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    Memorial Day

    Memorial Day

    A bracing re-enactment of the horrors of Abu Ghraib, "Memorial Day" is a "Girls Gone Wild America" for the torture set.


    I've been desperate to see a movie like "Memorial Day" ever since the photographs of United States soldiers molesting and torturing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison went live in the media. Like filmmaker Josh Fox, who chose this disturbing subject for his debut feature, I found the photographs familiar and unsurprising, entirely consistent with the rape culture of "Girls Gone Wild America," of drunken fraternity and sorority rituals, of what seems to be a growing disregard for humanity among a certain segment of the population.

    Written and directed by: Josh Fox.
    Produced by: Hunter Gray, Jim McKay, Paul S. Mezey, Laura Wagner.
    Cast: Sarah Nedwek, Neil Knox, Pedro Rafael Rodriguez, Robert Saietta, Nick Konow, Maria McConville, David Skeist, Harold Kennedy German, Giovanni Rich, Tess Mix.
    Cinematography: Josh Fox.
    Edited by: Josh Fox.
    Music by: Andy Gillis, The Rachels.
    Art direction by: Nicholas Locke.

    Although Errol Morris's documentary "Standard Operating Procedure," which features interviews with the soldiers in the Abu Ghraib photos, is also a worthy and thought-provoking film, Fox moves a step further than Morris, forcing the viewer to confront the explicit connection between everyday American youth culture and sick torture. "Memorial Day" is a phantasmagoric, staged, documentary-style collage that follows a group of drunken Americans through a weekend filming themselves and each other in debauched sexual and party situation, then moves them briefly into an invasion of an Iraqi home, then settles in Abu Ghraib, where they continue their pornographic banter and regressive rituals as hooded prisoners stand, confined, on the sidelines.

    Memorial Day  

    This film has more in common with the actual Abu Ghraib photos than with Morris's documentary or much of the news coverage of them, in that it punishes, brutalizes, and implicates the viewer. Some audience members, especially those who aren't sure where the movie is headed, are sure to walk out.

    In the beginning, it seems exploitative and sensationalistic, however true and accurate. Although we watch dramatized rapes and beatings often in Hollywood movies, the grainy realism of Fox's approach makes the subject matter too intimate, not cinematic enough. Some viewers may doubt whether this material earns its keep artistically, whether it's worth sitting through the awfulness for the film's cultural and political message. (It is.)

      Although we watch dramatized rapes and beatings often in Hollywood movies, the grainy realism of director Fox's approach makes the subject matter too intimate.
    More viewers won't know where to put themselves in the scene. It leaves you emotionally raw, horrified, ashamed, nervous, immediately wanting to distance yourself. It puts you in the position of those perpetrators at Abu Ghraib, suddenly confronted with your world from a new angle.

    One audience member in the screening I attended laughed at the X-rated banter of the military personnel in a prison scene, despite the fact that hooded Iraqis were portrayed standing in a cage behind the flirty tableau. I felt a flash of real anger, the way I did when I saw a Polish woman in pink hot pants laughing behind her camcorder as she filmed a cell block at Auschwitz.

    Memorial Day  

    Seeing this kind of material is poisonous. It can feel contagious. Yet it is important to see, because it forces us to, in George Orwell's words, "face unpleasant facts."

    The naturalistic performances (by Fox's theater troupe, and by actual soldiers) are so believable that it feels like a documentary. It's less fiction than reenactment. They rarely contemplate their actions, but when they do the effect is menacing. One man espouses a sort of Fascist Darwinism, a brutal philosophy for a brutal world.

    Another aspect of "Memorial Day" that's fascinating and unusual is its brash willingness to take on current events, rather than wait twenty years until they feel "over," until we can rationalize them by saying they were in the past, by pretending that things have improved, that the blame for torture rests with a few individuals instead of with all of us. It's courageous to make a movie like this, a relentless film devoid of any relief or any Spielberg transcendence. It might make viewers and reviewers turn their eyes away or leave the room, but at least it is on record.

    MAY 7, 2009

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