CHAUTAUQUA - My uncle once told me that he had never really understood the Holocaust until he read the Diary of Anne Frank.
''My brain grasped the statistics of how many millions killed, how many millions more tortured and starved and exposed to disease,'' he said. ''But, I never really felt it in my gut, that it was people, doing those terrible things to other people, one person at a time, until I read that little girl's diary.''
One of the most wonderful qualities of the arts is that ability to take something which is technically understandable, and give it a human face, so that we can grasp it with our hearts.
Tomas Young, right, a 25-year-old American soldier who was wounded while fighting in Iraq, is shown with his mother and his younger brother who was about to depart for service in Iraq. The film ``Body of War,' an intimate examination of Young's life, after his wounding, will play at the Chautauqua Cinema on July 20, with comments by the film's producer, Phil Donahue.
The Chautauqua Cinema invites you have a similar experience with a very different circumstance: the war which our country has been fighting in Iraq.
On July 20, the theater will play host to popular television host Phil Donahue, who has recently made his first feature film, together with filmmaker Ellen Spiro. The title of the film is ''Body of War.''
Donahue will be present at Chautauqua to share his personal experiences with making the film, and to answer questions for the audience.
Curiously enough, I don't have the correct time for the showing, yet, and if I wait any longer, to write the event up, it will be too late to get it into print, so I'm telling you it will happen on July 20, and hope you will phone the Chautauqua Cinema at 357-2352, or go to their website at www.uniplexcinemas.com/Chautauqua/CinemaPage.html, to learn the starting time. At this time, the site only gives show times and titles, up through July 12.
I've had the good fortune to have viewed the film, several times, so I'd like to tell you my personal observations about it, and then I have some information about Donahue and Ms. Spiro.
I found it a valuable experience, both artistically and historically. I hope you will, as well.
ABOUT THE FILM
In September of 2001, terrorists struck at several different sites within our country, murdering and seriously injuring thousands of innocent civilians who were simply going about their daily business. Naturally, Americans were deeply angry.
In October of 2002, just a few days before the election of all the members of our House of Representatives and one-third of our Senators, President George W. Bush asked Congress to allow him to send the U.S. military into Iraq, with the purpose of overthrowing that country's ruler, Saddam Hussein.
The president told both houses of congress that he had proof that the government of Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that he had proof that Saddam was in active communication with the forces of extreme Islam which had attacked us in 2001.
Some members of congress felt as though they were being rushed into a decision which deserved more consideration, and many of them believed that asking for the declaration such a short time before the election was an attempt to coerce them into voting for the bill, or risk losing their seat, since the public was angry, and in no mood to consider that we were already at war in Afghanistan, in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his followers, and that the military would be stretched very thin, and would be lacking in equipment and supplies.
Donahue's film is designed around the attempt to demonstrate the contrast between the lives of members of congress, who have the power to begin an event such as the invasion of Iraq, and the lives of individual American citizens, who actually need to carry out the decisions of the congressmen.
Near the beginning of the film, we are shown news footage of the speech by the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who was then the oldest and the longest-serving member of the Senate. Sen. Byrd pleaded unsuccessfully with his colleagues, not to make this momentous decision without taking the time to study what the effect of their decision would be.
In his speech, Byrd quotes extensively from an interview which was done in the prison attached to the Nuremberg War Trials. The interviewer was Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist assigned to assess the mental state of the Nazi war criminals who were on trial there for their actions as part of Adolf Hitler's regime, during World War II.
Gilbert interviewed Field Marshall Hermann Goering, the highest-ranking Nazi who was captured alive, at the end of the war. This information is quoted from the Gilbert diary:
Goering said, ''Or course the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war, neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.''
Gilbert reminded Goering that it is different in America, because the people have a voice in the decision to go to war, because it is only the elected congress who can make a declaration of war.
Goering replied, ''Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.''
The principal focus of the film is a 25-year-old young man from Kansas City, Mo. His name is Tomas Young. Young reports that he phoned his army recruiter on Sept 13, 2001, and volunteered to enter the military. He says he was willing to take any risk to go to Afghanistan and try to bring to justice the people who had masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11.
Instead, after basic training, Young found himself on his way to Iraq. On his fifth day in that country, the young soldier was sent on a mission, riding in the back of a truck with no armor on its sides. He was shot by a sniper, through the side of the truck, the bullet entering his chest, just below the collar bone and severing his spinal cord, before exiting through his back, leaving him paralyzed from the armpits, down.
Much of the film is spent showing Young, trying to deal with the extent of his injuries. Not only can he no longer walk, for example, he can no longer regulate his body temperature. He finds himself suddenly and unpredictably running a very high fever, and needing to immediately don a vest with pockets into which blocks of ice are inserted, to bring his temperature back down.
His blood pressure suddenly shoots up, or down. In the midst of speaking engagements, he needs to stop and put his head down on the table. He can't control his bowels, nor his bladder. One early concern in the film is his fear that he will soil himself at his wedding, and ruin his rented tuxedo.
His wedding is shown, to an attractive young woman named Brie Townsend, and we see her emptying basins because he sometimes vomits without warning and performing other such unappealing tasks for her new husband.
At the wedding, her gown becomes entangled in the wheel of his chair, and she ends up apologizing for it.
The marriage is strained because Young has been rendered impotent by his wounds, and because Brie goes out to earn their living while he has to stay at home, and eventually, he decides to get a divorce.
Young's mother becomes his principal caregiver. Her name is Cindy Smith, and her son describes her at one point as having been ''frequently married.'' Her current husband is extremely conservative and supportive of the war. At one point, we see him receive as a Christmas gift, a book by conservative spokesman Ann Coulter, and he proclaims her to be one of the greatest American writers.
Young himself and his mother become increasingly involved in political organizations which oppose the War in Iraq. One of the most touching parts of the film comes when his beloved younger brother, Nathan Young, joins the army and is sent off to Iraq. Tomas and Cindy both decide that the young man needs their support more than their logic, but the strain on them as he prepares to ship out is clearly visible.
I don't know where Donahue found this young man, who is so clearly spoken and able to express his thoughts and feelings so very well, despite his grave injuries. Young also seems absolutely unconcerned about the presence of a camera, filming him in his most personal moments. At one point, for example, a catheter becomes dislodged, spraying him and his mother with urine, and he seems to take both the event and its inclusion in the film, in stride.
The sound track of the film features music by Eddie Vedder, the lead vocalist from Pearl Jam. At times, the lyrics go further than the film in comments on the political situation. For example, in a segment in which Young meets with a veteran who was shot in an almost identical wounding, during the War in Vietnam, Vedder sings something like ''No medical care is too good for our veterans, so that's what we give them: no care''
In fact, while the veteran points out a number of kinds of care which he received and which Young has not, some of his care seems, in fact, to be excellent. Probably the most startling element in the area of medical care, came when Young complains that when he got a tattoo, before leaving for the war, he got more follow-up and more instruction on keeping himself healthy than he got following his life-changing wound.
On the negative side of the film, the attempts to parallel the political with the actual can be very effective, but the technique of doing so, doesn't work well.
The most effective element of the contrast is the series, showing senator after senator and congressman after congressman, reading what is effectively the identical speech. They are clearly not expressing their own thoughts on the issues, they're rubber stamping something they have been handed by someone.
The least effective element is that by the end of the film, they have named every senator who voted in favor of the declaration of war. There is a mechanical voice, such as one sometimes hears on a voicemail announcement. It calls the senators' names in alphabetical order, then calls out ''aye,'' to represent their voice. This happens, 3-5 names at a time, throughout the entire film.
It doesn't name those who voted ''no,'' and since the voice has the exact same speed and rhythm, and no tone of voice at all, it interrupts the portrayal of Young's life and seems more an attempt to punish those whose vote isn't agreed with, than to illustrate some element of the story.
Anyone who votes should see this film, and anyone who could vote but chooses not to do so, should see it as well.
The Chautauqua Cinema is located at the intersection of Hurst and Wythe, on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution.
Statistics are always debatable. If two people enter a race, one of them finishes second, and the other crosses the finish line, next to last.
I looked at 11 websites, and no two of them had identical numbers. I chose one, because it seemed to be best representative of what I found, overall, but I have no way to investigate, in order to vouch for its accuracy. Still, it paints a picture.
According to the site, as of June 2010, the U.S. has lost 4,409 military personnel in Iraq, and has had 31,822 seriously wounded.
The war has cost approximately $900 billion, so far, which the site estimates to be about $5,000 per second.
Different U.S. agencies have estimated the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed. Their estimations range between 50,000 and 100,000. Non-military estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths go as high as 600,000.
Phillip John Donahue was born in Cleveland in 1935. His father was a furniture salesman, and his mother sold shoes in a department store.
He graduated from the University of Notre Dame. For 26 years he ran a series of talk shows, originally called ''The Phil Donahue Show,'' and eventually, ''Donahue.'' He is often credited as the inventor of the so-called ''tabloid'' talk show, which focuses on a controversial topic, instead of just celebrity chat.
He has been married to Marlo Thomas, daughter of entertainer and philanthropist Danny Thomas, for 30 years. She is his second wife.
He has won 19 Emmy awards for his talk show. His 2007 documentary ''Body of War'' has been nominated for a number of awards. Donahue himself never appears in the film.