Thursday, September 29, 2005
by DIANE FORD WOOD
How can a film like Winter Soldier, describing war atrocities witnessed by Vietnam veterans while in the service of their country, be overshadowed by anything? Overlooked, under-attended, denied and misunderstood, maybe. But upstaged? Could anything be that powerful?
Like life, one story often usurps another.
As searing, unscripted war horror stories emitted from the screen, weekend life on the University of Minnesota campus was business as usual. As I gazed into flaming, on-fire (or sometimes tired/covered) eyes of war veterans attending the movie and manning the Vets for Peace booth next to me, I witnessed (to name a few): a man running around in beekeeper clothes, very large security guards in pink shirts with night scanners, many tears and hugs, drunks and scantily clad women outside, a lot of preaching to the choir over buttons and handouts inside, ear-splitting rock music and swaying hips, all leading to a collage of personal revelations and memories.
As Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged our nation (and members of nearby Fraternity Row went on yet another keg run), veterans like Scott Camil and Rusty Sachs spoke their witness onto film and into 1970s microphones with a bullseye to the heart. Young veterans with too-old eyes seared my consciousness with verbal recollections intermixed with images of Vietnamese people walking in ragged lines along dirt roads, carrying children and possessions, begging for mercy or just looking dead-straight into the world unknown. How could I not grieve the contrasts?
Through the eleven screenings of Winter Soldier that I attended (most of them from the lobby) and two screenings of first-run films previewed in the same theater, a powerful, unscripted living montage of truth evolved for me:
Opening Night: A new-semester crowd of partying U of M students, some drinking, some barely dressed, were arrested in numbers (368) far outshining the film's audience of 4 to 50 people a showing. Did any of these students have a clue about the gravity and substance of the film showing just a few feet away? Is the world so different today given, for example, the war in Iraq? Do America's young really have that kind of room and license to distance or deny life's realities?
Saturday: (Not to interject a little humor): I saw a beekeeper racing down the street in front of the auditorium in full protective gear, followed seconds later by a swarm of angry bees. He took the honey in his hands to his office in the theater building and left a window open for straggling bees. Hours later (by his own account), 5,000 bees attacked the honey. He and his son frantically closed doors and windows attempting to stave off a bee invasion of nearby offices. Secretly, I hoped those insects would beeline their way toward Fraternity Row, and drive all those drunk/partying students (and the nearly 30,000 people who live within a few-mile radius) into the Bell Auditorium for a real education;
Sunday morning: Scorcese's account of Bob Dylan's early artistic journey ran before Winter Soldier. (Interestingly enough, it did not play to a full theater either.) But there was Dylan, lying, cheating and stealing his way into our ears and hearts (but not our peace movements), with his absolute refusal to answer our stupid questions and conform to what we wanted him to be. On screen, a radiant Joan Baez, filmed in her comfortable kitchen, acknowledged her once-intense connection with "Bob" (accented by a gentle kick or two in the ass, see "Song to Bobby"); Dylan's spike-haired nephew spurned "Reserved for family" seating, laying low at the back of the theater. Just blocks away, Uncle Bobby had spent some of his early years on "Positively Fourth Street" in an apartment above Gray's Drug Store. Everywhere, I could feel the history.
Thursday: A gigantic African-American man, in a black suit and pink tie, protected the sanctity of a preview of "The Corpse Bride" with body scanners and infrared cameras. (The crowd for this preview was full and rocking.) Exhibiting a noticeable lack of anger and an excellent personal outlook, this man told me how he helped integrate a powerful Southern railroad company in his youth, with his x-ray camera pointed playfully at my blouse;
Nightly: Adam Sekuler, the MN Film Arts Program Director and a Wizard of Oz kind of guy, was the man who brought the film to the Bell (along with Vets for Peace and Women Against Military Madness). Almost single-handedly, he raced among the roles of emcee, projectionist, ticket taker, cheerleading squad and baggage handler (ah, don't you love non-profit jobs). Nearly as young as those hanging outside on Fraternity Row, Adam's commitment to bringing the film to the Twin Cities, and his knowledge and understanding of the subject, showed that not all is lost among the young.
Nightly: Each Winter Soldier showing was introduced by veterans of the Minnesota Vets for Peace, Chapter 27. At least two or three members were present at all times to talk with the public, including Chante Wolf (1st Gulf War Veteran) and Vietnam Veterans Joe Johnson, Doug Drews, Tom Dooley, Barry Riesch and Ron Staff, committing time to the screenings as if they have no lives beyond The Cause. (It struck me how much we take commitment like this for granted.) These vets consistently give up precious personal time to voice their opposition to what is happening in America today. From them, and other veterans in the audience, I heard stories that echoed the film and went way beyond war experiences: stories of rows of executed prisoners; soldiers blown up by land mines and dead before they hit the ground; women ordered to dark boiler rooms by too-aggressive superior officers, shattered marriages and lives, chronic physical and mental aftereffects of war, and more.
Closing Night: And finally, folding up the old card table that held the VetSpeak.com booth, I noticed a tiny label taped to the table's underside. "Abe and Ida Kaufman," it said. These are my husband's grandparents, both of whom died within the last twelve months at 97-98 years of age. Both committed most of their entire working lives, and free time, to activism and making the world a better place. Photos of them attending many major events across the U.S., like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," speech in Washington are everywhere in my husband's family, who as Quakers, share the load. Abe and Ida would have been proud to know that part of them was at every showing of this film in Minneapolis. These thoughts brought tears to their daughter Raquel's eyes, and she is a woman who does not cry easily.
Over dinner Sunday night, when it was all over, we had a late dinner at the Dinkytowner. The place was alive with the sleek, shimmering bodies of young college women moving to a Latin beat. In my mind, I took the gnarled hand of the veteran next to me and kissed it wordlessly. In that moment, I challenged myself, as I challenge the students at the University of Minnesota and all Americans, to look into the eyes of any veteran you know, no matter the war or politics. Listen to his or her testimony, his story, her wisdom born of experience. Listen not just for you, but for them–and for all of us. I dare you not to be moved.
Diane Ford Wood, 9/28/05