In an irony not lost on director Brian De Palma, Redacted, his new film about the Iraq war, had to be redacted itself on the advice of lawyers and his Canadian producers, who said some of the haunting images at the end of the movie could have led to his being sued.
De Palma is winning awards and accolades for his hard-hitting film - inspired by the true story of American soldiers who raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then murdered her entire family to cover their tracks. The film, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, ends with a montage of photos of actual corpses of Iraqi civilians, killed as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
De Palma originally wanted to show the faces of the dead, but lawyers advised the filmmakers that they had to be blacked out.
"The whole point is to show the faces," De Palma said in an interview. "The government and the media have dehumanized the Iraqi population. What I hoped to show with this film is the horror of the war and what it's done to the people of that country. The irony is really incredible. It really annoys me that the lawyers can't see this."
His lawyers, he said, "claim that the families of the dead people in the shots could sue. But the whole point is to see the faces of the people. Then the audience will be as upset as I am."
Redacted's Toronto-based producers, Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss, said they understand De Palma's position and also wanted to leave the images of the victims' faces in the film, but had no choice but to take them out.
"Our hands were tied," Weiss said in an interview from The Film Farm production offices.
"If we wanted the film to get out there, we didn't have a choice," added Urdl, who co-produced the $5-million feature. "We were forced to redact the actual images on Brian's behalf because lawyers and insurers didn't feel it was a risk they wanted to take. We didn't have much say in that. We felt it was more important for people to see the film, even with the redacted images, rather than people not have the opportunity to see it."
Urdl and Weiss said that completing the controversial film has been a challenge. "On one hand, we were telling a fictional story very much inspired by real events," Urdl said.
"And we tried to be so careful on the way because the actual events hadn't gone to trial. We had to be careful as filmmakers not to implicate anyone. We had a moral responsibility not to draw conclusions or call someone guilty. [The actual incident of the rape and murder] really was just inspiration rather than wanting to tell this exact story."
(The soldiers involved in the actual 2006 Iraq incident have been given sentences ranging from five to 110 years in jail. At the time of the film's shoot, however, the cases had not gone before the courts.)
In the view of the film's producers, De Palma simply used the horrific actual event as a launching pad to bring home the devastating effect of war on innocent people. "The same thing inspired him to make Casualties of War," pointed out Weiss, referring to De Palma's 1989 Vietnam war film that revolved around a young girl who is taken from her village by five American soldiers. Four of the soldiers rape her, but the fifth refuses. The young girl is killed. The fifth soldier is determined that justice will be done.
Last weekend, De Palma was awarded the Silver Lion Award for best feature-film director for Redacted at the Venice International Film Festival.
Urdl said it remains unlikely that the tragic faces in the film will ever be revealed. "But we continue to explore the options. Because we believe, as filmmakers, that a lot has been taken out of the dignity of the victims, through the redaction.
"If we had a choice, we'd leave their faces."
The title of the film refers to the Pentagon's process of altering documents, and Redacted opens with the words on a document slowly disappearing as they are blacked out, as if by a military censor.
De Palma acknowledged that the blacking out of faces could make for a potent, if unintentional, point, but "it wasn't something that I planned.
"The expressions on those faces is more powerful."