My favourite part of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn’t George W Bush reading My Pet Goat upside down, but the footage of the ordinary US soldiers talking of the music they played as they blasted their way to Baghdad. It wasn’t just the immediacy of the in-your-face interviewing style although that was a marked contrast to television portrayal of the war it was the superior quality of the filming that struck me, even though these scenes were shot under gruelling circumstances using video, not film.
Moore was using footage from George Gittoes’s film, Soundtrack to War, which was released in 2004.
Soundtrack to War is best described as a full-length, in-depth piece of MTV. It is music at full blast interspersed with vox pops and shots of rotting twisted dead bodies and a skull crawling with flies. It shows the shared musical values of the young kids of Baghdad and the American underclass who make up most of the ordinary soldiers dying in Iraq. Gittoes celebrates the music of these young soldiers, their naÃ¯ve patriotism and their terrible pragmatism.
Most of the soldiers are African American. When Gittoes asks one boy, singing of sex and violence in the opulent surrounds of Uday Hussein’s palace, why he is in Iraq, he is taken aback by the reply. Elliott Lovett says, ‘We get shot at more in Miami than Baghdad.’
Miami , Florida , is where Jeb Bush’s Republican electoral officials presided over the ‘hanging chads‘ in 2000, and where many Black voters were disenfranchised. This State is the reason George W Bush, became President and why Elliott Lovett sang rap in Baghdad.
Like all great cities Miami has subcultures, divisions. Here the dividers are water, and the bridges that separate the main city from Miami Beach, with its golden sands, palm trees, tall buildings and money. Far away from the ocean, on land baked flat, are grids of streets lined with boarded-up houses. This is Brownsville, also known as Brown Sub, the home of Elliott Lovett’s extended family and friends.
George Gittoes’s most recent film, Rampage, is the result of an invitation by Elliott Lovett to visit him in Brownsville after he has returned from war. It takes the form of extended MTV documentary even further than Soundtrack to War the narrative is extracted from the montage of discontinuous footage. Footage is occasionally linked with text and a voice over. Sometimes the titles remind me of those found in 1960s spaghetti westerns. ‘Three brothers’ flashes up on the screen as we meet Elliott, his younger talented rap-singer brother, Marcus, and the ambitious 14-year-old Denzell: ‘ the rising star. ‘
Camera close-ups take us to meet family friends, including a tooled-up neighbourhood crack dealer. This is the ghetto were America’s Black urban underclass live.
I done seen kids die, I done seen grown men;
I’m a let you niggas know in this war we can’t win.
And he is impressive and aggressive. Then there is his brother, Marcus, aka L’il Marc.
Don’t blame me, blame the streets.
I see so many of my peeps
get shot right in front of my eyes.
Witness mothers cry and drive bys
while little kids outside.
Every time Marc opens his mouth he raps in rhyming couplets. No wonder they think he is a star. Marc is only 20 years old, more slightly built than Elliott, and even at the beginning of the film we know he is now dead, shot in an execution as part of gang warfare. We see his funeral, close-ups of his dead body, and then in black and white, Marc sings of his premonition of death:
See right now, won’t be surprised
if I die writing these rhymes
’cause all I know
a bullet shot could come through my window
hit me in my forehead and I fall on the floor
and blood flows on the lyrics that I just wrote.
It wasn’t through his window; it was at a party to which he wasn’t really invited. Tensions run high in these streets, especially on summer nights. The Lovetts feel targeted because they have White men Gittoes and his son Harley with them, and these filmmakers may only have hand-held camcorders, but they are recording their music, and maybe the boys will become stars.Ambition breeds jealousy from those not chosen. The people of Brown Sub make our aspirational classes look like the wimps they are.
After Marcus’s death, even before the funeral, attention turns to young Denzell precocious, confident, ambitious:
Mine’s is rampage with life. How life goes on.
How life is not made to look back in the past.
Life is made to look forward
until the day you lay in your grave, you feel me.
They take the kid to Atlantic City, then to New York, to audition as the next hot Black young talent. He is incredibly talented, but the industry doesn’t want his kind of image. I’ve always wondered why so many famous Black American singers come out of church choirs it’s not just because of the power of that old time Gospel music. The macho rhythm of the street, and the way rap singers face each other off like Maori doing a haka, is just not good family entertainment when sung by a child. The sight of a streetwise 14-year-old singing about his brother’s death and violent revenge may be powerful and moving, but it isn’t exactly going to get him on MTV.
This is the power of the film. Not just the music, which is wild, but the visual clash of underclass meeting mainstream and the way these cultures have so little in common. Rampage visualises the cultural/racial divide of a USA where the boys and girls in the ghettoes and working-class suburbs are the ones fighting a war in the interests of the citizens of Miami Beach and Manhattan.
Gittoes takes the Lovetts to Miami Beach, where they have never been. He brings young Denzell and another brother back to Australia for a holiday, where they meet Gittoes’s wife, the film’s producer Gabrielle Dalton, and shoot some tourist footage of Sydney Harbour. They also ask an Aboriginal friend, ‘Uncle Max’ Eulo , to conduct a smoking ceremony so that the Lovett boys can be at peace with their brother’s death.
Gittoes has a knack for asking directly the most embarrassing questions, and filming the response in close-up. At one point, just after Marcus’s death, he films Elliott’s anger when he asks how he feels coming back to the place where his brother died. This apparent bone-headedness is not manipulated. I went to school with Gittoes, and still remember cringing with embarrassment at some of the questions he would ask our teachers, without any preamble. He hasn’t changed all that much since he was 16.
George Gittoes has been asking direct questions of soldiers and others in theatres of war for almost 20 years now. It is, on reflection, quite surprising that he is still alive.
Rampage opens at the Dendy in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne on 30 November and in selected cinemas in London on 24 November.
Special Give Away
New Matilda has free tickets to Rampage. The first ten to email us at enquiries(at)newmatilda.com with their name, postal address and contact number will receive one in-season pass to Rampage.
Rampage is screening in Sydney and Melbourne from 30 November and Brisbane from 7 December, all exclusively to Dendy .
View the trailer for George Gittoes film, Rampage here (file best viewed using Quicktime)
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