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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2007

“I Was Just Doing My Job”

Film Review: G.I. Jesús

—Jorge Mariscal

With the exception of John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), the long U.S. war in Southeast Asia produced no high-profile Hollywood films during its ten-year duration and only a handful of mainstream films immediately after the war’s end. As the U.S occupation of Iraq enters its fifth year, we already have a wide range of superb documentaries and two fictional films — Home of the Brave by veteran film maker Irwin Winkler and G.I. Jesús by Belgian writer-director Carl Colpaert.

G.I. Jesús (2006) chooses an unexpected angle on the debacle in Iraq by focusing on the issue of non-citizens serving in the U.S. military. The protagonist, Jesús Feliciano (Joe Arquette), is a Mexican-American whose immigration status is never made clear. Although early in the film he tells his wife, “I killed a lot of people to make us legal,” his flawless English and Chicano style suggest he is not a recent immigrant.

According to Department of Defense figures, some 60,000 immigrants were on active duty in the U.S. military at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. Were Jesús in fact “illegal” or undocumented, it would mean he had joined the Marines under false pretenses since technically only citizens and legal permanent residents are accepted for enlistment.

But Jesús’ immigration status is the least of his problems. As he returns from his first tour in Iraq and his plane makes its final approach to Los Angeles International Airport, the movie slides seamlessly into what appears to be his homecoming followed by a series of flashbacks and real-time incidents that disrupt his life. In reality, before the plane ever lands, the audience and Jesús are inserted into an hour-long, post-traumatic stress nightmare.

Colpaert’s use of a dream frame for the majority of the film is clever and appropriate given the psychological difficulties many Iraq veterans are now facing. According to a 2004 Pentagon study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, at least one in eight of all Iraq veterans is suffering from PTSD. Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, states that the study’s results were far too conservative.

Jesus’ PTSD plays itself out in a variety of personal and political fantasies and hallucinations, ranging from his questioning the fidelity of his Dominican Republic-born wife Claudia (Patricia Mota), to his daughter’s patriotic defense of her father against the attacks of an antiwar teacher, to his brief assignment as a recruiter working with young Latino students at a middle school, to a conspiracy between the pharmaceutical companies and the Pentagon to experiment on troops.

One of the more comical sequences within the long dream section (presented as reality to the unsuspecting audience) is a dinner party at the home of a Marine colonel. The colonel offers Jesús a large sum of cash if he will join a black ops mission in Latin America — a necessary mission “beyond congressional oversight,” according to the officer. The guests, which include all of Jesús’ friends and family members, then engage in a strange game of musical chairs to the tune of "California Dreamin'."

But the main figure prowling Jesús’ damaged psyche is a stranger named Mohammed (Maurizio Farhad). Visible only to Jesús, Mohammed is the father of an Iraqi family murdered by Jesús and his squad during a night patrol. The audience witnesses the assault in a flashback shot in the green and black hues of night vision goggles — a cinematic technique that is quickly becoming the iconic image of the Iraq war.

The film’s most powerful scene may be the heated confrontation between Mohammed and Jesús in which the Iraqi man asks why his wife and daughter had to die, and tells Jesús that he is nothing more than a robot and a killer. Jesús’ weak response is typical of far too many real-life military personnel — “I was just doing my job.”

About an hour into the film, G.I. Jesús flips the audience back to the airplane on which the slowly awakening Jesús begins his real homecoming. Several details are noticeably different. Claudia is no longer the hypersexualized Latina she was at the beginning of the film and his friend is no longer making passes at her (as he had in Jesús’ dream).

Whereas in the dream frame Jesús had considered but rejected the idea of deserting to Mexico rather than redeploy to Iraq, immediately after his real time return to L.A. he decides to take his wife and daughter to Mexico. The ambivalence of the dream Jesús gives way to the clarity of the factual Jesús — like real Latino war resisters Camilo Mejía and Agustín Aguayo, he refuses to participate in an illegal war. The closing scenes are set in a fishing village in Baja where Jesús reunites with his grandparents and makes his peace with Mohammed, who appears for the last time.

Director Colpaert’s previous work has been primarily as a producer, but his creativity as a director is impressive. Using real war footage taken from the BBC and other sources, he constructs a complex visual and conceptual hybrid that, with its dream frame, may remind viewers of the films of David Lynch. Like Allison Anders’s Mi vida loca (1993), co-produced by Colpaert, G.I. Jesús suffers from some stereotypical portrayals of Latino culture — the bright, multi-colored décor of the Feliciano family trailer, the cholo homeboy, the oversized portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the romanticized representation of Mexico.

The film’s strongest asset with regard to Latinos, however, is El Paso native Arquette, who has the classic features of a Chicano leading man and who plays the character of Jesús with believable intensity that connotes his moral complexity. A relative newcomer, Arquette previously appeared in the Spanish-language telenovela “La ley del silencio.”

The soundtrack in the final scenes includes versions of "California Dreamin'" by both the Mamas & the Papas and José Feliciano. The last image is real-life footage of a terrified Iraqi family just rousted out of their home at gunpoint by a U.S. patrol — a fitting example of the very genuine nightmares produced by the neocons; directed by Mssrs. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld; and distributed to more than three thousand U.S. and many thousands more Iraqi families.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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