Documentaries that depict the consequences of war on soldiers and/or civilians usually focus on two aspects: They show the catastrophic impacts that wars have on the war-torn countries after the conflict has ended, and then they show what happens to soldiers after the war. As for the former, we have films that focus on the environmental and physical changes that the inhabitants of cities under war have gone through, usually by comparing the locations before and after the war, and the damages left on the walls and houses. The second aspect focuses on the psychological damages that soldiers carry with themselves all of their lives; scars that never heal.
Ashes, directed by Jiuxun Jin, begins quite unexpectedly. The narrator talks about landing in Iraq, and talks about the war and its death tolls and the damages it brought, and thousands of lives lost that we can't get back. If one looks at statistics, they show that 200 Americans were killed and more than 600 were injured while more than 7 thousand Iraqi civilians lost their lives. While the narrator describes the soldiers entering Iraq, we see a footage of a road with beautiful, green trees on both sides as the camera moves as if in a car. The green scenery is then cut to the camera placed behind the dirty windshield of a car in Iraq, moving ahead on a dirty, crowded road. The filmmaker suddenly throws us in the scene of war. It's a smooth, natural comparison between ‘home’ and war where the sound becomes an important element.
It seems that the audio track is significant in Ashes as the filmmaker emphasizes that he wants us to hear more than to see. The narrator talks about the unbearable climate in Iraq, especially the heat that the soldiers have never experienced before. The film brilliantly cuts to images of the narrator driving. We also see archival footages of roads that have been exploded as bombs hit the roads. We see images of corpses lying on the ground. Jin creates a stressful and tense atmosphere through his precise editing as the audience feels as if they are at the scene. What makes the work so unique is in the fact that the filmmaker uses his limited resources fully. By using a narrator, a series of images and some archival footages, he creates a journey; our journey to the war in the Middle East.
What is interesting is that the audience feels what the narrator talks about, almost instantly. The audience feels that fear. The narrator mentions that fear has made it possible for him to survive the war. But many of us know that the psychological impacts of fear will stay on human beings' mind and soul for years after incidents. When the narrator describes his experiences, we see images of weapons and war equipment. The atmosphere the soldiers find themselves in is scary, dangerous and unpredictable. The soldiers live with this idea that their lives might end at any minute. Those who survive and get back home can't forget their experiences and their lives will be forever linked with memories and experiences and scars left from the war. They may have left the war geographically, but war within them still rages on.
But blood and bullets and dirt and corpses aren't the only things soldiers remember from war. The narrator says that he won't ever forget the smell of dead bodies. These are the things that returning soldiers will never forget. These are the things that words can't describe, and the filmmaker has expressed these inexpressible feelings with his images, with the double exposure of the bodies on the images of green scenery and beautiful trees, with the screams of children, with blood shown on the screen. The narrator talks about the bodies left out on the road, talks about how soldiers couldn't stop for anything and they had to move on, they had to turn their eyes away from exploded heads, bombed houses, from things one will never experience anywhere else in the world. By using visual collages and by mixing graphical images and double exposure, Jiuxun Jin tries to fill the gaps in the narrator's words. Some of these images are extraordinarily interesting and unique, including an image of a hospital of some sort, with beds on which bombs and weaponry are laid, instead of patients, and with windows that open to a wasteland filled with black smoke rising from bombs, instead of trees in the garden. These surreal images help the film to re-create the situation after the war, and the one-of-a-kind characteristic of the film lies in the fact that it does not stay in the atmosphere seen early in the film, as it changes its visual strategy toward its topic. By combining archival footage and the words of its narrator, the filmmaker achieves an abstract re-imagination of what the narrator talks or thinks about. Ashes is a beautifully made film that approaches the war in a new, unique way. It is an independent project that uses its seemingly low budget to its advantage and becomes an experience never experienced before. At the end, the film returns to the scene it started from, returns to 'home', and the narrator talks about a pain that does not leave him even after coming back home. The film focuses on the pain of a veteran and by extension, shows us aspects of war. It distances itself from the known clichés of war documentaries and becomes a deeply effective documentary about the catastrophic consequences of war