Documentary realism

By waiting to reveal the true nature of Kevin’s and Barbara’s interaction, Farocki was simultaneously challenging established documentary conventions and reflexively noting the genre’s inherent but not always acknowledged manipulations. Though viewers may assume that documentary has a stronger truth claim than fiction films and provides a more direct vantage onto reality, the “creative treatment of actuality,” as John Grierson famously defined the genre,[49][open notes in new window] can lead to techniques that unintentionally or deliberately distort the parameters of actuality and invention. Bill Nichols has extrapolated on this complicatedly ambiguous relationship, writing:

“Documentary is a fiction unlike any other precisely because the images direct us toward the historical world, but … we are left to determine if the sounds and images we attend to also occurred in or outside of social history, within the web of fabrications needed to construct the time and space of a story of within the folds of a larger history. No guarantees exist.”[50]

This indeterminate capacity to bend the truth can be located in the documentary genre’s incipient stages. In his 1922 silent film Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty used reenactments and altered key facts, including the protagonist’s name and the identity of the protagonist’s wife.[51]

Though Farocki’s choice to use role-play (a significant form of reenactment) was partially motivated by the demands of ethical human subject research and the military’s stipulation that he could not film real veterans, he has also incorporated this technique in his documentary work since the 1980s.[52] For him, it provided a form of representation that an observational documentary mode like direct cinema could not achieve. Farocki said,

“If you’re a documentarist, you know how unstructured life is and how people are talking when they’re not scripted, but if they have a role-play, there’s already some… structure and even a wonderful artificiality in the things you are recording.”[53]

Paradoxically, despite the artificiality that Farocki sought to capture in his work, the role-play technique can also persuade documentary viewers to believe more firmly in the veracity of Kevin’s account. As Farocki noted,

“He played his role so convincingly that friends and colleagues whom I had told we were filming role-play assumed that he was recounting an actual, genuine memory.”[54]

In this sense, performing the ‘real’ can create a credible documentary realism that is difficult to distinguish from a cinéma vérité realism.

A smiling Kevin after his performance as a traumatized soldier

Barbara addressing the unseen audience after the demonstration

Furthermore, Farocki’s manipulation of documentary convention could prompt viewers to recall the relentless distortions of truth and fiction throughout the build-up to, fighting of, and aftermath of the second Iraq War. It recasts notorious historical moments performances designed to deceive multiple levels of local, national, and global audiences. This includes:

At the same time, this manipulation of truth/fiction also recalls the falsified and incorrectly interpreted military intelligence reports that the war was predicated on and the complicity of the mainstream news media that uncritically disseminated such false, government-supplied information by masquerading it as objective journalism. Like documentary, Farocki thus implied, corporate war journalism is also a fiction unlike any other. Though it maintains ties to the historical world, it nonetheless only provides a limited, arranged, and deliberately or unintentionally skewed version of reality. 

Additionally, in contrast to the predominant mode of ground-level cinema vérité that typifies Iraq War documentaries, Immersion compels its viewers to view the war from an unexpected yet more representative perspective. Calvin Fagan has argued that the embedded-with-the-troops proximity that vérité documentaries like Gunner Palace (dir. Michael Tucker, 2004) and The War Tapes (dir. Deborah Scranton, 2006) offers is inadvertently myopic. He has observed that these films

“maintain individual interaction as the locus of warfare, and thus serve to authenticate the embodied reality of contemporary wars despite the countervailing tendencies toward virtualization and disembodiment.”[55]

Therefore, as the modalities of warfare shift and increasingly incorporate technologies like virtual reality, cyberweapons, dataveillance, and drones, documentarians must also vigilantly adapt the tools and techniques they use to document and divulge these updated realities in response.

Brechtian realism

Throughout his artistic career, Harun Farocki endeavored to make viewers of his films reexamine institutional values, connect a diverse set of hegemonic social infrastructures and systems, and critically interrogate the truth status of media texts by documenting sites of media production. In a description that aptly fits the Serious Games series, Chris Pavsek has noted,

“Each of Farocki’s observational films in some way engage in a pedagogy of denaturalisation or de-reification: processes that we assume to be natural or (in Lukács’ notion) ‘second nature’ are revealed to be the product of an intense educational process and training, matters less of instinct than of ingrained habit and ideological indoctrination.”[56]

Ken Johnson has also argued that Farocki

“invites scepticism about the representation of reality in general. His art is a meditation on the degree to which our world, what we take for reality, is formed by recording and image-making machinery.”[57]

Thus, by denaturalizing the apparently natural, Immersion reflexively builds on the aforementioned realisms and challenges viewers through a dynamic version of Marxist realism.

Farocki’s approach reflected the major influence of Marxist realist Bertolt Brecht.[58] In his own writing, Brecht dismissed the rigid standards of realism that fellow Marxist Georgs Lukács espoused could only apply to the bourgeois novel. He countered that this form was itself the product of a particular historical moment and constrained artists’ creativity.[59] Instead, Brecht advocated for a more dynamic, populist, and updated conception of realism that was “wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.”[60] Though Brecht, like Lukács, defined realism as a mode dedicated to “discovering the causal complexes of society” and “unmasking the prevailing view of things as those who are in power,” he also encouraged artists to use their imaginations, humor, and originality.[61] In their quest to produce new kinds of realistic expression, he also recommended the incorporation of unforeseen complications, irregularities, and twists.[62]

Tellingly, Farocki, who employed radical forms and unpredictable techniques throughout his oeuvre, repeatedly described Immersion as a “Brechtian” work.[73] He also likened Kevin’s head-mounted display to masks worn by the Chinese actors that informed Brecht’s approach to theater.[64] Akin to the ‘alienation effect’ that this East Asian style of acting can galvanize, the disconcerting sight of Kevin wearing the cyborg-like equipment is intended to defamiliarize viewers and their current conceptions of reality.

The head-mounted display as Brechtian mask

Yet, the clearest connection to Brecht is the concluding revelation that Kevin is a military psychologist. A response to Brecht’s call for twists, this distanciating move ruptures the assumed reality to nudge viewers to notice the broader social and economic logics at play. Namely, it transmutes Kevin’s identity from a traumatized veteran to a man who is performing a fictional trauma in order to promote Virtual Iraq to the military. Rather than a fraught therapy session, Kevin and Barbara’s exchange also transforms into a calculated sales pitch much like Skip Rizzo’s preceding demonstration. Their success depends on the wide adoption of this product, even while its implementation may facilitate the waging of future wars and render these conflicts even more asymmetrical. In a sense then, by selling the war technology, they are making war itself easier to sell. This covert approbation of war through the celebration of its high-tech innovations occurs more overtly (albeit sometimes mitigated by the representations of ethical, legal, and technological dilemmas) in many U.S.-focused war films such as Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016), Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001), Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott, 1986), and Victory Through Air Power (dir. James Algar et al., 1943). 

As the closing credits further confirm (but do not fully explain), Kevin Holloway, Barbara Rothbaum, and Skip Rizzo are all psychologists and academics that work for or collaborate with the military. The demonstrations they are enacting in Immersion are for the benefit of a group of U.S. Air Force psychologists at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington (now known as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord). Like the development of Virtual Iraq, the military has sponsored the research that Holloway, Rothbaum, Rizzo, and others have conducted on VRET. Though such junctures between the academic and military have long been routinized, other instantiations signal the potential risks of this partnership. For instance, in the 1970s, it was the Office of Naval Research that sponsored Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous and ethically unsound prison experiment,[65] as well as his and Gregory L. White’s research into the ‘chilling effects’ that surveillance produces on monitored subjects.[66] In 2015, a coalition of health professionals and human rights activists also disclosed that the American Psychological Association had secretly collaborated with the Bush administration to participate in interrogations and provide a medical justification to the government’s extralegal torture program.[67]

Viewers intrigued enough by Immersion’s revelations to investigate further will also discover that the ICT, where Rizzo works, is a Department of Defense-sponsored “University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) working in collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.”[68] In 1999, it received $5 million annually in military funding, but as of 2010, the funding had increased to $30 million.[69] A contract extension in 2011 provided an additional $135 million for three years of research on and development of interactive training media for the Army.[70] The ICT website further boasts that its location “in Los Angeles facilitates collaboration with major movie and game makers” and that ICT concurrently helps “create realistic computer-generated characters in Hollywood blockbusters” and virtual technologies for the military.[71] Through this rhetoric, the institute promotes its amalgamation of academic, entertainment, and military partnerships as a lucrative opportunity rather than a conflict of interest. Rizzo has stated the terms of the arrangement more sardonically, referring to the institute as “the unholy marriage of Hollywood, the military, and academia.”[72]  

Such thorny intersections point more broadly to the state-corporate linkages that James Der Derian refers to as the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment network’ (MIME-NET)[73] and Tim Lenoir calls the ‘military-entertainment complex.’[74] Lenoir has drawn links between official organizations like the U.S. Army’s Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM, but since renamed the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, & Instrumentation, or PEO STRI) and the videogame industry.[75] His analysis shows how these groups have increasingly intertwined their technological and economic resources in ways that benefit both groups but are rarely transparent to the public.

One conspicuous example of the eroding boundaries between state and commercial initiatives is the U.S. Army’s development of America’s Army. A multiplayer first-person shooter (FPS) videogame, America’s Army mimetically simulates U.S. warfare and integrates real weapons and information from real training courses to act as a military recruiting tool.[76] After the game’s launch in 2002, players downloaded it from the U.S. Army’s recruiting website more than 2.5 million times and by 2013, the game had registered over 11 million users.[77] Commercial versions were also available for the Xbox and Xbox 360, and as mobile and arcade applications.[78] One of the Army’s major advertising agencies, Leo Burnett, credited the game with creating more positive public impressions of the U.S. military and catalyzing a spike in recruitment efforts that exceeded all other forms of advertising combined.[79] Perhaps predictably, given its enormous popularity with soldiers, developers have since reconfigured the game into an actual training tool of the military that offers dozens of applications.[80] [81]

More recently, military recruitment centers in shopping malls have also incorporated computers and videogame stations with military-themed games to entice younger generations of citizens to enlist.[82] This strategy aims to recast war as cutting-edge and interactive entertainment, while conveniently overlooking the ethical quandaries of killing and the less glamorous and sometimes abusive realities of military service.[83] In the words of Casey Wardynski, a Lieutenant Colonel and the primary creator of America’s Army, videogames represent an ideal way “to capture youth mind-share” and to impress the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys who have not yet decided what to do with their lives.[84] According to Wardynski,

“You have to get to them before they’ve made those decisions [about school and employment.]”[85]

To replace shuttering movie theaters on bases, the Army is also heavily investing in “high-tech concept” entertainment centers called Warrior Zones to entertain soldiers. One Army Major General described these base facilities as places where soldiers can

“focus on developing strong friendships that enhance a troop’s ability to maximize [his or her] potential and deal with the stresses of war.”[86]

Located at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (where Immersion was also filmed), the first Warrior Zone cost $11 million and featured

“16 game stations with 55-inch high-definition monitors for Xbox and PS3 video games, computers with high-speed Internet access, more than 50 high-definition 52-inch televisions equipped with DirecTV, and 32 Alienware custom gaming computers.”[87]

Typically, Warrior Zones are also equipped with war simulation videogames such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Army of Two, and America’s Army.[88] Thus, soldiers who are in training or on active duty can simulate warfare in ways that appear recreational, but are intimately connected to the enactment and perpetuation of real warfare.[89]

By obliquely gesturing toward such multifaceted economic and industrial logistics, Immersion positions Virtual Iraq firmly within the MIME-NET system. Indeed, Rizzo and Pair not only adapted Virtual Iraq from the commercial game Full Spectrum Warrior, but Full Spectrum Warrior was itself developed by ICT and Pandemic Studios and based on a combat simulator that ICT had developed for the Department of Defense. Thus, from recruitment to training to operations to treatment, the military technologies derived from the entwinements of state-corporate partnerships are significantly mediating the perpetration and experiences of contemporary warfare.


Given Brecht’s commitment to a realism capable of “discovering the causal complexes of society,”[93] it is fitting that each of Immersion’s multiple realisms enhance Farocki’s overarching Brechtian critique of the MIME-NET. For instance, the need to convey the phenomenological realism of PTSD speaks to the negligible coverage of the disorder in the mass media and the formal and unofficial alliances of corporate news media and the state that diminish journalists’ critical capacities. Relatedly, the military’s prohibition on including real veterans in the film shows not only an ethical desire to safeguard traumatized soldiers’ confidentiality, but an attempt to change the narrative by promoting instead a state-of-the-art technological solution instead. In addition, the selective lacunae and partialities that occur at the design level of Virtual Iraq’s simulated realism such as the marginality of Iraqis and the exclusively U.S. subjectivity make sense when thinking of Virtual Iraq as a commodity funded by and designed expressly for the U.S. military.

Therefore, as Farocki’s Brechtian techniques avow, the military is strategically instrumentalizing a range of media infrastructures and technologies to simulate biased realities and to naturalize global conflicts for both soldiers and citizens. However, as Immersion defiantly and ultimately asserts, critical alternative media production can also be a tool to expose these tactics. It can advocate for a truer, more perceptive realism honed by the techniques of distanciation, skepticism, and defamiliarization. It can still raise questions and objections, although it must be more creative than ever to disarm the dominant narratives that aggressively glorify war and its technological marvels.