Since its practical development in the late 1920s, sound has played an important role in documentary films. Although all films, even documentaries, are visual media, it is the visual image together with sound that complements each other and work together to communicate meaning. In a compilation documentary, the soundtrack and narration should communicate something about a scene that a visual image by itself does not. Though some may argue that diegetic sound in documentary film is of lesser importance to the film’s development than its images are, it is the sensitive building of mood and tone that these elements create that make documentary so effective. Roger Aronoff’s Confronting Iraq uses sound and image in this way; the combination conveys a sense of seriousness and urgency about the film’s topic of terrorism, creating a message that is both intellectual and emotional.
The result is a reconsideration of recent negative publicity surrounding the United States’ campaign in Iraq to combat threats to America. Specifically, the tone of the music and dialogue answer and challenge the sarcasm and pop culture references in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Confronting Iraq does not present as its purpose the refutation of Moore’s documentary, but references throughout to specific instances in that film question Moore’s accuracy in his treatment of terrorism. It is the use of sound—voice-over narration, interviews, and music—that drives home the film’s arguments, knitting together a complex string of expert opinion, government testimony, and haunting melody.
The film is initially driven by the straightforward sound of rhythmic music, backgrounding images of events leading up to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
The 1979 Tehran bombing, the 1983 Beirut bombing, and the 1995 first attack on the World Trade Center are shown in both still and moving images, thematically linked by the film’s major score. The slow drum beat and subtle but dramatic music will later link the September 11th attacks and the United States’ subsequent bombing of Iraq with these events—reinforcing the film’s point that acts of terrorism against the United States that began long before September 11 justify the war in Iraq.
The film’s narrator is introduced a short time later, with a voice that is young, female, and unmistakably French. This is a surprise; given the lack of French support for America’s war on terror, a French narrator is not expected. Editor Don Wilson explains that it was a conscious decision to employ an unexpected narrator: “We said, let’s not sound real American. We picked a French narrator because of what was going on at the time. It was an excellent rhetorical choice for the film.” The result of that choice is that Confronting Iraq seems to have been made for Western European audiences in general (rather than American audiences in specific), principally when compared to Fahrenheit 9/11’s distinctly American point of view and voice. The international feel of the film is supported by interviews with non-American experts (professors, political commentators, authors who have written about the Islamic world).
Voice-over narration can allow a film to present circumstances of a situation in great detail. Confronting Iraq’s narrator presents activities leading up to the president’s decision to go to war with what appears to be her view of the situation, not just the view of the film’s makers. She discusses social, moral, and political factors from the past and present (and, by implication, the future) that have contributed to the current situation. The French narrator serves as witness to and coordinator for the events, reinforcing the narrative unity of the whole film.
She is an omniscient narrator, knowing the end and the beginning. Her voice gives away the drama of the film in the first few minutes, using the balance of the film to document the telltale signs of the inevitable decision to go to war. Since the film’s ending is already known, the suspense lies in how this film’s pro-war argument is constructed.
The narrator’s voice makes this a filmic version of an op-ed piece, in many ways reminiscent of the March of Time newsreel series of the 1940s. Jack C. Ellis reports that March of Time’s filmmakers chose a narrator whose voice was simultaneously “ominous and reassuring,” allowing the spoken words to carry the weight of the communication (81). Like March of Time, Confronting Iraq is a documentary concerned with making the institutions of society function better by articulating social, economic, and political goals, and inspiring the defeat of terrorism.
Perhaps the most effective sound element in the film is its interviews with several experts from academia and law enforcement. At times, the interviews carry the weight of the argument; at times, they provide support for the voice-over narration. For example, the narrator announces that the September 11th attacks killed nearly 3,000, exponentially raising the high-stakes game the terrorists had already started: “It was the spectacular escalation of a war waged against the United States for more than 20 years” (Confronting Iraq). Next, Bernard Kerik is introduced as the police commissioner of New York police during the time of the attacks, losing “23 of his officers” on that day. Kerik backs up the narrator’s point, describing in detail his sensory impressions during the crisis following the Twin Towers bombing. In one sense, the sudden shift of emphasis between narrator and interviewed expert marks a rupture in the narrative, but it is a necessary break from the rhythm established by the narrator’s voice and the rhythmic commentative music.
If the interviewed experts (who are identified by the narrator’s introduction and by bold-lettered captions on the lower third of the screen) are meant to be the voice of experts, then the narrator is meant to be “one of us,” using easily understood language and allowing an emotional quality into her voice that mirrors our own fear and uncertainty in the face of the situation.
Perhaps the most convincing—and, to some, most controversial—interviewed subject in the film is Christopher Hitchens, a British writer who is a columnist for Vanity Fair and has written books on the struggle between the West and fundamental Muslims. Before Hitchens appears, the film shows particularly compelling visual evidence that Islamic states and extremists are dangerous for the United States, with a montage of archival footage featuring Osama bin Laden speaking to his followers, jihadists celebrating after a successful suicide bombing, and Islamic leaders cruelly punishing dissenters. The pace of these scenes builds gradually, as does the music. The result is that the Islamic fundamentalists appear frantic, chaotic, and irrational, contrasting sharply with Hitchens’ scenes, which feature a much slower editing pace. He appears to offer a reasoned analysis of the situation and argument in favor of the United States’ action. As Lewis suggests, this strategy is a good one for documentary films, whose purpose is “to make the cinema an instrument of more effective journalism” and not one of mere entertainment (as some have claimed Fahrenheit 9/11 is) (104).
Finally, Wilson’s musical choices in Confronting Iraq provide continuity for the film, cover edits, facilitate changes of scenes, and create a mood that is striking and insistent. The music comments on the action, providing an editorial perspective for interpreting the images.
The music here serves to underscore the film’s thesis, and it also helps to unify the fragments of archival footage, new and old interviews, and voice-over narration into an unfolding narrative. Though documentaries do not tell a story in the way that fiction films do, they still have a beginning, middle, and end. For Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11’s narrative begins with what he sees as George W. Bush’s illegal presidential victory. For Roger Aronoff, it begins with the 1979 capture of American hostages in Tehran, Iran. Here, as in narrative cinema, a problem is introduced in the opening scenes of the film; it is this problem which will drive the film’s narrative until the end, where, if the film does not provide a happy ending, it at least suggests that a solution for the problem is possible. The same music that began the film, the driving beat that tries to motivate its audience to action gives way to more ethereal, more hopeful music that accompanies Bernard Kerik’s closing words: “Listen to bin Laden in 97; listen to him today. Listen to al Zarqawi…listen to the people who beheaded Nick Berg—they all say the same thing. Their job in life is to devastate our society. That hasn’t stopped. We have to combat terrorism.”
Aronoff, Roger. Telephone Interview. 10 February 2005.
Confronting Iraq. Dir. Roger Aronoff. Accuracy in Media, 2004.
Ellis, Jack C. The Documentary Idea. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.
Fahrenheit 9/11. Dir. Michael Moore. Lions Gate Films, 2004.
Jacobs, Lewis. The Documentary Tradition. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
March of Time. Prod. Louis de Rochemont. 1938.
Wilson, Don. Telephone Interview. 10 February 2004.
Oklahoma State University