At the Montreal World Film Festival: A 24-Hour Ceasefire in Fallajuh

Report by James M. Wall, Chicago/USA

A van travels on an isolated road connecting Baghdad to Fallujah. It is a few days after Easter, 2004. Until a 24-hour ceasefire was agreed to by both sides, U.S. forces and Iraqi Sunni fighters had engaged in a fierce battle for control of the city. The ceasefire would end at dawn.

The van on the road to Fallujah is carrying five people with food and medical supplies for a small hospital in Fallujah. What the passengers will not know for several hours is that before the ceasefire, the U.S. had bombed the hospital. Two of the passengers in the van work in the hospitals in Fallujah and Baghdad. One is a surgeon, the other a relief worker who is also a nurse. Two other passengers are German journalists, a young television reporter eager for an exclusive story, and his cameraman, eager for little other than his personal safety. The driver of the van is an Iraqi who has his own reasons for signing on for this dangerous mission. He believes he knows which roads to take to avoid U.S. army checkpoints. He soon discovers he is wrong. The missions leader, Kim (played by Thekla Reuten) tried, and failed, to get the armys permission to deliver the supplies to the besieged Fallujah hospital. She decides to ignore the orders and make the trip. She confides in her medical colleague, Alain (Matthias Habich), a grizzled veteran of this war. He wants to return to his patients and medical staff he left behind in Fallujah. Oliver, the TV reporter, needs his story and he wants to believe Kim. Only Ralf, the cameraman, is more cautious. Under group pressure he sticks with the group. The driver leaves the main highway, a risky decision which exposes the group to Sunni militants, who have placed snipers along the road.

Coming over a hill, the van is greeted with a volley of shots. The van stops. They have run into a U.S. army checkpoint. The passengers are all dragged from the van and forced face down on the ground. An army sergeant appears and orders them into his tent. This scene is just one of many unexpected and tense moments in the German-made film, Waffenstillstand (Ceasefire), one of 20 films in competition at this years 33rd annual Montreal World Film Festival.

Ceasefire is directed by Lancelot von Naso, a 33-year-old teacher who has taught at universities in Heidelberg and Munich. Ceasefire is his first feature-length film. Von Naso talked with the media after his films first screening, and before its official evening world premier at the Place des Arts auditorium. He explained that the initial idea of his Ceasefire script came to him after he read a short newspaper article about a woman who came to Iraq and ended up organizing a medical transport on her own initiative.

After the press conference, I asked him about his chances of finding a U.S. distributor. He was cautiously optimistic. He has one thing in his favor: He has made a war film as experienced by non-combatants. And there is a large audience in the U.S. which should resonate to the vision of Ceasefire. Von Naso presents his film as an aftermath story, following the actual fighting for control of Fallajuh in April, 2004, between Sunni Arabs and U.S. forces. The two armies were at it again when the U.S. attacked Fallajuh in November, 2004.

It was the November battles that drew Helen Thomas anger in her November 12, 2004 syndicated column: "Do Americans of good conscience really believe that we are making the United States more secure by bombing and killing the people of Fallujah? Thats the justification President Bush and his hawkish circle have given for their brutal offensive against the Sunni stronghold as they push ahead for the total military occupation of Iraq. Why are we killing Iraqis in their own country? And why are our forces being killed? Of course it was convenient and the better part of valor for the president to wait until after the election to start dropping the 500-pound bombs on Fallujah as well as raking the streets with artillery and aircraft firepower."

Von Naso also drew inspiration for his film from an actual U.S. bombing attack on a small hospital in Fallajuh, which killed an estimated 16 civilians in 2004. On Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004, an Associated Press news story, posted on the website, Iraq Body Count, gave the details of the civilian deaths: "More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in Fallujah since Marines began a siege against Sunni insurgents in the city a week ago, most of them women, children and the elderly, the head of the citys hospital said Sunday. Statistics and names of the dead were gathered from four main clinics around the city and from Fallujah General Hospital, said hospitals director Rafie al-Issawi. Bodies were being buried in two soccer fields, one of which was visited by an Associated Press reporter. It was filled with row after row of graves. The death toll from the siege, which started early last Monday, may be even higher than the hospitals tally. We have reports of an unknown number of dead being buried in peoples homes without coming to the clinics, al-Issawi said. Residents started burying bodies in the soccer fields starting Friday, when there was a pause in fighting to allow people to tend to the dead."

It was this pause, or ceasefire, which gave Director von Naso, the factual event around which he could build his film.

There is very little actual fighting in the film. Ceasefire is a story of the aftermath of a battle, seen from the perspective not of the fighters, either Sunni or U.S. but of two journalists, risking their lives to tell a story as journalists should, without being embedded in a U.S. military unit. It is also a story seen from the perspective of two medical volunteers, both working for an NGO.

It is also a story told from the perspective of the Arab driver, who has his own personal motive for making the journey. The driver is played in the film by Husam Chadat, an Iraqi-born actor and an Al Jazeera correspondent in Berlin. Von Naso said he relied heavily on Husams Arabic background to get the Arab world and language right. Another important source for von Naso was  Tomas Etzler, of CNN, who was in Fallajuh in 2004. Clearly, the director has done his homework.

The groups encounter at the U.S. checkpoint had ambiguous results. The sergeant checked Kims story that she had permission to travel during the ceasefire. Headquarters did not back her up. Kim reminds the sergeant she is carrying much-needed medical supplies to Fallajuh. She adds that a German television crew is on hand to report that the U.S. army did not want to let supplies through a checkpoint during a ceasefire.. The sergeant relents. He lets them continue on their journey with his own warning that they had better be out of Fallajuh before the ceasefire ends. As they leave, he tells them: If you get into trouble, dont expect me to come save your sorry asses. With that encouragement. the journey continues. What happens next deserves to be seen in the actual movie, which is packed with tension and the occasional surprise.

Several days later, on my own van ride to the Montreal airport, an attractive young woman was sitting in the front seat of the van. She turned around to introduce herself to me and another passenger. It was Kim, or rather, the actress, Thelka Reuten, who is described in the press guide as an attractive (33 year old) brunette Dutchwoman, born in Amsterdam.

I complemented her on her use of Arabic in the film. She said she had worked hard on understanding both the language and Iraqi culture in order to be authentic to Kims character. As we made our way to the airpot, I suddenly had this uneasy feeling that I was back on the road to Fallajuh and Kim still did not have papers to get us through the checkpoints ahead.  I worked to get us back to reality by talking to Thekla Reuten about a director we both know, Margaretha von Trotta, who, I was pleased to learn, is still making films in Germany.

Thelka, of course, knows von Trotta much better than I do. I had met her briefly at a Denver Film Festival in 2003. We had flown back on the same plane to Chicago.  She had been at the Denver Festival to show her new film, Rosenstrasse. Turns out, Thelka had a role in Rosentrasse. She promised to tell von Trotta that we had met and talked in a van on the highway into the Pierre Trudeau Airport in Montreal, or were we still delivering medical supplies and food to Fallujah?

When people ask me why I have insisted on covering film festivals from Denver to Berlin to Montreal for so many years (28 years for Montreal this year, and counting) I tell them it is because I can always count on seeing festival films that provide cinema at its artistic best. And, then, in the occasional serendipitous moment, I just might meet the real life Kim, riding shotgun in my van.