Holly Stadtler, a producer in Huntington, Vt., and former “NBC Nightly News” production manager, has managed something eminences such as Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure) and Phil Donahue (Body of War) had zero luck pulling off this past year. She’s made a movie about the Bush administration’s moronic mishandling of the Iraq invasion that even war-doc-weary audiences will want to see.
Finding Our Voices doesn’t benefit from the glitziest marketing, poster art or main menu design (on DVD). But what awaits the viewer beyond these preliminaries is movie-making of the highest caliber, and a perspective on the Baghdad imbroglio that I haven’t seen represented on film before.
On the sixth anniversary of the war’s start, Stadtler and writer-director Victoria Hughes offer an in-depth chronicle of this country’s resistance movement, which most U.S. citizens probably don’t know existed on a nationwide, organized level. The filmmakers provide a compelling account of a diverse group of citizens that has demonstrated, petitioned and risked jail time, not to mention their livelihoods and very lives, to demand accountability from leaders — which the mainstream media failed miserably to do.
The picture portrays the anti-invasion movement through the stories of eight individuals. It also fills in the larger context of civil protest and the pivotal role it has played in our nation’s evolution.
While all the film’s subjects are articulate people of conscience, three stand out. At first glance, Adele Welty would appear to be an unlikely enemy of the state. Arrested during a protest on the Capitol grounds, she’s a 66-year-old grandmother who wouldn’t look out of place at a church bake sale. She lost her son, a firefighter, on 9/11, watching the buildings collapse from her office a few blocks away. In time, Welty came to the conclusion that “the best legacy I could build for Timmy would be one of peace, to try to stop any more innocent civilians from being killed.”
She shares the unforgettable story of traveling to Iraq as part of a delegation to provide medical supplies. “We were all on atrocity overload,” Welty relates. “One evening I asked a group of Iraqis, ‘What do you do to decompress, to relax?’ They said, ‘When there’s electricity, we watch television. We love “Seinfeld.”’ In the recreation halls of our army bases,” Welty goes on, “our soldiers sit and watch ‘Seinfeld.’ They’re all laughing. And in the morning . . . they start killing each other.”
Then there’s U.S. Representative Jim Moran (D-VA), one of the few Congress members who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Where were the others, the film asks by implication, when Moran was publicly debunking the administration’s premise for an invasion — the mythical link between the terrorist attacks and Saddam’s regime? “This has been the worst foreign policy fiasco in American history,” Moran charged. “Now we’re being told we’re going to Iraq to fight Al Qaeda. There were no Al Qaeda in Iraq when we went into Iraq. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.”
We hear from soldiers who witnessed firsthand the arrogance and folly of the White House. Former Sgt. John Bruhns, for example, speaks eloquently about why he volunteered. Bruhns lost a close friend on 9/11. He wanted to take action against the evildoers his government told him were responsible. Instead, he found himself taking action against ordinary Iraqis.
“We were fighting just the people who live there. Go house to house, kick down the door. Do this two to three nights a week in two or three communities; they’re not feeling liberated, they’re feeling occupied. I know if anybody came into this country and kicked down my front door, they’d have to fight me to the death.”
Finding Our Voices is splendidly edited, narrated by Martin Sheen with his customary finesse and authority, and written with a terrific historical grasp. Hughes instructively compares the early, unpopular resistance to the Iraq war with other controversial uprisings, from the Boston Tea Party to the suffragette and civil-rights movements. She argues passionately for the vital importance of civil protest. “Without dissent there is no debate,” the filmmaker asserts. “Without debate, there is no democracy. In a democracy you cannot afford to forget that each voice matters.”
In the early days of a new administration committed to correcting the mistakes of its predecessor and repairing the damage done to this country’s standing, Finding Our Voices leaves little doubt about the debt owed to a relatively few brave Americans who, when it wasn’t quite as fashionable or safe as it is now, dared to raise theirs.