“The story was almost too perfect. They had a victim and a villain.” In Vivian Wong’s powerful new short essay film, “Dear Lori,” she examines the way that the Bush administration and the media chose Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England as two symbols, turning them into pawns in their propaganda war. 99% of the acting parties in this war, as in all wars, are men, which may help explain why the administration chose these two white working class women from West Virginia as symbols. Jessica Lynch herself testified to Congress that the story of her heroic gunfight was a lie. (Her testimony is reenacted in the film.) Her rescue was likewise a staged event: there was no armed opposition, and marines even fired blanks to simulate a battle. These fake stories were almost immediately turned into a TV special (“Saving Jessica Lynch”), in an attempt to lionize the brave young people who were protecting the profits of oil companies. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the administration, desperate to hide the fact that the orders for torture had come from the very highest levels in the government, seized upon Lynndie England as another symbol, to give the impression that somehow a few sick individuals had engaged in torture, entirely on their own, and thereby gave a bad reputation to their entire project of occupying and invading a country and protecting us from their (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. Fake stories like these have a direct emotional impact on viewers. Naive consumers of media are made to feel more positively about the war, without analyzing the way that the media is manipulating them, even if they later become aware that the stories are lies.
Much of this film concerns Lynch’s friend, Lori Piestewa, a young Hopi woman who is killed in a crash during the incident. Lori’s father is proud that she adhered to the Hopi belief in non violence, and “never fired a shot in the war, just looked out for everyone and tried to get them to safety.” The film uses news stills, Lynch’s book, and published interviews as sources. It examines, in detail, propaganda films such as “Saving Jessica Lynch” “Black Hawk Down” and “How the West was Won.” Wong also creates expressive sequences performed by actors. In one such sequence, powerfully effective, the actress playing Lynch lip syncs the words of President Bush’s 9/11 speech, attempting to justify endless war. As the sounds of bombs and guns grow louder, she grows increasingly scared, and is unable to keep mouthing Bush’s words. (Lynch signed up to join the military just before 9/11, and didn’t expect to serve in a combat situation.)
Like the creators of the TV movie “Saving Jessica Lynch,” Wong is also inventing her own dialogue and situations, but with the opposite intent. Wong’s intent is to expose the media, and their politically motivated machinations. Some of Wong’s images are very literal. (Lynch tries to read a letter from the combat zone, and her voice is literally drowned out by the voices of the media coverage.) But these simple, direct effects are precisely what is needed in a positive propaganda film of this sort. Wong demonstrates that propaganda is an important and illuminating tool when used to convey the truth, and, as in this case, to encourage the viewer to view media more critically.
When I watched “Dear Lori,” I was familiar with the basic facts treated in the film: the lies and distortion of the Lynch case and the lies about Abu Ghraib. Yet the film had me riveted from start to finish. Wong creates a fascinating presentation of the intersection of the personal story of a young woman with the machinations of a vast propaganda machine, which helped me to see and feel these issues in an entirely new way. As Lynch said in the congressional hearings in which she spoke, she was not politically motivated (that is, she wasn’t speaking because she disliked Bush’s policies), but she passionately believed that the truth must be known. Wong’s seamless use of audio and visual collage dramatizes this story and these ideas without seeming either artsy or opaque or over obvious. She simply uses the tools of imagery, drama, and sound collage, the same tools used by the Bush propaganda machine, to alert the viewer to the dangers of official manipulations.