Bridging the gap: With "Common Sky," Bay Area filmmakers are having America's war veterans tell their stories in a way that civilians can understand. (Photo courtesy Jason Black)

War Vets as Stars in 'Common Sky'

Michael Fox September 1, 2009

The cover of the fundraising brochure for the work-in-progress documentary Common Sky couldn’t be punchier: Civilians Don’t Ask. Veterans Don’t Tell. The Dead Can’t Speak. The taboo topic is war, of course. "The silence has to be broken, as far as I’m concerned, but these folks have been in isolation for so long," says first-time producer and longtime PTSD therapist Kathy Carlson. "Many of them have said, ‘I won’t talk to you because you’re not a vet. I only talk to people who know what this is like.’ Yet that isolation is what keeps the rest of us from ever having that conversation as a culture."

Some five years ago, Carlson committed herself to the task of bridging the gulf between those who’ve fought in battle and the rest of us. She teamed up with executive producer Jason Black, the son of a Vietnam POW and himself an ex-Marine. Black introduced Carlson to South Bay filmmaker Yovel Schwartz, whose first piece of advice to the film novice was to steer clear of the arduous, time-consuming world of documentary. Watching the trio onstage at the Delancey Street Screening Room this past Saturday afternoon addressing a group of 30 or so vets and their spouses who’d turned out to watch a rough assembly of interviews, it was apparent that the warning didn’t take.

"That’s certainly a passion for all of us," Carlson says as we huddle in the theater lobby while the testimonies unspool inside, "to try to break that endless cycle that leaves soldiers and Marines alone and leaves us [civilians] in ignorance and innocence—and naiveté—about war."

Now from my standpoint, and maybe yours, any nonfiction film that accurately conveys the harrowing experience of combat can’t help but reduce most viewers’ endorsement of war. But the filmmakers are resolved not to make a quote-unquote antiwar film. Schwartz, the youngest of the team with a 2001 degree in film and digital media (with a minor in philosophy) from UC Santa Cruz, makes their case.

"People will say, ‘How can it not be political? It’s war.’ The key for us is if you don’t infuse it with an association, you have more of an opportunity to reach more people. One of the things that people will say to us when Kathy is trying to interview them is, ‘Well, you’re not Michael Moore, right? You’re not trying to bend my words and use me for a political purpose?’ [One of the veterans in the film] always says that when people do ask him [about his experience], which is rare, they’re always interested in the part of what he’s going to say that supports their own ideology. And that basically makes it a useless conversation, because either they’re trying to use him to support some platform or they’re trying to use him to support the troops or whatever."

Schwartz stops to take a breath. "It’s not that we shouldn’t have a political conversation about war. It’s that we don’t have the other one."

A recurring theme among children of veterans, of all wars, is that their fathers refused to talk about what they’d seen and what they’d done. This is the obstacle Carlson has dealt with throughout her psychotherapy career, and routinely confronts the filmmakers. At the same time, as Schwartz declared from the Delancey stage, "Civilians don’t really want to know about it. It’s complicity."

A few minutes later, a woman in the audience confided that she’d tuned out TV coverage of the current war, despite (or because) her son being deployed in Iraq. After he returned, he lived in another state and she was able to continue her denial. He moved back home not long ago and, she said with her voice breaking a little, "Then the war was in my living room."

The filmmakers estimate they have another 18 months of production and post on Common Sky after they secure the necessary funding. So far they’ve filmed 20 veterans of the 75 they pre-interviewed, and need another 10 or so (necessitating perhaps 40 more pre-interviews). Common Sky will draw on archival footage along with clips from Hollywood war movies and war-themed video games, but the words will be the soldiers’. "What we’ve tried to do is create an archetypal soldier out of all of these different people from these different generations to try to tell one story," Schwartz explains.

This is one serious project, obviously, but it would be unfair to depict Carlson, Black and Schwartz as overly earnest. Of course, Black is serious when he says, "I have a seven-month-old son who I hope will be able to look at this finished film and have a deeper understanding of what we’re asking [of] him if he makes a decision in his heart on how he chooses to serve the country." What’s the minimum enlistment age, I inquire. "17," Black replies. I observe with a smile that that leaves plenty of time to complete "Common Sky," evoking guffaws mixed with horrified exclamations. As with every other documentary maker, the end can’t come too soon.

Notes from the Underground
Local filmmakers Allie Light, Irving Saraf and Roberta Goodman will be on hand to screen their poignant Tenderloin slice of life, Empress Hotel, Wednesday, September 9, at the Rafael Film Center and Thursday, September 10, at the Roxie. … Dawn Logsdon’s bittersweet Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans screens for free at 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 16 at the S.F. Main Library’s Koret Auditorium. ... A benefit for the Arab Film Festival is set for Sept. 17 at Fattoush restaurant. For tickets and info, visit ... John Huston’s Stockton-set Fat City (1972), scripted by Stockton native and longtime Marin County resident Leonard Gardner from his own novel, begins a two-week revival engagement September 18 at New York’s Film Forum.

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