San Francisco Chronicle   

- Walter Addiego, G. Allen Johnson, Jonathan Curiel
Friday, April 15, 2005

'Voices in Wartime' Documentary. Directed by Rick King. Produced by Jonathan King and Rick King. (Not rated. 74 minutes. At the Lumiere and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.).

In the weeks before the start of the Iraq war, a literary controversy engulfed the White House. First lady Laura Bush wanted to host a poetry symposium on Feb. 12, 2003, but one of the invited guests, Sam Hamill, blanched at the invitation, saying it was hypocritical of the Bush administration to honor Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes at the same time it was planning to unleash firepower in the Persian Gulf. Within days, Hamill had elicited thousands of poems against the war, the symposium was canceled -- and a new anti-war movement had begun.

Hamill is still upset at the Bush administration, as evidenced by "Voices in Wartime," an important new documentary that looks at the ways in which poetry helps people come to terms with conflict. Soldiers write poetry on the battlefield. Generals read poetry in their war rooms. Anti-war protesters write poetry in their homes. And poets write (and read) their poems wherever they can -- including in front of the White House, if that's what it takes to make a difference.

For more than 3,000 years, people have relied on poetry to voice their pain and anguish about war, according to "Voices in Wartime," which features the words of Whitman (read by Garrison Keillor), Hughes, Lord Tennyson and many lesser-known poets, including Alexandra Sanyal, a 9-year-old from Boston who recites a work about snow: "So fluffy and soft ... I like to run and jump into it ... Snow stops war and fights that lead to killing. So, snow -- come today."

Filmmaker Rick King goes to Iraq to get two Iraqi poets on camera, one of whom (Ali Habash) criticizes the U.S. occupation, saying that Americans are just cowboys and that his country is actually worse off without Saddam Hussein. Besides being a study on poetry in wartime, "Voices" is an astute history of war, thanks to the commentary of New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (author of "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning"), Nation writer Jonathan Schell (author of "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People") and others who point out that modern warfare claims civilian casualties at an alarming rate compared with World War I. "The only way to understand war," Hedges says, "is to understand war through the eyes of the victims."

Along with words that trigger strong feelings, "Voices in Wartime" shows us affecting images of soldiers and civilians.

It's a potent mix that underscores the filmmaker's belief that war should be avoided if at all possible. Even the military figures interviewed in "Voices in Wartime" support the conclusion that war is hell. King gets a lot of voices into his documentary. The time goes quickly -- too quickly, really. This is a film that provides a context and perspective that's too often missing from the national conversation about armed conflict.

-- Advisory: This film has images of dead bodies.

-- Jonathan Curiel