— The state of war is also a state of mind, terrifying even the bravest as it changes and challenges them.
This is what we are seeing reflected on movie screens. The stories of foot soldiers are shifting, becoming more intimate, more stripped to the bone, more concerned with the ripple effect of war's violence.
At the Toronto Film Festival, war is the subject of several films. But three films in particular, two making their world premieres at the festival, provide insight into war's impact on its fighters.
Unlike "Patton" or "The Longest Day," there are no great campaigns filling the screen with men and machinery. Nor are there bloodily dirty assaults of the sort we saw in "Full Metal Jacket," "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan." There are no special units diffusing bombs à la "The Hurt Locker" or a band of "Inglourious Basterds" staging theatrics to destroy the enemy. Even disillusionment is cast in everyday terms, none of the soul-questioning soldier's angst of "All Quiet on the Western Front" or the insanity of "Apocalypse Now."
On the most fundamental level, the men in "Canopy," "Omar" and "Break Loose" are in survival mode. No doubt they could tell you what they were fighting for, but the focus is on the gritty reality of merely staying alive, finding their way back to normal — and figuring out what normal is.
They exist in environments where violence — avoiding it, enduring it or inflicting it — is a way of keeping score. Some find courage, some hang on to their humanity if not always their dignity. Others have stopped feeling, stopped being, anything at all.
"Canopy," set in 1942, is only a sliver of the giant expanse of World War II. It follows a downed Aussie pilot in the jungles near Singapore and marks a strong feature debut for director Aaron Wilson. "Break Loose" opens on the threshold of the millennium in the waning days of the Yeltsin era. Prolific Russian director Aleksey Uchitel has his eye on the violent drives of four ex-soldiers, now part of an elite force fighting the rising rebellion in their homeland.
"Omar," already a provocation and the Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes earlier this year, comes to the festival with an awards run in sight. From director Hany Abu-Assad, Oscar-nominated for his controversial discourse on suicide bombers, "Paradise Now," his new film is, in a sense, a love story. No "Casablanca" sentimentality, no giving up love for the greater good, "Omar" is a harsh, hard story of a young Palestinian man, the girl he wants to marry and the West Bank rebellion. A man who finds himself at war not by choice but by circumstance. He is the collateral damage.
Abu-Assad, Uchitel and Wilson use the medium to tell their war stories in very different ways. Yet deep chasms between ethnicity and ideology are there in the subtext. As are the psychological wounds on the men — deeply embedded, extremely private and unstintingly profound.
The films choose different entry points to take us there. For "Canopy" it is on the ground in enemy territory, whereas "Break Loose" envisions a generation that sees violence as its trade. "Omar" exists in a state of siege, the time-bomb tension of occupation. Of the three, "Canopy" is the most experimental, "Break Loose" the most distressing, "Omar" the most searing.
In "Canopy," Wilson creates a remarkably immersive experience. There is virtually no dialogue, and what dialogue there is likely won't be in a language you understand. That is the point. Wilson drops us into jeopardy alongside the downed pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden), in a densely overgrown Singapore jungle that suggests the film's name. His parachute has left him hanging high in a tree. He wakes to the sound of something crashing through the brush below. He knows he must run.
Chittenden, already a favorite on the Aussie indie circuit, is riveting: the fear when he spots Japanese soldiers on patrol; the frustration as he sorts through his woefully small survival kit; the tremor in his hands as he tries out the compass; the battle against the insects that rise from the swamp and descend from above; and the terror when he crashes into another man (Mo Tzu-Yi).
In Wilson, we are introduced to a fearless filmmaker — one who trusts his audience to feel the racing pulse of one soldier fighting not to win a war but merely to live.
"Break Loose" is as brash as "Canopy" is contemplative. It begins with a call to arms in the middle of the night. German (Alexey Mantsigyn) rolls out of bed to meet his buddies on the front lines. That night it is a local disco, packed with drugged dancers. For the men, there is fun to be had, heads to break. The next morning, it's a factory closing, riot gear and more beatings required. The resentment that their military service means so little burns hot, the lack of opportunity even hotter.
Ger has the audacity to fall in love with the wrong girl, and soon he and his comrades are locked in a guerrilla war with the local drug lord on one side, the growing ranks of the unemployed on the other. Uchitel gives the film a grainy and raw hand-held look. The neon of the night, the desperation in the dancing, stand in stark contrast to the washed-out colors and dreary worker's faces of the day. Fast moving and angry, it captures a time of transition, of chaos, of ex-soldiers still armed and dangerous, flailing, unable to find traction in a changing world.
But when it comes to anger personified, that you find in the war Omar (Adam Bakri) wages inside. Filled with repression, rage and such deep wells of love, "Omar" is the most complex and challenging of the three. It is also the best.
Though Abu-Assad has said the idea is spun out of childhood friendships tested by conflict, the director gives us an incredible love story in the harshest of circumstances. A baker and a poet, Omar risks life and limb to slip across the West Bank wall to woo Nadja (Leem Lubany) and spend time with old friends — Amjad (Samer Bisharat) now a leader in the underground, and Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who is vying to get in.
The killing of an Israeli soldier leads to Omar's capture. Infiltrating the operation of his friends is the only way out of a life term. Abu-Assad ties the knot around Omar so tightly that the man can barely breathe. Neither can we. The suspense that comes with each move Omar makes — to salvage his dignity, to suffer the beatings, to prove his loyalty, to save his love — is almost unbearable. Bakri, making his film debut, bares his soul, filling the screen with an astonishing range of emotional colors, from the gentleness in stolen moments with Nadja to the physical and psychological blows he absorbs time and again.
Whether or not the men survive, there are no happy endings. Perhaps that is what the films do best. At a time when the Syrian chemical weapons crisis hangs heavy, the withdrawal from Afghanistan winds down ever so slowly and bombs go off with frightening regularity in Baghdad while memories of the Iraq war remain embedded in our minds, these films remind us that war will exact its wages long after the enemy is brought to its knees.