Full Battle Rattle Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss

Few things are weirder than watching a group of grown men engage in an elaborate, highly sophisticated game of make believe. Welcome to the U.S. Army’s Iraq simulation training facility in California’s Mojave Desert, a compulsory stop for all soldiers en route to Iraq. The film follows one Army battalion and their two-week training session in the mock village Medina Wasl. Though the training simulations are highly scripted, the soldiers’ actions can determine the outcome of various events.

Iraqi Americans play villagers, while soldiers who’ve already been to Iraq play insurgents — there to thwart the Army’s attempts to "make peace.” No one ever breaks character and the fake Iraqi villages look alarmingly convincing. One officer in charge of the facility states that it only takes a couple of days before soldiers start reacting to the simulated Iraq as though it was real. Indeed, when a gun battle with insurgents results in the "deaths” of several soldiers, real tears are shed at the memorial service.

Co-director Jesse Moss had to defend himself from audience members during the Q&A at the film’s Hot Docs premiere, who felt the film irresponsibly lacked a stronger condemnation of the war. In one chilling interview, a soldier admits that participating in the simulation allows him to temper his hatred toward the Iraqi people. After all, the Iraqi Americans who play villagers in Medina Wasl are his buddies.

If nothing else, the film shows us that the U.S. Army is doing a much better job of understanding their so-called enemy than we (the anti-war Westerners who complain at film festival Q&As) are doing of understanding the military machine that keeps the war going.

Full Battle Rattle keeps the moralising in its pants, gives equal time to all sides and stops just short of providing a heavy handed commentary on the war itself, which is refreshingly rare in the "Iraqi war documentary” world. (Mile End)