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'In Their Boots' series lets veterans call the shots

Army and Marine vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars direct their own films in the final year of the Operation in Their Boots project, which gives soldiers an outlet to go beyond Hollywood's vision of the military.

November 16, 2010|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times

At one point in the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker," a lone Humvee cruises across the torrid Iraq desert. That scene really irks Tristan Dyer.

"That would never happen," says Dyer, 29, who did a 12-month tour of Iraq as an Army communications sergeant in 2004-05. He now lives in Ventura where he works as a freelance production assistant. "That goes against the whole core preparation in the Army. You'd be a target. It's not safe. People's heads would roll!"

Hollywood loves war stories and soldiers seek escape from the battlefield with a good movie, but there's often a gulf between the big screen and the reality of military service. Now, Dyer and a few other film-oriented vets are getting a chance to do something about it.

Dyer's first documentary short, "Enduring Erebus," premiered last week at the Downtown Independent Theater as part of the final year of the three-year umbrella film series "In Their Boots," presented by the Brave New Foundation. The program focuses on veterans' experiences upon returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and "Enduring Erebus" uses lush, abstract stop-motion animation to tell the story of four Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are plagued by horrific war memories that they stamp out with drugs and alcohol.

The five short films of this year's Operation in Their Boots were all written and directed by veterans, who received a filmmaking fellowship from the private, nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund. The movies — all available for viewing free online at http://www.intheirboots.com — vary in length and range, from traditional documentary narratives and biopics to animation.

"The Guilt," by former Marine Sgt. Clint Van Winkle, 33, is a moving, straightforward chronicle of one soldier's paralyzing survivor's guilt — and it's a testament to friendship, as two of his fellow veterans offer solace. Van Winkle is the only one of the five filmmakers not currently pursuing a career in entertainment — instead, he's teaching creative writing at a college in Phoenix.

"No Religious Preference" is more of a personal journey as one former Army paratrooper, Kyle Hartnett, 29, works through his prejudice against Muslims serving in the U.S. military. Hartnett now lives in Koreatown and is pursuing filmmaking full-time while working as a freelance production assistant.

All of the films, however, are decidedly nonpartisan, which is central to Brave New Foundation's mission. "We didn't want to question the legitimacy of the war," said Richard Ray Perez, who steered the project creatively from concept to completion and is credited as executive producer. "Our focus was just to tell stories by people impacted by the war, the human stories."

Having the soldiers direct their own films in the third year of the "In Their Boots" series — as opposed to working with professionals, as vets in the first two years of the filmmaking fellowship did — yielded especially intimate and gripping footage, Perez said. "We eliminated the middleman. It's an unfiltered perspective on a narrative."

Part of what motivated the five participants, most of whom were already pursuing film careers and who were chosen from a pool of 100 applicants, was the opportunity to set straight Hollywood's depiction of war.

"Entertainment is a business, they create to sell," said Marine veteran and filmmaker Victor Manzano at a question and answer session following last week's screening. " 'The Hurt Locker' won all these awards and it was a [bad] movie." Manzano, 28, now lives in Venice and runs two entertainment companies that he founded. He also continues to do contract work for the Department of Defense, helping to train Navy servicemen. He created the short film "Rudy Reyes — Way of the Warrior" for the series.

On the flip side, most of the filmmakers agreed that Hollywood does get things right some of the time. "We're pretty critical," said Manzano. "But I think there are a lot more good documentaries."

"Like 'Restrepo,'" added Van Winkle. "And [HBO's miniseries] 'Generation Kill' — when I watched that, that was the best."

Dyer said Hollywood has good intentions but sometimes goes in the wrong direction in the name of entertainment. "When I first got to basic training, one of the first things they told us was: 'This is no 'Full Metal Jacket!'" he said.

But Hartnett said his platoon sergeant in Iraq brought over the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" and he and his fellow soldiers would sit around his laptop and watch it. "It became a bar we aspired to live up to, the fortitude it took to get through," he said.

"During times when we weren't engaging the enemy, there are [movie] references being made," Hartnett added. "Famous lines from the movie 'Platoon,' 'Apocalypse Now.' It's part of the culture in the military."

Regardless of Hollywood's accuracy, or lack thereof, in depicting war, its influences are woven into the fabric of daily life for soldiers abroad. "Iraq has this pretty acidic smell, especially in the morning," Dyer said. "I think from burning trash. 'Oh, the smell of napalm in the morning!' — I can't count how many times I heard that line in Iraq."

For many soldiers, a devotion to the silver screen goes way back, long before joining the military. For Hartnett, movies played a role in his signing up for service. "I'd be lying if I said a lot of the films didn't go into me making my decision to join the military," he said. "A lot of people watch [films] and say 'that's terrible, I'd never want to be a part of it.' But there's a minority who sees these movies and wants to emulate the action."

Then, he added: "But the entire time I was there, it was nothing like what I had imagined it would be."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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