On Level Five
21 august 2014
THE FIRST IRAQ WAR earned the nickname “the video game war.” During the conflict, night-vision green footage of desert bombing campaigns was broadcast on the evening news: when the war was made visible, it was made visible digitally. But even those images looked worlds away from the first-person shooter games little boys from Berkeley to Baghdad were playing on their X-Box consoles by the time the second Iraq War rolled around. Instead, that grainy aerial footage from the first Gulf War was closer to what a drone operator sees from his desk in New Mexico: the figures indistinct, the details blurred. As real life war becomes more like video games and video games look more like real life, screens have become mediators of history and our collective efforts to remember it. There are increasingly better graphics, but no less alienation. It is worth noting that a drone operator has a higher risk of PTSD than his counterparts who fly planes.
Around the time video games were to coming to define the memory of Operation Desert Storm, Chris Marker made a movie about a video game that depicted a forgotten battle of a well-remembered war. The heroine in Marker’s 1997 film Level Five is working on a Macintosh, writing a game to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa, at the tail end of World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was dizzying in its loss of human life, but in the West today, hardly anyone knows it happened. In Level Five, Marker’s subject is as much the conflict as our technologies of remembering it. The focus might be predictable from the experimental filmmaker, who is best-known for his meditations on memory in La Jetée and Sans Soleil—though Level Five is structured more like the latter, an essay film that challenges easy categorization as either fiction or non-fiction. Nearly two decades after the film was made and two years after Marker’s death, Level Five is having its first theatrical release at a moment when wars are not just being remembered in digital arenas, but are increasingly being fought in them too.
In Level Five’s fictional frame, Laura, played by Catherine Belkhodja, is making a video game to tell the true story of the U.S. Army’s invasion into the Japanese island and of the subsequent mass suicide that claimed a huge portion of civilian life. Together with the casualties of war, 150,000 men, women, and children died in the battle, roughly a third of the island’s entire population. Before killing themselves, many of them killed loved ones who were too weak to take their own lives. The tragedy meant husbands killed wives. Parents killed children. Sons killed mothers. Marker’s film includes docu-style interviews and vérité footage, sandwiched within the game-writer protagonist Laura’s monologues. The juxtaposition suggests that shared histories are impossible to parse from subjective, lived experience. Laura has chatroom run-ins; survivors describe the violence they witnessed in unforgettable and specific detail.
Shigeaki Kinjo, an aging survivor of the Battle of Okinawa, gives a first-hand account of the tragedy, explaining how the Japanese army persuaded civilians it was better to die than to be taken prisoner by the Americans: “We were told if US troops captured us, they’d cut off our noses and ears, cut off our fingers. They would drive tanks over our bodies, and rape our women.” The army even distributed grenades to assist civilians in their self-annihilation, but there weren’t enough to go around. Kinjo watched a village elder snap off a tree-branch and “beat the life out of his wife and children whom he loved.” Together with his brother, Kinjo followed the example and beat his mother, younger brother, and sister to death. “All of us thought this was the thing to do.” He was 17.
To have the memory of the mass suicide preserved in the national consciousness is complicated. Memorials, for one, are always imperfect. Marker’s intimate camcorder footage shows a local museum, the Himeyuri Peace Museum, on the island, where a diorama attempts to recreate the horrors of the caves where many hid and died. But the site of the memorial, a former girls college, is controversial. “Was too much made of girls from Okinawa elite when others were forgotten? As if there were privileged martyrs,” Marker asks in his narration. But beyond this competition for memory, there’s a complicated relationship between Okinawa and the rest of Japan. Okinawa was its own independent kingdom until Japan annexed it in the late 19th century. The disposability of Okinawans to the imperial government, and the degree to which their loss of life is or isn’t remembered in Japanese schoolbooks today, dredges up the island’s lesser-than status as a colonized territory. “The islanders weren’t true Japanese but were Japanese enough to die,” explains Marker. In 2008, there was even an effort to revise textbooks and excise that the mass suicide had been coerced by the Japanese military.
In part, the Japanese military had hoped that Okinawa might have been a sacrifice that prevented even more loss of life. “If the price was high enough, the US would shrink from invading Japan’s main island and peace could made,” says Marker, explaining their logic. But the casualties during the battle only gave the U.S. a humanitarian justification for using the Atom Bomb. President Truman claimed he was saving lives, preventing “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” In the film, Marker waxes poetic on the battle’s ghostly presence in our collective and individual narratives. “Without Okinawa’s resistance,” he hypothesizes, “Hiroshima would not have been, and the century would’ve been different.”
Marker questions the ethics of representation, and he is wary of memorializing bleeding into objectification. Level Five is horrifying without becoming cheap disaster porn; it is moving without becoming manipulative. Marker reminds us that as images are circulated, people can too easily be reduced to symbols. The little girl waving a white flag from the Battle of Okinawa became an emblem, like the marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. The film also stresses that images have a complicated relationship with the truth. That iconic photo of the marines raising the flag was a fake, re-staged after the original flag-planting soldiers perished in combat. Marker knows his fakes. There’s a video from the Vietnam War of a man burning alive, but part at the end where he gets up is typically cut out. “[The burning man] testifies against war, you cannot weaken his testimony for the sake of a few frames,” explains Marker, probing, “Truth? . . . The truth is, most didn’t get up. So what’s so special about this one? The ethics of imagery?”
Marker’s digressions weave in and out of this meditation on artistic ethics. More questions are asked than answered. Along the way, he suggests that the truth of an image is manipulated by viewership itself. He slows down video footage from the Marines’ invasion of Saipan, the year before the Battle of Okinawa, where thousands jumped from cliffs to avoid being taken prisoner. Slowed down, you can see one woman turn back and see the camera before she leaps to her death. “Do we know she would have jumped if at the last minute she hadn’t known she was watched?” asks Marker. “The woman in Saipan saw the lens and knew that foreign devils would show the world she hadn’t had the guts to jump. So she jumps.” Marker is caustic and quick to jump to conclusions, which would be irritating if they weren’t usually the right ones. Marker’s sentimentality, too, is partially redeemed by the director’s rigorous self-awareness. Marker knows that images lack. “The smell of battle is missing,” he notes, ceding Level Five’s own limitations as a memorializing project. “Until we get smellies, like talkies, war films don’t exist.”
Laura, a surrogate for Marker, feels a futility of her own as she grapples with the impossibility of properly representing the Battle of Okinawa in a video game. “Did you really believe a player would be capable to spend his nights watching history repeating itself, and convincing himself that his own history would also just have a single way to be played?” For all Marker’s talk of the ethics of images, there is little lip service given to the difference between gamifying history and presenting it as a linear slideshow. “Strategy games are made to win back lost battles, aren’t they?” Laura asks in a rare moment where we get some attention paid to the unique character of games and their ability to make multiple endings possible. Because the resolution of Laura’s video game is not necessarily regimented by history, it can operate less like memory than like dreams, creating an arena where what is done can be undone, what is lost can be retrieved, and players are liberated from the need to let go of what’s gone.
Video games, after all, do not just have viewers: they have players who are actively positioned within the story evolving on screen. But the real potential in this never seems to be fully explored. Laura never suggests the perspective from which her Okinawa game will be played. To win, will you have to beat your mother to death with a tree branch? Instead Marker concludes, “Laura saw the Game couldn’t change history. It would repeat it, in a loop, with an obstinacy that was as respectable as it was futile.” There is something to be said for Marker’s meandering, self-conscious exploration of the way that memory becomes it’s own art form. But the most interesting questions asked in Level Five about representation could just as easily be raised in a film about making a film.
Which is unfortunate, because if there is anything that has been necessitated by the nearly two decades since the release of Level Five, it’s a more imaginatively critical engagement with the way that video games shape our wars. Today, most commercial war video games are reductive and ethically problematic. In the popular WWII video games like Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor, the goal is just to slaughter any German-speaking person. The Gulf and Iraq War games are mostly the same, except with Arabs between the crosshairs. There are, however, select independent games that are doing something more. Unmanned for example, by Molleindustria, is self-referential in its meditation on games and the gamification of war. You play a drone operator who pilots an unmanned aircraft all day long, then you drive home from work, then you play video games with your autistic son because that’s the only way to connect with him. Games can be smart. They make meaning in different ways than linear films, but they have a lot of potential to make us think about war, especially as it becomes more and more mediated and alienating. In Level Five, Chris Marker says, “Storing the past in order not to revive it was so 20th century.” The same could be said of the film’s approach.