Sunday, April 10, 2005, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
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Poetry personalizes war in riveting documentary
By Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the new documentary about war poetry and the trauma caused by armed conflict, "Voices in Wartime," U.S. Army 1st Lt. Paul Mysliwiec recites part of Alan Seeger's ominous World War I poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," about the sacred duty of the warrior: And I to my pledged word am true / I shall not fail that rendezvous.
But in a contrasting segment, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, makes a remark about soldiers that resonates in a completely different way: "In combat, men become each other's mothers."
The warrior as nurturer, tortured soul and poet. "Voices in Wartime," a symphony of war poems, taped interviews, graphic war footage and heartfelt analysis, clearly has an agenda, but perhaps not what one might expect.
The film sprang out of the Internet-based Poets Against the War movement of 2003, during the contentious run-up to the Iraq war.
Executive producer Andrew Himes, a former Microsoft web-page developer, wanted to make an anti-war film that capitalized on the debate sparked by that campaign, during which his friend, the poet and publisher Sam Hamill, organized writers and amateur scribes nationwide against the invasion. Himes set up the original Web site for that effort.
An avowed opponent of war who grew up in the racially polarized South and spent time there working as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s, the Internet-savvy Himes had used technology to expound on his views and encourage discussion, but he'd never contemplated making a film before this project came along.
Still, "it feels very organic and natural, because it's so connected to what I believe in," Himes said recently.
On Friday, more than two years after the Poets Against the War campaign and the start of the Iraq invasion, Himes' film opens at the Guild 45th Theatre in Wallingford, where he also lives.
The rollout of the $350,000 film, financed by Himes and other investors, has snowballed into a nationwide word-of-mouth campaign.
This winter, Himes used his Web site, www.voicesinwartime.org, to call on members of the public to hold "house parties" in homes and other settings to screen the documentary and discuss it afterward. The Web site includes a dialogue forum as well as writing samples from dozens of living contributors and past literary greats like Walt Whitman ("Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field") and Homer ("The Iliad").
A 230-page anthology, "Voices in Wartime" (Whit Press, $16.95), including verse and interview material that couldn't be used in the movie, is set for release May 1.
But the centerpiece is the film itself, which also premieres in cities such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York this month. The film rides a recent wave of moody, jaundiced depictions of war told through first-hand accounts, images and writing.
The recently released Iraq-war documentary "Gunner Palace," shot with U.S. troops in Baghdad, and the newer "Occupation: Dreamland," shot with troops near Fallujah, have both won critical acclaim for going beyond the politics of the Iraq war to the personal experience of fighting it.
"Voices in Wartime" is more of a meditation on the history of war and its emotional cost. It uses verse written through the ages to capture the nuances of war sometimes passed over in historical or journalistic accounts: What it feels like to kill, to witness the slaughter of comrades and to return home from war unable to mentally leave the battlefield.
From the earliest war poetry written in ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq) to esoteric verse from Emily Dickinson to bitter accounts penned by Iraqi poets after the American invasion two years ago, the film traces a well-trod path leading to the same age-old truth its two most recent predecessors reach in their own way — that war is hell for the soul as well as the body.
In this film, British poet Wilfred Owen's disillusionment over fighting in World War I rubs against the contemporary Colombian writer/activist Antonieta Villamil's anger and grief over the "disappearance" of her brother Pedro Villamil in that country's 50-year civil conflict.
The film, directed by Rick King, whose brother Jonathan King is a co-producer and close friend of Himes, is quietly yet assuredly anti-war, with a whole segment on the rise of Poets Against the War.
But its most transformative moments come from accounts of battlefield chaos and compassion told by those who've lived through it, from "shell-shocked" British soldiers during World War I to Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to weary soldiers fresh from the front lines in Iraq to haunted embedded journalists to the local victims of conflict.
The film cleverly employs the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., who just happened to write his doctoral dissertation on American war poetry, to drive home the theme of poetry as the ultimate medium for chronicling war's impact on humanity.
"We did not design it to be a political polemic," Himes said of the film. "Instead, I wanted it to be the kind of film I could talk about with all of my Republican relatives."
Independent Seattle film critic Warren Etheredge, founder of the online Warren Report movie site, commended "Voices in Wartime" for its nuanced, apolitical tone.
"What I appreciated about the film is the filmmakers' dedication to finding balance on a subject that can be painfully partisan," said Etheredge, who organized a house party screening of the film at the Seattle Art Museum last month. "It's putting great poetic spin on what is the tragedy of any war, from either side."
"I've watched so many left-leaning documentaries in the past year — and I am left-leaning — and even they can become distracting at some point," Etheredge explained.
"This is not another anti-Bush or anti-Iraq war movie," he added. " 'Voices in Wartime' " is as close to a 'Ken Burns' look at this movement as one can get, without Ken Burns."
Producing the film shifted, rather than reinforced, Himes' personal biases.
Before making the film, he said he didn't feel much sympathy for the people who fight wars.
But that comment about soldiers becoming each other's mothers, which equated the concern a soldier has for a comrade in harm's way to that of a mother for her child, opened his eyes to the warrior's complex point of view.
"I think for the first time in my life, I really got it," Himes said. "That phrase altered me, reading it in the transcript. I typed those words and I started crying. It helped me get a sense of profound compassion for soldiers in combat that I don't think I'd felt before.
"It didn't change my stance toward war, but it changed my stance toward soldiers."
When Himes described his transformation to a staunch anti-war activist during a house party screening organized by PoetsWest at the Penny Café in Ballard last month, the woman seemed less than impressed, even though she said she enjoyed the film on an artistic level.
But Stacy Bannerman, of Kent, whose husband, National Guard Sgt. Lorin Bannerman, just returned from Iraq where he led a mortar platoon near Baghdad, sees potential for films like "Voices in Wartime" to bridge the chasm between war opponents and troops that developed during the Vietnam era.
"That breach is being healed in a sense," said Bannerman, an anti-war activist who attended a screening of the film at the Seattle Art Museum last month. "The warrior needs to understand the peacemaker and the peacemaker must understand the warrior. Historically, we have not had a recognition that that was possible. This film shows us that it is possible."
"There is a grace and a beauty and an honor and a courage to people that sign up to serve this country — I didn't see it before," she said.
Of course, being married to a National Guardsman just home from the front has influenced Bannerman's thinking, too.
"I've had the opportunity to come to see that with my husband, who is just such a good and decent human being — the best human being that I know," Bannerman said. "The first-hand experience with my husband forced me to see if I was going to see him that way, then I have to see all of them that way."
Himes, the executive producer, is nervously waiting to see whether a public fed a steady diet of war headlines for two years running will respond to "Voices in Wartime."
And if they do, Himes, the activist, can only hope that they respond with the same level of engagement that people like Bannerman and Etheredge have shown, even if they don't share the same political leanings.
"This is part of the core of who I am," Himes said of his project, "what my life is about."
Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or firstname.lastname@example.org