“The Western Front”


Each of the three films presented this week by Island film societies address issues of manhood, although from very different perspectives. A documentary, “The Western Front,” playing at the Chilmark Community Center on August 7, examines the Iraqi War from the viewpoint of a marine who revisits Al Anbar, one of the country’s most violent regions, where he fought in 2004.

“The Little Traitor,” playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on August 8, explores the surprising friendship between an 11-year-old Polish refugee and a British soldier during the Palestine occupation in 1947.

“Alamar,” playing at the Tabernacle on Tuesday, August 10, tells the story of how a Mexican fisherman teaches his five-year-old son some of his first lessons in adulthood.

Because “The Western Front” director Zachary Iscol, a Chilmark summer resident, participated in the fight to retake Falluja, he lends a different perspective to the Iraqi War than other documentarians. Beginning as an idealistic enlistee eager to serve his country, he gradually became disillusioned with many of the Bush administration’s policies for fighting in Iraq.

Unlike most of his fellow soldiers, Mr. Iscol chose to return in hopes of coming to a better understanding of the conflict and his experiences there. He saw the crucial role of translators in helping the U.S. military understand how to communicate with different groups of the Iraqi populace, some of whom were religious fanatics, and others — foreign fighters or Baathist nationalists.

If people are afraid of the insurgents, he came to appreciate, they would not aid American soldiers even if they sympathized with them. In one case, a boy who warned U.S. soldiers about an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) was kidnapped and killed by insurgents.

Iraqi citizens who placed IEDs along the roads often did so because their families would be killed if they refused. Mr. Iscol concluded that military checkpoints were rarely effective but simply became magnets for suicide bombers.

American soldiers were trained to shoot first in an understandable “them-or-me” mentality. But Mr. Iscol tells the story behind one such incident, where it turned out that an Iraqi driver who didn’t stop had poor eyesight and faulty brakes on his car. There was no need to kill him. Mr. Iscol also explains that the insurgents fought expecting to die and often took liquid adrenalin or street drugs to maintain their stamina.

Animated simulations periodically inserted into the film seem more disconcerting than helpful. But Mr. Iscol’s very personal insights fill out the picture of a war that Americans would just as soon forget. Mr. Iscol will participate in a panel discussion about the movie, along with Iraqi journalist Mina al Oraibi, counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, and Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Greg Jaffe. Columbia University professor and former provost Jonathan Cole will moderate the discussion. The M.V. Film Festival’s Cinema Circus will not take place before the screening of “The Western Front,” but will resume on August 11.

“The Little Traitor”

While the fiction film “The Little Traitor,” based on a short story by Amoz Oz, is set in a different region and time period, it, too, addresses issues about war and coming of age. It follows the attempts of a Jewish boy, Proffy Leibowitz, to understand his feelings of hatred for the British occupiers of Palestine, his parents’ role in subverting the occupation, and his own efforts to participate in the Jewish resistance.

Proffy plots with two of his buddies to set off a road bomb. Early on, he is stopped by a British soldier, Steven Dunlop (Alfred Molina) for violating the curfew. Sgt. Dunlop doesn’t beat or jail him, and a friendship develops between the two.

They talk about the Book of Samuel, and Proffy has the chance to examine some of his feelings about what is going on in his adopted country, along with other subjects he can’t broach with his parents. Armed with binoculars, he discovers on a trip to the roof of his family’s building that a pretty young woman across the courtyard often undresses without closing her shades.

Again, Sgt. Dunlop helps him with his confused, pre-adolescent feelings. Proffy’s friendship with the soldier stirs up a hornet’s nest in the Jewish community, and he is brought before his neighbors to account for his subversion. Theodore Bikel plays the community leader who interrogates him.

Director Lynn Roth uses a discursive approach to storytelling that may confuse or annoy some, but she is very effective in showing how complicated a boy’s feelings can become when placed in as challenging a context as occupied Palestine.


In Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s semi-fictional film “Alamar,” five-year-old Natan Machado Palombini travels to Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro, a Caribbean atoll, to spend time with his father, Jorge, before he leaves for Italy with his Italian mother. Jorge teaches his son how to fish and educates him about the life of the sea.

During their time on the water, father and son befriend an egret that teaches Natan some difficult lessons. Marine life is not always idyllic, as the little boy learns when he gets seasick. His most important lessons come, however, from his father.

“The Western Front,” Saturday, August 7, 7 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $15; $7 for members, online at tmvff.org or at the door.

“The Little Traitor,” Sunday, August 8, 7:30 pm, MV Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $10.

“Alamar,” Tuesday, August 10, 8 pm, Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs. $8; $5 for members. Doors open at 7:30 pm.