Filmmaker Q&A: Andrew Himes

Director, Voices in Wartime

While researching the article “The Docs of War” (January/February 2006), I watched at least a dozen documentaries about Iraq. One that truly stands out is Voices in Wartime, a film about the role of poets and poetry during times of conflict. In the end, the film didn’t quite fit with the focus of my article, which was more about docs looking at the experiences on the ground, both for the Iraqi civilians and the occupying soldiers. But I didn’t want to let this excellent interview with Andrew Himes, director of Voices in Wartime, go to waste. Herewith. — LU

Leif Utne: What inspired you to make Voices in Wartime in the first place? Why the focus on poetry?

Andrew Himes: In February of 2003, I helped to found the Poets Against The War> movement, which brought together over 13,000 poets from around the world within just a few weeks to publish their poetry in public opposition to the launching of the war in Iraq. We had over 600 poetry readings against the war in over twenty different countries, and I put up the invitation on our website asking people to send us digital video footage of their poetry readings. To my amazement I got a huge number of videotapes from all over the world, and my first thought was to produce a short film documenting this extraordinary outcry of poetry against war. As I got into it however, I began to think about producing a documentary that used poetry as a way to examine the emotional trauma and the terrible experience of war itself around the world and all through history.

I grew up in a preacher’s family, a fundamentalist family, deeply conservative, in the Deep South. In fact, most of my male relatives, going back seven generations, have been Baptist preachers, and my granddad was one of the founders of the modern fundamentalist movement back in the nineteen thirties. By contrast, I grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement of the nineteen sixties, and with a deep opposition to the politics of my family and of my community. So it’s been hard for us to talk about the most important things in the world without just arguing, despite the fact that my family is a set of wonderful people with great values who love poetry, as I do. I wanted to make a film that would allow me to have a different kind of conversation with my family, that is to connect with them, through poetry, through the language of story and personal, human experience, and talk about the most painful and difficult subject in the world — war — and the fear and terror and pain that give rise to war.

LU: Did you set out to make an antiwar film? You included several voices, though still a minority, that are certainly not against the current war. How, if at all, did the project’s purpose evolve from when you started out to the finished product? What do you hope this film will accomplish?

AH: It was so important to me that this film be seen as a balanced, thoughtful reflection on war, and not another partisan diatribe against the bush administration. I really think that if you ground a film in direct human experience, and if you use the language of poetry and the expression of art to explore that experience, then you can break through all of the shallow arguments about whether bush was right and wrong, or whether any war was justified, and you can begin to understand the human cost of war. If so, you might think twice about supporting yet another invasion, yet another war, yet another break down of civil society, yet another denial of the natural collective human desire for peace

LU: Did your own views on the Iraq war, or war in general, change in the process of making this film?

AH: Not my views of the Iraq war, but certainly my view of war in general. I’ve not talked to thousands of people about this film, and I’ve been forced to be much more self critical and careful in what I say about war in general. A question that I’ve been asked many times is, under what circumstances might it be justified to go to war? One person asked me, can you think of any time when it might constitute a war crime for you to decide not to go to war? And I have to say, I do believe that there are times when organized force is necessary to stop a great crime such as genocide. If we had not intervened to stop Hitler for example, we would be complicit with the holocaust. But I also think we tend to jump right to the use of violence because it appears to be immediately effective, without understanding its costs, and without considering a more effective nonviolent alternative.

The other change that I have gone through is learning a much deeper compassion for the soldiers who suffer for our sins. We take young men and women, we train them to kill, we tell them we want them to defend us from the assaults of a terrorist conspiracy, we ask them to put their lives on the line, and we send them out to die or destroy on our behalf. And then, in a place like Iraq, we set them down in what Christopher Hedges has called an “atrocity-producing situation” where they are expected to defend themselves against a dangerous and shadowy enemy. They sign up as volunteers with the self conscious motivation of defending the rest of us. And then they suffer for the rest of their lives, many of them, from the dangers they faced and the terrible deeds we have asked them to commit.

LU: What was the most surprising event or aspect of making the film?

How much I have learned from our audiences. You watch this film, and you want to talk about your life, your history, your family. It seems that everyone has a story about the devastation of war, the legacy and connection of war with their family history, or with their community. People watch this film, and in the audience discussion afterward, one person talks about his experience in Vietnam and the nightmares that he still has, another person talks about her father who was a world war two vet, and who has started experiencing his wartime nightmares again at the age of 80 in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. And somebody else talks about how she had lost all hope that we might alter our history until she saw the story of Poets Against The War. Finally, I’ve learned that the core problem is not war, but that people just don’t know how to deal with conflict, how to use conflict as a stepping stone toward building healthy human communities. Conflict, like pain, is a warning signal that something isn’t right. And it can be a guide post to creating a healthier world.

LU: Who is your favorite war poet? What’s your favorite war poem?

AH: There are so many. Maybe Walt Whitman, whom I had not even known was a war poet. Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War, And he wrote some of his first and most extraordinary poetry as a result of his experiences near the front line taking care of the wounded. One of his poems is called the Wound Dresser, and it is read by Garrison Keillor in our film. It has such a wealth of compassion and sorrow and extraordinary language.

The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine;
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard;
(Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;
Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head;
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, (he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.)

My other favorite is probably Brian Turner, a young man who spent seven years in the Army and a year in Iraq as the leader of a Stryker unit in the U.S. army and who wrote poetry throughout his year in Iraq as a way of coming to understand the experience. His book, Here, Bullet, was published in the fall of 2005 by Alice James Press, and several of his poems appear in the Voices In Wartime Anthology. His poem Sadiq is amazing:

It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.
— Sa’di

It should break your heart to kill.
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you out in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
It should never be so easy as this.

*Sadiq is a transliteration of the Arabic word for Friend.

LU: What kind of responses have you gotten — from critics? audiences? TV buyers? others?

AH: The critical response has been amazing. Over 30 newspapers and magazines have given the film high praise. I’ll enclose some of the review comments. Audiences were relatively small in theaters and yet extremely enthusiastic. I’m hoping that the DVD release will allow us to get to a much larger group of people. We are just now beginning to try to get the film broader distribution on broadcast TV.

LU: Can you explain a little bit about your grassroots distribution plans — i.e. house parties, schools, the companion book, the website, etc?

AH: A film like this can only be successful as a grassroots movement, with the word spread one friend to another, one community screening at a time. This is not a Hollywood blockbuster. We’ve held hundreds of house parties across the country in living rooms, libraries, community centers, and so on, where people have watched Voices In Wartime or have watched another film that I directed one year ago called Beyond Wartime, which is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, on what we can do to heal the psychological wounds of both soldiers and civilians who have experienced the horror of war firsthand.

I edited a book, the Voices In Wartime Anthology, which includes poetry, original essays, and narratives from the making of the film. It contains much more of the interviews we conducted than the film can contain itself, by people like Chris Hedges, the author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and psychologist Jonathan Shay, who wrote Achilles in Vietnam, the story of war trauma from the point of view of Homer; and Jonathan Schell, the author of Unconquerable World and Fate of the Earth. And it contains the full interview that we conducted with General William Lennox, the Superintendent Of West Point who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of American war poetry. Finally it contains some incredible poetry by American soldiers recently returned from Iraq and ready now to tell the terrible inside story that only poetry can express.

LU: What’s next for you?

AH: Our non-profit organization is Opening of the Heart, headed by Beverly Boos, an extraordinary leader and wonderful photographer who began the group a few years ago when she created a photographic exhibit of Palestine and Israel that told compelling personal stories from both sides of that intractable conflict. Our most important current project is the Voices In Wartime Education Project, which offers a set of curricula and a teacher training workshop that we are taking with the film to over 25 cities in the next eighteen months. Our goal is nothing less than to touch millions of young people across the country with a new understanding of conflict and of themselves, and to help them explore a different world than the one they’ve inherited.

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