Violence has always been my bread and butter from when I was working with young homeless people in Blackpool facing violence from family, police, or each other, to working with human rights activists and survivors of war in military occupied territories like Papua in Indonesia. Violence was the reason I was there. What is it, this behaviour, this activity and why do we humans engage in it in so many different forms, and what’s more - why was I always attracted to it?
I found myself most fascinated by the military who are trained and legally sanctioned to do violence on our behalf. Naively, I had believed soldiers would uphold the views of the politicians who sent them there and I had assumed their feelings and empathy for local civilians would be numbed by military service.
I was surprised to find how critically they reflected on their role. I feel their mixed emotions were due to the face-to-face human situations they were in, where politically constructed discourses meet everyday human reality.
There is so much noise about the military and war; books, movies, TV news and public commemorations. In contrast, the responses of people, both civilians and soldiers who have been caught up in armed violence is often silence. War seems to be the most talked about of activities, and yet the least known.
I've been making films for the last 6 years on and off and I was interested in trying to capture the British military experience. I never really considered going to Afghanistan or Iraq, where the embedding process leaves little freedom to work, and visually filmmakers seem overwhelmed by the terrible thrill of war and violence.
But I saw my opportunity when I returned home to Britain. I had left the UK to work overseas in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq, and it still loomed large in my memory of what Britain was. I decided to search out British soldiers who had been part of the Iraq war, to see what they said and didn't say about that war, and whether that violence still played a part in their everyday lives 10 years on, and if so how.
I began my research and my film where I grew up, in Blackpool - that icon of the British national imagination. I knew young Blackpool men and women commonly joined the military, but I didn't realise that the connection between this tourist town and military commemoration went so much deeper; with military reunions from across the north west and Scotland regularly held here and many public events for both commemoration and entertainment.
In particular, the government's new Armed Forces Day has been wholeheartedly embraced in 'don't do it by halves' Blackpool, and renamed Armed Forces Week. It regularly sees over 50,000 visitors.
During the first Armed Forces Day, an empty town centre shop was turned into a visitor information point, and quickly became inundated with requests for help from veterans. It has now become a permanent veterans museum cum gift shop cum welfare centre.
As my research with the veterans progressed, I realised that it was futile to focus on one 'war' such as Iraq. I was coming across veterans who had served in all of Britain's post-imperial spaces, from Borneo to Belfast to Baghdad, and all of them were being personally remembered right here in Blackpool. The veterans I met embody Britain's unending military actions and our propensity for opting for military intervention, an option we are discussing again this week as conflict mounts in Iraq. To try and reflect this continuity of war and violence, the film I made in the end tinkers with notions of time and place. Archive footage of civilians watching the British Indian Army enter Baghdad in 1917 merges with British Army patrols in 2004 at street checkpoints frisking Iraqi drivers and passengers.
Gradually my film became a portrait of one veteran of the Iraq war, Darren, juxtaposed with past and current public memorials. Now home in Blackpool for over 7 years, we see how he locates his experiences of violence and follow him through intimate settings with family and friends, as well as public settings, where veterans and the military are honoured and celebrated.
These scenes show the tension between personal and collective remembering, forgetting and the denial of state violence. An individual may identify with a dominant collective narrative of war and violence, particularly constructions of the enemy, the violent 'other'. At the same time, that individual has their own personal experiences which both support and contradict this.
Human interrelationships formed and deformed by violence are reimagined with fear, remorse, hate or love on a human level. To capture this in the film I tried to leave all judgments and assumptions behind to build a relationship with this and other veterans. In doing this, I found that what developed was friendship, which came as the biggest surprise to me and Darren, who said this when I asked him for a quote for this article;
“Working on this film made me open up in ways I didn't realise. The finished result was very humbling to watch and made me realise just how far I have come with my rehabilitation. One bonus about this film is a friendship that has been formed by two people from totally different ends of the spectrum. I now consider Mike a true friend in every sense of the word..Thanks mate...”
Judgments and assumptions are an essential ingredient in the creation of fear and hatred, and when we leave them behind there are opportunities for friendship and love.
Throughout the making of the film I came to see how we are all busy creating monsters, spreading fear and hate to turn someone or something into a monster. On any given day this may be Saddam Hussein, the Germans, Muslims or the Irish. For some, including sometimes myself, British soldiers were the ones to fear and hate and turn into our monsters.
I found this quote by Nietzsche which succintly describes where hate and fear lead: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." When we allow fear and hate to shape our opinions and our lives, that is what happens, which is why, as Les Back, the sociologist, says, "We need to find ways to repair the harm that hate and fear inflict on our ability to see, hear and understand."
What I have realised is that we are usually none of us as tough as we think we are. We think we can be warriors, saviours, and end violence, but violence and the fear which produces it and the hate which fuels it are incredibly powerful. I hope love and understanding can be my guide, even when I am facing violence and hate.
Here are some lines from Homecoming, a poem written by my great uncle when he was a soldier in Mesopotamia in 1919, when the British Army occupied Mesopotamia and the borders of modern day Iraq were drawn up by European hands. I only found out about this and a relatively uncommemorated bit of history, speaking to my own family during the filming of Wartorn Britain:
"I saw arid plains where once great cities grew
like Nineveh and Ur
and thought I knew
and my emotions too"
Wartorn Britain (27 minutes), is currently available online here or via Facebook: WartornBritain. If you would like to organise your own screening of Wartorn Britain, please get in touch with Michael at [email protected]