile (…) she produces her engaged photo-strips.
In War is Hell she treated this genre as a comic strip. "It is my only photo-strip that is
entirely devoid of humor. There is only tragedy", she comments. It took her a long time to develop
War is Hell. "During our ten hour conversation Sergeant R. showed me some pictures he had taken with his
digital camera, but more than anything else he told me thousands of horrible things about his
daily life in Iraq. I knew already that it was very hard to be there, but it scared me to listen
to everything he told me.
"When we were about to land Sergeant R. suddenly decided to show me his video. He did this after
having been silent for a moment for the first time since our trip had begun. Thinking back, I
understood that he had been hesitating. On the one hand he wanted to prove to me that what he
had said was real, but he was afraid to scare me more. Eventually he made his decision."
-Did you see the whole video?
"I couldn’t… I was already too traumatized by all his stories. He passed it to me, (and I kept saying):
‘I can’t… I can’t…’ I kept this in the strip because I really feel that I am representing the public:
you, me, all the people who cannot see this barbarism. Allen and Sergeant R. exchanged addresses
before separating. "As soon as I had arrived in (the States) I began to write down everything he
had told me. That took me a week. Every time I remembered something, I made a note. I talked about
this encounter with several friends. They all said that I should do something with this testimony.
That’s what I also had been thinking, but I didn’t know what shape to give to these horrifying stories.
I was hoping for news from him, that he would send me stuff", she remembers. After three months
of silence, Sergeant R. "sent me a package with the video. Then he sent other things. I wrote to him,
asking him some questions in a coded way in order not to compromise him. He never answered my questions.
I understood that he was afraid of military censorship. But he always managed to send me materials",
she explains. In possession of all that graphic material the artist decided to keep her promise:
make this cruel reality known. "That was how eventually War is Hell was born, a very special
photo-strip that I presented for the first time last March in an art gallery in Portland, at the
same moment that there was an international photographers’ conference", she says. Her work had a
strong impact and was (…) reviewed by the Oregon press and also by Mother Jones, an important
politically critical U.S. magazine.
Last week War is Hell was published by the French morning paper Libération and by a comic strip
publication in the U.S., World War 3 Illustrated, at the same time that an exhibition of the
work opened at Exit Art, an art gallery in New York. "(…) I am working on a new project:
to realize a much larger version of War is Hell. My idea is to make a graphic novel of 70 pages
that deals more with the experience of Sergeant R. in Iraq and tells about his real life,
the one that has been destroyed by his 2 year stay in Iraq."
-Did the sergeant return to the U.S.A.? What happened to him?
"He went back to his country, but (…) my aim is that nobody finds out his identity. I feel only
entitled to say that even if he got away physically unharmed from his stay in Iraq, he still
has to deal with a divided soul and an altered personal life.
-So now you are planning a film and a graphic novel…
"No. I will do one or the other. (…)It is urgently necessary to tell the whole story: what
happened in Iraq during the war and in the U.S. after the war, because the experience of
Sergeant R. is a tragic illustration of the American system. For me it is important that
people know what happened, but above all within my country. After a few seconds of silence
Allen adds: "It also matters to me a lot that the Mexican and the Chicano public see
War is Hell. So many young Chicanos are getting ready to go and fight in Iraq with the
sole purpose of easing the economic hardship of their families!"
And she concludes: "Since I met Sergeant R. on that plane I have been obsessed by his story.
Sometimes I was without news from him for weeks. Then I would go to the internet site of
the U.S. armed forces to check the list with the dead. I was distressed by the possibility
of finding his name there! The terrible thing is that there are no lists of the wounded.
The only certainty I had was that he was alive, but I didn’t know how he was. In the end
I felt about this young man as if he were a member of my family. And this is still how I
see him. I didn’t get away unscathed from this airplane trip of a year ago."
copyright Proceso, October, 2005