Sunday, 5 June 2011

Soldier Girls (1981) - Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill


War is hell. Yeah we all know that, but equally hellish is the training the soldiers go through. Yeah okay we all knew that too, didn't we? But just how do you take an ordinary person and turn them into someone who is able to kill without question? Well if you've ever wondered that, then this could be the documentary for you.

In Soldier Girls we join a troupe of new recruits in Georgia as they go about their basic training. You've probably already guessed that they're female from the title haven't you? What this involves is the beating down of any form of individualism, the total crushing of the self for the sake of the group. Or in plain old English plenty of shouting and screaming, punishments for not making beds correctly or even smiling at the wrong moment. You've all seen Hell's Kitchen so you know how it works. Crush the person, and then build them up again in the form you want. Now obviously not everyone is cut out for this type of lifestyle, and what Broomfield & Churchill have done so perfectly is honing in on those that struggle the most.

What this reminds me of more than anything is the first half of Kubrick's seminal anti war film - Full Metal Jacket. I feel certain that Stan must have viewed this at least once since he was so meticulous in his preparations for films, reading and viewing just about everything he could get his mitts on. Sergeant Abing in particular comes across as almost as much a bastard as Sergeant Hartman.

The thing I liked most about this documentary was the hands off approach of Broomfield, who would in later years become an expert at taking center stage in his films. Here though there is no voice over or interviews, the titular girls speak, we listen and every now and then a little text might appear to explain something that has happened off camera. In this way it's very much in the Cinéma vérité style of documentary film making.

There are so many high points in this film, but those that spring to mind first are the absolute breakdown of Private Alves, that opening rallying speech for the new recruits about how the USA has never lost a war, and then his explanation about how they didn't lose 'Nam and best of all what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Just brush off that radioactive dust or waste your valuable water to clean yourself up apparently. And of course there's Private Johnson's story, she's my new hero.

It's only 80 odd minutes long, but during that short time you'll find yourself bonding and caring about what happens to these people. I almost always after a good documentary find myself Googling people in an effort to find out what happened to them after the cameras had stopped rolling. This doc was no exception.

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