Friday, 19 June 2009

Occupation - the drama

The BBC drama series Occupation promised us a deep, searching journey into the tortured consequences of Britain's involvement in Iraq. What it delivered, as predicted, was a preoccupation with the personal angst, confusions and suffering of 'our troops'.

The problem, as ever, with this kind of output is the absent voice of the other. And not just an individual voice, but the qualitative, collective voice of an invaded, murdered and brutalised people.

The producers of Occupation think they've got around this by having the 'Iraqi voice' of female doctor (played by Lubna Azabal) engage in a melodramatic love affair with a British soldier (James Nesbitt). Conveniently, she speaks in implicitly neutral terms about the occupation, even, during the first instalment, appearing back in England at a Daily Express-sponsored PR event announcing Nesbitt's character as the heroic saviour of a little Iraqi girl.

Of all the plot devices, why choose this one? Why, with this generous three hour slot to chart the essentials of a contentious and illegal occupation, give so much central time to a love story? It's a particularly audacious insult to those victims and survivors of the mass carnage back in Iraq who not only want their occupiers out, but desire truthful acknowledgement of their multiple sufferings.

The drama's supposed theme is one of pained human engagement between occupier and occupied. But the actual act of occupation itself is never truly considered, the critical, existential questions about the occupier's motives and mindset left safely ignored.

None of the big, difficult issues are faced: why are these soldiers in Iraq?; how did the invading powers lie to get them there?; are these soldiers party to war crimes?

All of which begs related thoughts about why there isn't a more ambitious artistic commentary on these very questions.

The romance between Iraqi doctor and British soldier may be a metaphor for difficult engagement and healing between two distant cultures. Or, more likely, it may just be a shallow plot contrivance substituting for the key issues.

While humanitarian doubts about the occupation grow in the mind of Nesbitt's character, the accompanying plot around mercenary business ventures for the employment-scarce ex-squaddies keeps us safely detached from the fuller nature of the West's privatised war agenda.

Instead, a rookie American administrator tells the new mercenaries that the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA's) mass million dollar piles are all humanitarian-targeted funds. While we see the evident falseness of that claim, there's no illumination of the big corporate players like Halliburton and the privatised grand theft that followed. Incredibly, oil is barely mentioned. Perhaps they couldn't fit it into the love story.

The small-scale implications of this financial abuse are played out in part 2 as the new, raw military frontiersmen pitch for contracts and favours, revealing their fatal inexperiences in a land now saturated with hidden militias. But, again, there's no serious reference to the main corporate bonanza and the private-political patronage keeping it all going.

Nor are the Iraqi fighters accorded any coherent status as an actual resistance. They're simply dismissed, in the doctor's words, as young boys on the loose with guns.

As the love story continues in its improbably tangled way - her husband, another Iraqi doctor, coming into contact with Nesbitt and the mercenaries - we're still asked to reflect on the soldiers' pains, shames and misfortunes, but not to consider or debate Britain's own illegal presence and war criminality.

It's not a political film, some might say. Yet how can the political issue be avoided if we're to think truthfully about a drama called "Occupation"?

The script endeavours to relate some of the stark problems within the civilian hospitals as Iraqi surgeons demonstrate the pitiful conditions and lack of basic equipment. We also get a sense here of the cold disregard and amateur profit-driven priorities of the new parasitical military contractors.

The racist language is largely authenticated by asides to "raghead" Iraqis. We even have a young Western-educated Iraqi joining forces with the mercenaries, giving imminent sense to the fatal attractions of collaboration.

Yet there's never any more involving picture of the humanitarian chaos unfolding across this blood-soaked land; of the million or so lives that are being taken; of the biblical-scale upheaval and mass of desperate refugees on the move.

The particular issue of the British occupying role in Basra is never once addressed. Instead, they're assumed as 'just there', making the best of a bad situation, trying to cope and encourage normalisation of Iraqi life.

It's a 'problem war', a 'mistaken war', but never a criminal war.

Back home, the '7/7' attacks on London prompt a token family dispute about the anti-war movement. It's yet another facile take, from the soldier/mercenary viewpoint, on the 'realities' out there in Iraq.

Still on the family strain theme, the soldier's liaison with the doctor is finally revealed to his wife, leading to their tearful break-up. It may be well acted and observed. But it's still a lengthy, clich├ęd distraction from the actual occupation.

As tensions between the three soldiers grow over the war motives, one, the main mercenary, is now in a smart suit tying up a lucrative deal in Dubai with big money backers. Again, there's no added context about the political-corporate factors underlying all this.

Meanwhile, the other, more conscientious, mercenary returns to Basra intent on settling a score, and his own conscience, over the killing of his Iraqi mate, his resulting kidnap taking us into another good-Brit-bad-Iraqi plot-line. It all feels more of a flip-scene soap than a serious examination of a brutalised society under occupation.

Part 3 opens with the menacing kidnap scene, the Iraqi captor asking his hostage: "How many Iraqi refugees are in Jordan and Syria?" This question - shamefully ignored by the West and its servile media - is conveyed as part of a potentially barbaric execution scene. But it could, more appropriately, have been uttered by an actual victim refugee - or the doctor herself. Again, it's part of the selective 'voice' accorded to Iraqis in a script ever intent on demonising the Iraqi resistance.

As the contracting cash-in continues into 2007, Nesbitt's character goes in search of the doctor's kidnapped husband - permitting their own affair to develop. The suggestion of Western responsibility for the kidnap takes us into the possible dark dealings of covert ops. But the plot line is quickly curtailed with his mercenary-secured release. It might have been a lead into the demonic happenings inside Abu Ghraib. But systematic, private-trained torture is never on the dramatic agenda here.

Another spurious plot device to get the female doctor out of Iraq to the safety of England fails as a young fanatic Iraqi shoots her dead in the hospital. It's the scriptwriters' crude way of dealing with the issue of female immodesty within Muslim culture.

We finish with the funeral service of Nesbitt's character's son, another soldier lost to the tragic war in Iraq. A final argument between the three main characters throws up angry exchanges and questions about the market motives, moral motivations and futile outcomes of the occupation.

But it's all contained within their realm of suffering, their losses, their mistakes, their experiences. There's no equivalent scene back in Iraq of bereaved fathers and mothers. There's no concluding reflection on the staggering scale of their pain and loss.

Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism shows how power and Empire were sustained by dominant popular narratives such as the Victorian novel. It's remarkable how little has changed.

Modern war dramas such as Occupation affect a, perhaps, more sensory awareness over the invasion of another's country. But there's no essential difference in the perceived subsidiarity of that land, people and culture.

Like past imperial conquests and pretexts, the narrative line here is one of benevolent intervention. We, the viewer, are invited to pick our way around the various tensions of that premise - look at the chaos and suffering that's been created; what about all the broken lives caused - but the good, unfailing, do-the-duty, finish-the-job message prevails: 'we' were in Basra to liberate, to rebuild the country, to make the peace.

It's sobering when one really stops to think about the terrifying scale of mass murder and calculated terror 'we' have helped unleash on Iraq. And it's a fair indication of the cultural propaganda value of such dramas that much of the public will never really come to acknowledge that dark set of truths.

Even anti-war perceptions are shaped around this sort of agenda-setting output. There's an encouragement to see the consequent fallout of war - namely, the stresses and breakdowns of serving soldiers. Which isn't in itself invalid, so long as it allows a real, authentic voice to those who have actually been invaded, occupied and victimised.

This kind of drama consciously doesn't. Which is why it can get commissioned and appear on a BBC channel in the first place. It has the 'BBC-safe' stamp of approval. This, the establishment can say, is our 'recognition' of the suffering. Which, in practice, means the suffering of 'ours'.

It's a useful lesson in thought control. Quite how a 'landmark' film entitled Occupation can manage to evade the actual issues of occupation should be a question occupying the public mind.


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