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LAUREAT 2009 VISIONS DU REEL - NYON(see below)
Clip and review in Le Monde Diplomatique
Statement from the Jury, Visions du Réel:
Le Jury a été sensible à cette rencontre imprévue avec un soldat en perdition,
victime des mensonges de la guerre. La cinéaste réussit un tour de force dénué
d’idéologie dans un dialogue improvisé jouant sur un double regard : celui révélant
les violences infligées aux victimes et celui s’attachant à la détresse solitaire du
tueur en proie à ses propres cauchemars. Grâce au récit, aux photos et vidéos
d’une extrême violence qu’il ramène d’Irak comme des trophées, le film élève le
propos sur le crime dans la guerre au rang de manifeste pacifiste.
The jury was impressed by this unforeseen encounter with a traumatized soldier,
himself a victim of lies about war. The filmmaker pulls off a tour de force beyond
ideology in an improvised dialogue that works on two levels: first, revealing the
violence inflicted on victims, and second, zeroing in on the solitary distress of a killer
grappling with his own nightmares. Thanks both to the narrative and to the extremely
violent photos and videos brought back from Iraq like trophies, the film defines the
consideration of the crime of war as the ultimate manifestation of pacifism.
TRANSLATION (Cahiers du Cinema):
Penny Allen’s The Soldier’s Tale
By Stéphane Delorme
The ideal counterpoint to Redacted (Brian De Palma) is perhaps Penny Allen’s The Soldier’s Tale.
Penny Allen got in touch with Les Cahiers du Cinéma to show us her 52-minute documentary.
An American cineaste living in Paris, she most notably directed Property (1978), the independent
film where Gus Van Sant began (soundman) and where he met Walt Curtis, the author of Mala Noche.
The Soldier’s Tale tells how Penny Allen met a soldier (named “Sergeant R.”) on an airplane,
how he spontaneously spoke to her about his experience in Iraq, how they then met up in a motel
for an in-depth discussion illustrated by photos and videos the soldier brought with him.
The success of the film lies in the soldier’s strange ambivalence – at first virulently opposed to the war,
then acknowledging its good side, then deciding ultimately to go back: because he has
no more money, because he can’t adapt back in the States, and also because he wants
to help other soldiers in combat. One feels, even if he doesn’t say so, that he is now more
at home in Iraq, that he belongs there.
Penny Allen’s attitude toward him is remarkable: combative at first, the engaged anti-war
activist, she then listens carefully to the soldier’s account with all its contradictions. She
tries via a kind Socratic questioning to help him express his latent horror about war,
but he clings to his paradoxical stance – horrified by, but drawn to a place where he
himself has more importance than he seems to have elsewhere.
One very astonishing sequence shows how the primary danger for American soldiers
is the IEDs (improvised explosive devices), buried by Iraqis alongside the roads.
The Americans learn to drive down the middle of the road to avoid the bombs and
thus push the local civilians to drive on the sides. So soldiers must learn how to
protect themselves (where and how to sit or stand in their humvees, whether to
keep the windows open or closed) against IEDs set by those lying in wait
a few hundred yards away.
Toward the end of the film, the Sergeant shows photos of dead Iraqis that he keeps.
He says they’re like baseball cards the soldiers trade. He confesses to having
nightmares since his return to the States but can’t get rid of these photos.
“Good times” and “bad times” – the soldier can’t say which. War is like life,
there are good moments and bad ones. Penny Allen’s perplexity is ours.
The young man talks sometimes like a child; he refuses to get to the bottom
of things, but he is clearly haunted. His soft voice, his embarrassed look,
his brusque confessions of horror, his nightmares, even his desire to talk
(but why has he agreed to be in this film?) reveal how he shattered he is.
But something still pushes him to go back yet again.
This is one of the rare portraits of veterans that we have access to
For once a document doesn’t speak via raw images, like on the Internet,
but via oral witnessing. It is difficult to find such witnessing about Iraq
on the Internet. We boast and swagger on the Net, we have fun, or
sometimes we scare ourselves. But the spoken word is desperately absent.
TRANSLATION (Le Monde Diplomatique):
The Soldier’s Tale
The Two Halves of America
By Mona Chollet
An American writer living in Paris, Penny Allen finds herself one day in an airplane,
sitting next to a compatriot also on the way to the States. He’s a soldier in uniform,
going home on leave for two weeks, and he was in Iraq that very morning. He starts a
conversation, and they discover they are both from the Pacific Northwest.
The troubled young man spills out his anger with vehemence: “During the day, we
give candy to the kids …we come back at night and kill the men! We’re animals!
How can that work ? I mean, what the fuck? I don’t even know why we’re there.
We kill people. That’s why we’re there : we kill people ! No wonder they hate us!
The men throw their women in the back of the truck with the sheep!!
We’re all animals, man!” He reveals his horror at the idea that he, a Christian, is
killing people. He worries he’ll hurt his wife or his son. The two travellers stay in touch,
write and call each other. On another trip to the States, Penny Allen calls the Sergeant
to persuade him to agree to a filmed interview. They agree to meet in a motel, half-way
between where she is and where he is – like the two halves of America meeting on the sly
(she was against the invasion of Iraq). In front of the camera, the young man seems
depressed, confused, almost traumatized. He’s hesitating about going back to Iraq
for another tour. For the moment, he’s working nights in a factory. He tells how when
he came back from Iraq, no one was interested. As someone who had been risking his
life every minute, he was expecting at least a little respect, but everyone was indifferent:
“It’s as if I came back from vacation. They ought to put the draft back in,” he says bitterly.
Aside from this woman he met in an airplane, no one has listened to what he’s lived through.
In fact, though, it’s almost as if he wanted to make himself believe the idea that he’s back
from a vacation. He exhibits his souvenirs: photos of his buddies smiling hugely, posing –
sometimes standing next to an Iraqi prisoner, something that mirrors the hideous banality
of the photos from Abu Ghraib, photos the Sergeant says shouldn’t have been such a big deal,
even if it was “bad,” what happened there. Or pieces of shrapnel. Or macabre photos of
bodies burned, mutilated, reduced to a pulp. Why does he keep these photos? He doesn’t
really know. He explains that it’s like collecting baseball cards to have and trade with your
buddies. Does he need them to be sure that what he saw and went through was real?
Sometimes he thinks that Iraq is “not a real place, just a place in his nightmares.”
There’s nothing left of the vehemence he had expressed in the airplane.
Is it because of the camera? He tries to underline the “good parts” of what, on some days,
he admits, is certainly “hell.” At least, if he goes back, he’ll be able to transfer all the lessons
learned in blood to new recruits, things that help you survive and which can only be learned
from experience. Like, for example, keeping your head down inside the vehicle and the windows
closed so you don’t get hit in the face by an I.E.D. Then you unroll the window after the bomb
explodes so you can shoot back fast. He is hung up on the memory of two burnt little girls he
saved one day, trying to convince himself that his mission is useful. And he’s haunted by the
memory of a child he killed accidentally, but he insists on the fact that he was exonerated by
the follow-up inquest. His soulful lament in the airplane, “We’re all animals, all of us” has
become the classic distinction between “they,” who are animals, and “we,” who are good people:
The Iraqis kill each other, cut off their prisoners’ heads, while American soldiers, he insists,
always treat their prisoners well. Unlike Penny Allen, the Sergeant has no opinion about the war.
He appears to be acquiescing to all the arguments for going back. Economic need, first of all:
The pay is good, and he needs the army medical insurance for his son…. After all, he says,
“war is a cool job” – and later he does end up losing his dull job at the factory. There’s also the
adrenalin addiction, as well as the impossibility of readjusting to civilian life. He becomes
animated and at ease only when talking about his daily life in Iraq. “Over there, at least
nobody fucks with you.” The esprit de corps and patriotism help make the case. If he deserted,
it would be “shameful” for his family. The Soldier’s Tale shows how all sorts of undeniable
elements come together to silence one’s conscience and to make resistance impossible, or possible
only for the very few.
To Penny Allen:
I want to congratulate you on your film.
I am in awe of your courage.
I am even more so of the soldier who decided
to allow his face to be shown.
Thank you for giving us a voice.
N. N., wife of an Iraq war veteran
A path-breaking testament to intellectual honesty and
artistic integrity, Penny Allen’s The Soldier’s Tale
chronicles the interplay between a working-class Iraq War
veteran and an antiwar filmmaker. Although the soldier’s
complex and contradictory views of the conflict,
illustrated in a revealing homemade video compiled
by the men of his unit, often appear disturbing,
Allen cannot bear to break off the mutually compelling
relationship in which she serves as exclusive confessor.
The result is an uncensored view of life at the heart of
the Occupation and an unblinking snapshot of
circumstances back in the United States that attract
soldiers like “Sgt. R” to military service, even in the
hellish environment of a vicious war. Beyond the
sloganeering of war supporters and antiwar activists,
The Soldier’s Tale places viewers inside the psyche of a
realistic but conflicted combatant, one who questions
why his country has sent him to impose order on a
seemingly ungrateful people but who still sees redeeming
value in what he does. The dramatic tension of this
exquisitely crafted documentary lies in Allen’s
willingness to let the soldier work out his thoughts
about the war and future plans on camera, even though he
ultimately arrives at choices that the filmmaker has
-David A. Horowitz, Ph.D., author,
The People’s Voice: A Populist Cultural History of Modern America (2008)
See article in The Oregonian:
Back when independent filmmaking was truly independent,
then-Portland-based director Penny Allen made movies that
captured an era when Oregon was blessedly off the grid:
1981's Paydirt, partially filmed in an actual marijuana
field; and 1978's Property, which presaged the
real-estate battles to come. Having lived in Paris for
the last 15-plus years, Allen will be returning to
Portland to introduce her latest film, The Soldier's
Tale, composed largely of a hotel-room interview with
an Iraq war veteran she met on a trans-Atlantic flight in
2004. At that time, Sgt. R. (although we see his face
in the film, we don't learn the soldier's name) was on
his way home from Baghdad and, according to Allen,
initiated an intense conversation about the horrors he'd
witnessed. A soldier one day removed from combat,
as R. was then, may not be the most objective or stable
witness, but Allen pursued a correspondence with him.
He eventually sent her a compilation of video footage
shot by American soldiers in Iraq, titled simply "War Is
Hell." Allen used the images and Sgt. R.'s words to
create a comic-book-style photomontage, which was
exhibited in Portland in 2005. The film and still
photos are a remarkably candid peek into everyday
life for troops in R.'s position, from the mundanity
and home-movie-style mugging to some of the most
graphic and disturbing images of violence's aftermath
you're ever likely to see. These are images of bodies
squashed and twisted, brain matter and organs exposed,
difficult for even a hardened viewer to absorb. But they
are real, and anyone who thinks this war (or, for that
matter, any war) is worth fighting needs to be able to
look at them and agree that the war is worth this. To do
otherwise is to ignore reality.
After much persuading, Sgt. R. agrees to meet Allen for a
filmed interview, for which the images of war serve as a
backdrop. He seems like a well-meaning, average soldier,
not very articulate as she questions him -- sometimes
rather aggressively -- about his experiences and
reactions. He's almost schizophrenic in his responses at
times, expressing shock and dismay but also indicating
that he plans to re-enlist and go back. Any experience
that can make someone say, "I killed a kid one time --
I mean, I did the right thing," is one that needs to be
explored, and this simple, affecting film does just that.
Marc Mohan, The Oregonian
Penny Allen’s unexpected encounter with a soldier just
hours out of Iraq in 2004 has led to an unexpected film
in which the hell of war is documented by revealing
footage offered the filmmaker by the soldier himself
at the same time that his often incoherent reflections
on his experiences provide more insight into that hell
than he himself seems able to understand.
The Soldier’s Tale is a unique--and uniquely
Elinor Langer, author, A Hundred Little Hitlers
I find this it to be one of the most poignantly
revealing war stories I have viewed on screen.
Roland Atkinson, M.D. (psychiatrist),
excerpt from review on his website AtkinsonOnFilm
An infinitely complex story, because many things happen
in this film, The Soldier’s Tale….we discover a young man
with an innocent face, someone who has seen horrors and
who relates them without really condemning them, perhaps
even with a certain excitement. We see Penny, an American
living in Paris, alienated from her country at war,
touched by this young man who doesn’t say what she
hoped he would say, who says things that shock her.
What happens between the two characters, the soldier
and Penny, the narrator, is absolutely fascinating.
The Soldier’s Tale is not a political film but a
psychological fable whose moral eludes us, because
there is no moral in psychology. If we are expecting
a classical documentary, we are troubled by the
narrator who suddenly finds herself torn. All
political discourse is overwhelmed by the unexpected
tale of this soldier….we are witness to a live debate
between nothing less than good and evil.
We are shaken, turned upside down, and how
wonderful that is.
The Soldier’s Tale is the story of the distance between
political discourse, always ultimately simplistic because
it comes out of one’s head, and the infinitely more
complex and more obscure truth of real life, the
soul that cannot be reduced to concepts.
Pascale Kramer, novelist, author of The Living