“The faster I breathed, the scarier it became ... this fear of death. All I wanna do is pull the trigger if I need to,” a man’s voice mutters, trembling.
The imagery on the film screen isn’t from a Hollywood war movie. There are no battlefields in sight, and this is no high-paid actor. Instead, there are two empty kids’ beds, piles of stuffed animals, bright morning light creeping in through the bedroom window.
Koizumi asked seven veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to wear bodycams while navigating a day in their regular, domestic lives back home in the United States.
Traumatic memories slip into otherwise mundane moments. The wars continue in the veterans’ minds. Grim experiences haunt them.
If this sounds like a boring formula for an infomercial or public service announcement on veterans with PTSD, don’t worry — it’s not. As depressing as the subject matter is, these videos are more cinematic than a simple documentary.
With cameras strapped to their bodies, the veterans show an awareness of speaking for the camera — and for an audience — that casts them as amateur actors in a sense. At the same time, the raw, unscripted nature of their terrifying recollections from the battlefield brings viewers into an emotional and psychological space that feels authentic.
In all of their narrations, they begin in the present, observing their surroundings, but at some point they disconnect and travel back to the past, on uncertain, dangerous terrain overseas. They are discovering charred bodies of dads who will never see their daughters again. Entering houses at 3 a.m. with machine guns, searching for insurgents. Getting rocks thrown at them by little kids. Watching prisoners who are only teenagers sleeping on small mats on dirt floors.
They are behind brick walls while bullets pierce the air, motioning their fellow soldiers to raise their rifles and be ready to pull triggers. They are throwing grenades into empty buildings. They are unsure if anyone died, but it’s policy to not know. They are afraid of death, they are ready for death.
Is all this really happening? While the soundtrack recites narratives of traumatic war memories, the camera stays focused on the person’s present-day life.
In one of the more scenic interviews, we look out from a tall building as a veteran points out highlights of the Miami cityscape (“Over there is Little Havana, that’s really where Miami started”), his voice calm and confident.
But then his voice shifts into a memory of shooting grenades, and the sound they make: “thump thump.”
The 57-minute video plays on a loop in a black-box gallery on the institute’s third floor. Originally commissioned by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, this updated version is being shown for the first time at a U.S. museum.
I happened to see a screening in Miami last summer. Visitors were invited to relax on beanbag chairs. The film was shorter back then — the artist has since worked with two more veterans around the July 4th fireworks, suggesting ways in which this “celebration,” reminiscent of gunfire, can be triggering for veterans.
What makes the video work is that it’s both authentic and staged. While the memories are real, capturing them involves the artist’s tactful manipulation.
In Koizumi’s previous work, he took a similar approach to understanding war, particularly from a Japanese perspective. (Since 1947, Japan has agreed not to wage war, and a traditional military is forbidden by the Japanese constitution, but in the past year the country has been gathering more “defense forces.”)
His 2014 installation “The Confessions,” at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, showed how stories of war can be altered in the retelling.
Koizumi interviewed a Japanese man who joined the French Foreign Legion because he wanted to experience battle. He edited bits of their discussion into a short video that suggested “bullets flying” and an account of being on the front line in Afghanistan. But a full transcript of the interview, which viewers could read on a wooden stand nearby, showed that the film had distorted the actual narrative, much of which was lifted from scenes in movies.
Think about this irony when you see “Battlelands.”
“This feels like a movie,” says one veteran, lost somewhere in a memory of war. “And I say, ‘It’s not. Point your rifle.’ ”