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De Palma's comeback

The veteran director, creator of classics such as Scarface and Body Double, is back with a searing 'docu-fiction' about a shameful Iraq war incident, writes James Adams

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Suddenly, Brian De Palma is hot. Again.

The veteran director - 67 today - has been in the film business for at least 40 years and made almost as many pictures in that time. Some of these have been hits(Carrie, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables), but a whole lot have not - think Femme Fatale from five years ago, or - pause here and shudder - 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Now the New Jersey native appears to be back on the winning side of the ledger with a searing film about the losing American war effort in Iraq called Redacted, produced by two relatively unknown Canadians, Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss. On the weekend, De Palma received the Silver Lion Award for best feature-film director for the movie at the Venice International Film Festival, a first in his career.

Sitting calmly in his hotel room in Toronto yesterday - Redacted had its North American premiere at the festival last night - De Palma didn't seem too, well . . . galvanized by what most consider his surprise triumph overseas. In fact, philosophic might be the more apt description. "Y'know, I've kinda seen it all," he explained with a wave of his hands. "I've been up and I've been down. Everything from now on, you're just glad you're alive, that you have your faculties about you and that your children are healthy."

Still, he acknowledged Redacted "has been kind of a miracle film. Everything's sorta worked out." Shot on high-definition digital video for only $5-million (U.S.), it's a collage-like experiment in docu-fiction, told in a variety of styles and from a variety of points of view, based on a real-life episode from the Iraq war in March, 2006, when a group of U.S. soldiers raped and killed a teenage girl near Baghdad, then killed her family. De Palma lensed the key parts of the film in Amman, Jordan, last year, using mostly unknowns to play the homicidal "grunts." And it took him only 18 days to do so - five or six fewer than originally budgeted.

Amusingly, De Palma said he didn't have to make the film that he did. When HDNet Films boss Mark Cuban gave him the assignment, "it was just to make a film in high-def," he laughed. "I coulda made a movie about my cat. They didn't care."

De Palma said he expects to return to political filmmaking and the aesthetic he uses in Redacted in the future. The war in Iraq has continued without mass protests in the U.S., he believes, because "we haven't been seeing any of the pictures" of the kind that galvanized the Vietnam anti-war movement. "That's what the architects of this war learned from Vietnam. The media's been very carefully managed. Which is, in part, why you don't see people on the streets like you used to."

At the same time, he argued that the proliferation of Iraq-themed movies at this year's TIFF, including Battle for Haditha and In the Valley of Elah, shouldn't be construed as "the Hollywood left wing bursting into action." For one thing, most of these films are largely foreign-financed (Canada's Film Farm, for instance, backed Redacted). For another, "it's just outraged people. There's no conspiracy. It's just that the war has gone on so long and you can only cover it up for so long."

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