mon 17/06/2024

We Went to War | reviews, news & interviews

We Went to War

We Went to War

British director follows up on celebrated 1970 Vietnam veterans documentary

Retreating from the world: David has found a lifetime's peace though fishingPictures: Rebeka Tolley

In his 1970 television documentary for Granada, I Was a Soldier, British filmmaker Michael Grigsby was one of the first to look into the experience of US soldiers returning home from Vietnam. “Vietnam syndrome” may have been a few years away from any formal diagnosis, but Grigsby caught the mood of three young Texans – David, Dennis and Lamar – back from the conflict and struggling to re-engage with a society that has become alien to them.

Grigsby returned to the town of Brady and its Texas environs 40 years later, and the result is his new film We Went to War (co-directed with Rebeka Tolley). Though the town centre has seen closures over the years, little else seems to have changed, as a split-screen drive-around the same streets, then and now, shows. Lamar died in 2002, and we hear about the last years of his life through the words of his widow and daughter; David and Dennis are as quietly eloquent as before.

David breaks down when speaking of how he entered counselling only after 38 years

Grigsby allows his subject’s silences to resound as much as anything they say, along with the huge, empty landscapes that surround them; most frequently we hear their words in voiceover, while Jonas Mortensen’s camera tracks over wide open spaces, or drives the town's bungalow-lined roads. We’re left with an impression that it’s a lonely life here – not in the literal sense of lacking everyday company, but that it’s a place where surroundings dwarf human experience, and that these three were set apart, somehow made alone, by what they went through. And that, in a strange way, it's somehow been a healing loneliness.

Lamar’s nightmares continued until the end of his life, itself likely shortened by exposure to Agent Orange. “It’s like your worst nightmare comes at you all of a sudden, death looking at you in the face,” recalls Dennis. David breaks down when speaking of how he entered counselling only after 38 years, and comes up with the unforgettable phrase “pushing the hurt away” to describe what it’s been like living with those experiences (part of his peace, then and now, comes through fishing, main picture).

Putting this Vietnam experience into unavoidable perspective, Dennis talks with two more recent veterans, Jarod and Tish, from the conflict in Iraq, about the “rifts in life” that involvement in war brings (Dennis and Jarod, pictured below). “It boggles my mind and makes my heart cry,” Tish says. “You do your mission and come home, and you’re alone.” The quieter the film's voices ring out, the more haunting their insight seems.

Grigsby has been making documentaries for more than 50 years, in a line that stretches right back to John Grierson and Free Cinema. The trust between subject and director is complete, fostered by lengthy research and rock solid empathy. By any standards his approach is slow, simply creating a space that the subjects are left free to fill, in their own time. At the end of one of the Texas screenings of the film, an audience member shouted out, “Why does it have to take another country to recognize our veterans?” Drawing out stories like this isn’t a matter of nationality, of course, but the achievement of the true documentarist.

We Went to War is on limited release from Friday, including at the ICA, London, where it plays in a double bill with I Was a Soldier on Sunday March 31.

Watch the trailer for We Went to War


The quieter the film's voices ring out, the more haunting their insight seems


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Sad news indeed. Only just learnt that Michael Grigsby died on March 12, aged 76. It may give an extra elegaic quality to 'We Went to War', but the director was as active as ever taking the film around festival and other audiences, speaking with commitment of his craft. A craft which, based around taking time to allow the stories of others, often 'everyday' lives, to unfold, seems increasingly out of sync with the way documentaries are made (or rather, not made) today. Looking around earlier this year to see if anything of his earlier work, from more than 50 years of filmmaking, was available, I was shocked to find that nothing was. We can only hope that a retrospective collection may in preparation.  

the director died? it's strange, the film did have something of a valedictory quality even before I knew that - you sense his (Grigsby's) presence there as an old man, and he's speaking with Dennis and David, two old men, who have reached a tranquillity of time and place. a poignant, beautiful feeling, there is peace there after their troubles

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