Film Journal International


CINEMA LIBRE/Color/Video/74 Mins./Not Rated

Featuring: Chris Abani, Sinan Antoon, Rachel Bentham, David Connolly, Pamela Talene Hale, Sam Hamill, Chris Hedges, Lt. Gen. William Lennox, Jr., Lt. Paul Mysliwiec, Marilyn Nelson, Sherman Pearl, Jonathan Schell, Alexandra Sanyal, Hashim Shafiq, Jonathan Shay, Jon Stallworthy, Emily Warn, Craig White, Saul Williams. Voices of Chris Sarandon, Lisbeth Scott, Garrison Keillor, Gilbert Hines, Dorothy King, John Francis, Jason Williams, Graham Townsley, Kazuko Robertshaw, Hubert Hodgin, Jon Christensen.

Credits: Directed by Rick King. Produced by Jonathan King, Rick King. Executive producer: Andrew Himes. Directors of photography: Eric Browne, Kevin Cloutier, Brian Dowley, Mike Fox, Chris Gallo, Joseph Hudson. Edited by Daniel Loewenthal. Music by Anton Sanko. Co-producers: Kathryn Linehan, Robin Romeo. Co-executive producer: Alix Wilbur. A Two Careys Prods. presentation.


"War poetry" is the subject of this talking-heads documentary that is anything but conventional. It skillfully presents the role of poets and poetry in wartime through the voices of poets, soldiers, scholars and ordinary people inspired to pen their first poem.

Throughout history, poets have been the most intransigent critics of war, so it was with some amusement that America's literati noted First Lady Laura Bush's announcement in 2003, at the height of anti-war protests, that she would cancel a White House symposium honoring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. She had by then heard of poet Sam Hamill's efforts to politicize the event. Hamill was one of her invited guests and he in turn asked a hundred of his colleagues to join him in reading poems opposed to the war in Iraq, pointing out that Whitman, Dickinson and Hughes had all written eloquently against the established order and against war. Hamill, the poets who joined his protest, and innumerable other poets and their poetry are seen and heard in Voices in Wartime, an absorbing and eye-opening documentary about war poetry.

The most astonishing interview in Voices in Wartime is not with a poet, but with West Point's superintendent, Lt. General William Lennox, Jr. The general wrote his doctoral dissertation on American war poets and speaks eloquently about the need for poetry in the lives of ordinary soldiers. Others who are not poets describe with great sensitivity the undepicted crimes of war and provide a backdrop for the poets and their work. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent (who quotes W.H. Auden), talks authoritatively about fear, the attenuated life of the battlefield, and the unspoken casualties of war; and Paul Mysliwiec, an army lieutenant and Iraqi war veteran, echoes Hedges when he declares unabashedly that he ensured the safety of the men under his command, even if it meant sacrificing a civilian.

Of the poets, it is David Connolly ("Lost in America"), a Vietnam War veteran, whose mordant work places us squarely in the proverbial foxhole; the euphony of his South Boston accent also makes his readings irresistible. Written in soldierly argot, Connolly's poems are the antipode of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Victorian mannerliness-"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is discussed in the documentary-but both chronicle the folly of war, and are emblematic of the scope and breadth of Voices in Wartime. Appropriately, the documentary highlights a Sumerian noblewoman and war poet: Sumeria, the site of the earliest-known cuneiform script, lay in what is present-day Iraq. Living poets from America, Europe and Asia recite their poems and reflect upon them, and the poems of deceased poets, such as Wilfred Owen and Langston Hughes, are read by others and discussed by their biographers or by poets.

Producer-director Rick King adopts a rather conventional approach to this profound and embracing subject: Voices in Wartime is a series of talking heads, although the talk is so sagacious King can be forgiven his lack of visual inventiveness. Silly montages of the poets, perhaps an attempt to remedy the visual orthodoxy, mar some of the readings, but it's a minor flaw and easily overlooked. King's genius is his ability to move from the erudite discussions about war poetry by scholars and experts to the emotionally compelling and unadorned reflections of first-time poets like nine-year-old Alexandra Sanyal and Pamela Talene Hale, both of whom were moved to write after the First Lady's blunder and Sam Hamill's response to it.

Voices in Wartime's unique mélange of soldiers, war correspondents, scholars, authors, poets and peace activists is so skillfully handled by King and his editor, Daniel Loewenthal, that the ad hominem argument and the abstract observation are given equal weight. No choral lament against war by the filmmakers or their subjects, this documentary is rather a frank discussion of the fact that modern warfare is differentiated from historical conflicts because it is confined neither to the individual soldier nor to a geographically defined battleground. The "voices of wartime"-civilians deemed "collateral damage," the women and men of the military, their families, and those of us who look on-can highlight the folly, even if they cannot eradicate what Stephen Crane called "the blood-swollen God."

-Maria Garcia