Philip Haas has just arrived in Arkansas when the Georgia Straight catches up with him. The American director's latest movie, The Situation, is playing that night at the Little Rock Film Festival. In the States, this hard-hitting tale of chaos, betrayal, and institutional stupidity has already run its course in the bigger cities. But the film, which opens here Friday (May 25), is actually making a bigger impression in the heartland.
"I have yet to run into an audience of ordinary people," Haas says on the line from his hotel room, "that doesn't have a powerful response to The Situation. To tell you the truth, there's an even stronger reaction from Republicans and people in the military, who say, 'Man, you really show how complicated it is.'"
Certainly, the tale doesn't let any of its subjects off the hook. The Situation stars Danish beauty Connie Nielsen as an American war correspondent caught up in, and somehow contributing to, the deteriorating situation soon after the U.S.'s disastrous invasion of Iraq. As religious factions, local warlords, out-of-work Baathists, and Yank functionaries jockey for position, our heroine is increasingly torn between a sharp CIA operative (Damian Lewis) and a handsome Iraqi photographer (Mido Hamada) with access to all sides.
Using a screenplay by Wendell Steavenson, herself a journalist covering the Iraq war, Haas set out to dramatize issues that have only grown more volatile since the film was first discussed in 2003.
"I know some people don't like the love-triangle aspect of the story," the director admits with a small chuckle, "but without that it becomes pretty much a documentary. While most of the reviews have been positive, or at least thoughtful, some have complained that Connie is too good-looking, or too blond or something. But Wendell is blond and very attractive, and a lot of this really is based on her own experiences. In fact, the biggest problem with the movie is that Mido Hamada, who plays the photographer, isn't as tough as his counterpart in real life."
Other viewers have wondered if the occupation force can really be populated with such boneheaded types as the abusive soldiers, cynical diplomats, and bow tie–wearing party hacks the film portrays.
"I know it seems awfully surreal to people, but we've had many screenings back East, especially in Washington, DC, where I've received a lot of feedback." He's talking about events in conjunction with Rajiv Chandrasekaran–author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone–and other thinkers on the Iraq crisis. "And I've heard from journalists, government officials, and veterans who all say, 'You really captured what it's like over there.' Of course, the irony is that everything is so much worse now: more chaotic, more violent, and more confusing. And the Green Zone has shrunk down to practically nothing."
Haas has a peculiar background for the director of such a complicated and up-to-date film, complete with battle scenes. Currently teaching documentary filmmaking at Princeton University, the director is best known for highly aestheticized and essentially literary period pieces, mostly written with his wife, Belinda Haas. These include such films as 1995's Angels & Insects, based on the A.S. Byatt novel, and 2000's Up at the Villa, taken from a W. Somerset Maugham novel set in fascist Italy. He has also made documentaries for TV, often with themes of mysticism, magic, and the natural sciences.
"Yeah, I'm not somebody the big studios are rushing out to give big money to," he says with a bigger laugh. "I guess if Angels & Insects was huge commercially or this one made a lot of money, they'd come after me with projects, but as it is I have to fight to get anything made. This one, I felt, was just a story that had to be told. When you stop and think about the Vietnam war, you realize that most of the movies related to that were made many years later, and they have a certain generality to them. I mean, try to remember one Vietnamese character from Apocalypse Now.
"I'm particularly proud that this thing has so many Iraqi characters. They are definitely equal players here, and if it were totally up to me, the whole movie would be in Arabic."
Indeed, the movie is given real gravity by the presence of people like Hamada and fellow Egyptian Mahmoud El Lozy, a theatre professor in Cairo, along with actors from all over North Africa and the Middle East. It was shot in Morocco, with battle-scene assistance from ex–U.S. army officers.
"There's no draft in the U.S.," Haas concludes, "so hardly any young people seem to care what's going on over there. But someone has to record this crazy, terrible time in our history."