“We think of Afghanistan as happening over there. But what we don’t realize is that it’s affected our culture quite a lot.”
That’s documentary filmmaker and photographer Ruth Dusseault, talking with me in January 2015 about her film Play War: Respawn, which opens tomorrow, February 10, at the Atlanta Independent Film Festival. Respawn, part of Dusseault’s broader project Play War, uncovers an intriguing if overlooked subset of US military culture as it explores how virtual reality sustains and perpetuates real-world violence.
For the project, Dusseault—probably best known in Atlanta for photographing the original interior of Manuel’s Tavern and for documenting in images the transformation of an abandoned steel yard into Atlantic Station —spent five years shooting footage at paintball fields from California to Texas. In paintball (and airsoft, a related sport), players come together with fake guns, tanks, and other fabricated equipment to act out battles—some based on real engagements, some created by the players themselves. “Wars” take place in open spaces (borrowed or rented) that are set up as towns or other sites using whatever materials the players can get their hands on, from PVC pipe to wooden pallets to abandoned cars. The surreal landscapes make for stunning images that suggest mashups of The Walking Dead, Blade Runner, and Jackson Pollock.
The film shifts between footage of these games and clips from a virtual reality “resilience training” video from the US military (created by Skip Rizzo at USC’s Center for Creative Technologies). Designed with gamers in mind, the video replicates a world with which many young, mostly male military recruits are already familiar. The clips present a range of real-world scenarios, including the death of a fellow soldier and a bombing that kills a child, to emphasize that, unlike video games, war “is every hell you can imagine and then some.”
It’s hard to believe that this video, with wooden voiceovers and animation that now seems outdated, could help media-savvy recruits to confront the realities of war. (Personally, I would have liked less of it in the film.) At one point, without a hint of irony, one of the characters cries out, “This is no video game. This is real.” But it’s so not real, and this strange interplay of virtual and actual worlds running throughout is one thing that makes Respawn worth seeing.
Respawn wisely avoids explicit commentary on how virtual bloodshed affects our culture. You won’t find any “violent video games = violent real world” platitudes here. Instead, the paintball segments of Respawn present a parade of amiable if gun-obsessed geeks, fixated on the details of their fake weaponry the way a Star Trek fan might describe the technical specifications of the Enterprise and occasionally appear in costume at DragonCon.
Yet even in this nerdy universe, the traces of violence are everywhere, particularly in the conversations with Jonathan Young, a “commander” with his group’s “NATO forces.” An Iraqi veteran, Young tells us that the majority of players in the game have some form of PTSD. Paintball, for him, serves as a kind of therapy. “Out here,” he says, “someone gets killed and I can go talk to them afterward. It’s not like they’re never coming back.” (This is the “respawning” of the film’s title, a gamer word used to describe a character’s reanimation after death.)
Young, who anchors the film, is skilled at articulating the complexities of this world. Even as he uses paintball to heal his own wounds, he views it as a way to encourage others to join the military. “If they don’t do it who will?” he asks. “We have an all-volunteer military. It’s going to be that way from now on.” Games like paintball don’t lead young people to go out and shoot anyone, one aficionado points out. But if civilians are to live sealed off from the carnage of war, the film seems to suggest, someone has to suffer. An endless loop forms: virtual death recontextualizes trauma for veterans, allowing them to heal, yet draws in new recruits by steering them away from a head-on encounter with the inevitable pain of combat.
In what we now call our “divided America,” it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t demonize either the military or its left-wing opponents. The soldiers here are neither martyrs nor heroic protectors, just individuals caught in a system that doesn’t appear to offer many options. “I’m no idiot,” Young tells us. “I know I was given [that] mentality by my instructors . . . . [But] the ability to feel that you were doing something, anything that meant something, with your life, is empowering. You . . . felt like you had a family.” Grappling with the invisible trauma and loss inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike, Respawn helps make sense of the our violence-obsessed culture and its effects on us all.
“Play War: Respawn” screens on Friday, February 10, at 8pm at the Pinch n’ Ouch Theater. Click here for more info on the Atlanta Independent Film Festival.
Jami Moss Wise is a former participant in the Art Writers Mentorship Program and a regular contributor to BURNAWAY. She works full-time with her artist husband.