A SPOTLIGHT ON OUR SOLDIERS

By Sophie Sartain

In the 1800s, it was known as “Decoration Day,” when soldiers’ graves would be decorated with flowers. Today we know it as Memorial Day, a time to remember the fallen men and women of our armed forces. They made the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for this country, and each one had a story and a past, with unique struggles and triumphs. This Memorial Day, as we honor these men and women, consider these New Day films that depict the complexity and diversity, as well as the humanity and heroism, of our service members.

Almost Sunrise

In Almost Sunrise, two veterans embark on an epic 2,700-mile trek on foot across America seeking redemption and healing as a way to close the moral chasm opened by war. Their odyssey inspires an inner journey that culminates in a spiritual transformation. Filmmaker Michael Collins began the film after hearing that twenty veterans commit suicide every day. “I realized right then and there that there was a crisis in our country,” says Collins. He teamed with producer Marty Syjuco to present a story about “moral injury” lasting wounds to the soul caused by participation in events that go against one’s sense of right and wrong. Almost Sunrise and its 15-minute companion film Voices of Resilience shine a light on a condition that is as old as the dawn of battle. The goal is to help those who have seen war make meaning of their experience and reclaim their lives.

Filmmaker Heather Courtney followed a similar path in making her Emmy Award-winning film Where Soldiers Come From. She returned to her hometown in Michigan to film two teenagers in a National Guard unit as they embarked on service in Afghanistan. “I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19- and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends.” By the time their deployment ended, the soldiers were no longer the carefree friends they were before enlisting; repeated bombs blowing up around their convoys had led to TBI (traumatic brain injury) symptoms. As Courtney documented the challenges once they returned home, she says her film became a story about how war affects families and communities. “But,” she adds, “at its heart it is still a film about growing up.”

Patriot Guard Riders by Ellen Frick takes us on a solemn ride to funerals of soldiers killed in action.  Our guides are a 250,000-strong motorcycle group that formed to protect grieving families from harassment by a Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group. The riders escort fallen soldiers from airfield to grave, and form a protective shield of honor and respect. Soldiers are dying and families are suffering. The film reveals an unlikely but powerful bond between the riders, the grieving families and the military. Their stories chronicle a new kind of patriotism in America, where we honor the troops even if we don’t believe in  war.

In New American Soldier, directors Anna Belle Peevey and Emma Cott tackled two hot-button issues in US politics: immigration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They captured the stories of three immigrant soldiers through training and deployment, as they took steps towards US citizenship. For each soldier, the Army provided an opportunity. Clarissa Calderón emigrated from Peru as a young girl and didn’t think of enlisting until a recruiter told her the Army would pay for medical school. Seth Donkor won the visa lottery in Ghana and was able to live out his Rambo fantasy as a private in the US Army. And for Victor Toledo Pulido, whose family walked across the US-Mexico border when he was seven, the Army offered a way out of the farmlands of California’s Central Valley.

Hunting in Wartime

Finally, in her film Hunting in Wartime, Samantha Farinella documented the longer lasting effects of war, profiling Tlingit Native Americans from the village of Hoonah, Alaska, who served in the Vietnam War. Their stories capture the complexity of serving a country that systematically oppressed them — a government that prohibited the Tlingit language, over-logged their forests, and established laws that robbed returning vets of their ancestral trade as fishermen. Many of the vets succumbed to the horrors of alcoholism, PTSD and suicide. Some were able to climb back out to lead the next generation back to their Tlingit heritage. “It was my privilege that the veterans on the island entrusted me with their experiences,” Farinella says. “Their unique stories offer a new perspective on the Vietnam War — and war in general — from a group that is rarely heard, much less seen.”

For more New Day films on veterans, click here.

Meet New Day: Sofian Khan and Andrés Caballero

Sofian Khan and Andrés Caballero

We are both New York-based filmmakers. Sofian is the founder of Capital K Pictures, a production company focusing on nonfiction content. Andrés is also a radio producer and journalist. As filmmakers both impacted by immigration (Andrés is from Argentina, Sofian is the son of immigrants), the story of people leaving their home to find opportunity has always attracted us. Much is lost and left behind, but the journey often has great rewards.  

Our film Gaucho del Norte follows South American migrant workers who are recruited by U.S. ranchers to work in the western United States as sheepherders on three-year contracts. It’s a difficult lifestyle in an isolated and rugged environment far from home, but many make the journey every year to make a better life for their families back home. This story reflects a common immigrant experience in a very stark and beautiful way. We wanted to tackle the issue of immigration with an observational visual approach and an unconventional storytelling style, focusing on the personal journeys of immigrant sheepherders in an industry that is highly dependent on them.

Our approach does not include many sit-down interviews or talking heads who analyze the issue of immigration and labor, but is rather focused on the immigrant journey with the hope that it captures the essence of the immigrant spirit. Minimal dialogue is also part of the approach in order to get a better sense of the loneliness that is part of the environment and daily struggle of immigrant sheepherders.

Making the film was a real physical hardship, and in many ways our filmmaking struggle reflected the challenges the sheepherder himself was experiencing.  We hiked the same terrain and weathered the same subzero temperatures (which several times froze the liquid crystals in the camera’s LCD screen!). We chased after the herd to get the perfect shot, and were often left in the dust by the sheepherder and his dogs after rushing ahead to get in front of the herd. Finishing the film was like completing a rite of passage.

 

Learn more about the work of Andrés and Sofian.

Commemorative Months

 MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH

Downpour Resurfacing

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the theme for 2018 is “Whole Body Mental Health” with the goal of increasing understanding of how the body’s various systems impact mental health. Downpour Resurfacing, by Frances Nkara, conveys psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher Dr. Robert Hall’s rekindled sense of self and strength as he recounts his childhood sexual and physical abuse. Unstuck, by Kelly Anderson and Chris Baier, documents OCD through the eyes of children who are facing their worst fears and finding solutions. Saving Jackie, by Selena Burks-Rentschler, is a snapshot of a recovering addict’s attempt to strengthen her damaged relationship with her two estranged daughters. Find these and more films related to Mental Health here.

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER PRIDE MONTH

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month (LGBT Pride Month), commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. New Day has a diverse collection of films that highlight LGBT voices and stories. Thy Will Be Done highlights a trans woman named Sara Herwig as she moves toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church. The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children follows the journey of moms, dads and siblings of kids who are questioning whether they’re a boy, a girl, or something in between. 

Passionate Politics tells the story of Charlotte Bunch, a civil rights organizer, lesbian activist, and internationally-recognized leader of a campaign to put women’s rights on the global human rights agenda.

The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children