A long time ago, in a land faraway, I used to teach courses on Vietnam. Like many, I was moved by the yearbooks with whole pages of youth lost to a war we should not have been in. And I wanted to understand the things we cannot understand about violence, imperialism, rape, etc. As a result, I find myself drawn to documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the recent crop of movies about veterans even though I try not to teach war in class anymore. At least not Vietnam.
For these reasons, I found myself foregoing yet another “light hearted comedy” for a movie I had never heard of: GI Jesus. It is the surrealist story of shell shocked veteran Jesus’ return home to his wife and child with fears of being forced to finish his tour in Iraq. (Sound like a Timberlake movie also out on video? it isn’t. In fact it came out almost two years earlier than that film.) And all of the main characters in it put in earnest and believable performances.
Mexican immigrant, Jesus joined the military to gain citizenship and a better life for his family. He and his Dominican wife, Claudia, whose citizenship is never really established in the film, and his young daughter Marina live in a trailer park on the outskirts of town. Their bathroom, appears in one scene as a communal outhouse made of tin and loosely placed floorboards. This image contrasts starkly with the coastal town of Jesus’ past, though ultimately neither is idealized.
Very early on he says “I killed a lot of people to be legal.” And though the film does not center on the gritty violence of war, the idea of exchanging one kind of oppression for another is central to its execution. Thus Marina is told that her father is a murderer by her teacher, and both he and the military are compared by the teacher to animals in the wild. More subtle, at least at the beginning, are Jesus’ encounters with an Iraqi civilian, Mohamed, also a father of a little girl, who reminds him what price everyone is paying for perpetual war. These moments are interspliced with actual military footage of shooting men from inside a tank and video game recruitment DVDs given to children.
The film is not subtle. It is shot on a low budget that makes its surreal moments oscillate between intriguing and overthought. And there are moments about the connections between big pharma and the military and military corruption that are spelled out for viewers rather than allowed to unfold. One of the more astute observations about how poor brown people end up in the military in the first place is also far too direct with military recruiters sitting in children’s desks on the play ground and a priest with pamphlets at a table behind them. The message: its the church or the military if you want to escape poverty; for those who already recognize the point, the scene is a little too trite and for those who don’t, I’m not sure the technique will impress the meaning upon them in any significant way.
GI Jesus also tries to tackle the complex re-alignment of gender roles and exacerbation of gender inequality that are part of the military-industrial-complex. Thus all of the women in the film are hyper-sexualized. They are objectified by Generals during meetings, groped in their work place, and immortalized in their underpants on the tops of cars (which, if you are from where I am from, you know isn’t actually an exaggeration). Jesus’ fears about his wife’s infidelity leads to both real and imagined violent conflict. Not only does he hunt the man he thinks is dating his wife, but their daughter screams about Claudia’s supposed infidelity and calls her a “slut.”
Even little girls are sexualized in this film to make its point about the military gaze. Within moments of their daughter entering the screen, she is seen to dance along to a provocative music video that while somewhat normal also recalls shots of young sex workers in Vietnam. The military recruiter chats up a Chicana student of 8 or 9 with talk about her beauty and her body even as he demeans her intelligence and chances of advancement in the military.
All of these scenes serve to reinforce the idea that pre-existing sexism and sexual exploitation in the real world is exacerbated by wars and the men who wage them. (No I’m not ignore female vets, many of whom have their own sexual assault stories to share that back this concept up.)
Both Marina and Claudia also have their traditional gender roles shifted. Marina loses her childhood to become her mother’s confidant in her father’s absence. Her acting out throughout the film represents the conflict between still being a child and yet knowing more than she should. Despite all of the military’s promises, Claudia not Jesus keeps the household afloat. As she reminds him that she has to go to work, he states plainly that he is home now and she should be staying home with him. To which she asks, who will pay for the rent? And in at least one scene, after promises of a pay hike from the military, se fue la luz. The understanding is clear, his military paycheck was not enough to pay the family’s bills while he was away. At the same time, the failure of the government to provide for a military family, gives Claudia a chance to enter the public sphere that she is reticent to give up.
There is a surprise twist near the end of the film. And yet its potential promise is undermined to remind us that no matter what happens in Jesus’ life, he has still survived and killed in a war that no one wants. To face himself, Jesus must face the demons of being a brown man killing other brown men, of being a little girl’s watching little girls die.
The dual message of “I did what I had to do,” said by Jesus, and the ironic question posed by Mohamed “I’d kill for a cigarette. What are you willing to kill for?” are equally weighted. Given Jesus’ economic and citizenship issues, it would seem that he too understands both positions to well.
There are some really poignant moments in GI Jesus. The questions it raises about shared marginalization and the place of peoples outside of the legitimacy of the State are ones that have been asked by soldiers sent to Iraq from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as immigrants and poor people of color cut out of the N. American dream. The conflicts and concerns that Jesus’ relationship and family endure also speak to the impact the war has on non-combatants, particular women and children, both in the U.S. and in Iraq. And even at its most preachy, it brings to light connections and questions that we should all be asking.
Even as I was concerned by the overemphasis on his wife’s naked body and some of the more experimental techniques and writing, I found myself wondering what this film would have looked like if it had received the same budget and attention as Stop Loss, which the cover and the commercials depict a US military without people of color in it. (The experience of poor white people in the military and the impact it has had on their communities is equally important but it seems big studio money has taken one of the “most diverse employers in the U.S.” and white washed it, so that stories like that of GI Jesus get lost. That is what I object to not the story Stop Loss tells.)
Though I cannot tell you this was a good movie or even a well executed one, I still think it is worth watching for the shift in perspective from big budget Hollywood films on the war and for the chance to ask or speak about the questions and connections that are largely absent from mainstream discourse. GI Jesus is both as preachy and provocative as the film’s title implies and ultimately compelling.
unattributed press photos
video game “dusk 8”
Lowrider hood. artist Shadow. co Lowrider Arte
Ca trailer park
Major Bieger holding a dying Iraqi girl. photo by Michael Yon. – my heart goes out to both Bieger and the unnamed girl’s family.
GI Jesus alternative poster