'Body of War' chronicles a paralyzed Iraq war veteran's fight to find peace

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

7 March 2008


It takes guts to let a camera record your most intimate and embarrassing moments.

Especially if it catches your marriage falling apart, outbursts of anger and depression and physical indignities like dealing with a urinary catheter.

When Kansas Citian Tomas Young was approached about turning his life into a documentary, he wasn’t sure what he was getting into. The Iraq war veteran, paralyzed from the chest down, just knew he had a story to tell.

Now, after three years of filming and editing, “Body of War,” directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, opened here March 7. It’s the documentary’s first commercial run anywhere, after its big success at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Songs for a veteran strike a nerve By Timothy Finn McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) Tomas Young told Rolling Stone that the songs on the “Body of War” soundtrack “inspired, motivated and, at times, literally saved me.” He found inspiration and salvation in 30 songs that span the spectrum of popular music. The two-disc, 30-track collection (due in stores March 18) opens with a lovely electric-folk hymn: “Hero’s Song” by singer-songwriter Brendan James. The song’s protagonist, a soldier who volunteered to fight, wonders aloud why so many “beautiful young statues must fall,” then expresses grave doubts about the battle that has erupted around him: I hear the world like a cannon roar/Say I can win this war/I promise them this/Isn’t what I signed up for ... “Hero’s Song” doesn’t typify what follows; much of “Body of War” is the voice of protest - a blitzkrieg of defiance, anger, indignation. In the rock-reggae anthem “Light Up Ya Lighter,” Michael Franti declares, This one’s nothing like Vietnam/Except for the bullets, except for the bombs/Except for the youth that’s gone. Then: The war on terror is a war on peace. Those voices get even more incendiary in tracks from Rage Against the Machine (“Guerrilla Radio”) and Public Enemy, which roars, “He’s the son of a baaad man!” in “Son of a Bush.” Not everyone’s anger is directed at the war and foreign policy. Lupe Fiasco’s “American Terrorist” confronts domestic realities like the cycle of crime and the grind of economic oppression: Give black man crack, Glocks to teens, give red man craps, slot machines ... The weather settles a bit on the second disc, which leads off with Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust” and Pearl Jam’s cover of “Masters of War.” John Lennon is represented here, too, in “Gimme Some Truth.” So are Neil Young (“The Restless Consumer”) and Tom Waits, who expresses the hope that sustains a lonely, disillusioned soldier from Rockford, Ill., in “The Day After Tomorrow”: It is so hard/And it’s cold here/And I’m tired of taking orders/And I miss my old Rockford town/Up by the Wisconsin border ... Tomas Young gives the younger generation of counter culture singer-songwriters a chance to speak, too, including Bright Eyes (“When the President Talks to God”) and Kimya Dawson (“Anthrax”). But the featured track on “Body of War” is “No More,” a new song from Eddie Vedder written especially for Young, “a man who gave for this land, took a bullet in the back for his pain.” The live version here, with Ben Harper, sounds like taproot `60s protest-folk: a guitar and two voices joined in a call to arms: Some will hear in its words nothing more than hippie militancy or left-wing propaganda; others, like the man it was written for, will find sanctuary and camaraderie - their version of the truth. And that, above all, is what this collection of dynamic songs illustrates most dramatically: the power of unbound speech. BODY OF WAR: SONGS THAT INSPIRED AN IRAQ WAR VETERAN (Sire Records) Thirty tracks including works by Eddie Vedder, Tom Wait, Bruce Springsteen, Brendan James, Michael Franti, Public Enemy, Lupe Fiasco and more.Young’s creative team: Eddie Vedder, formerly of Pearl Jam, who wrote a song for the film’s score, and co-directors Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue.

“Before I started all this I couldn’t conceive being under that microscope,” Young, 27, said during a conversation in the living room of his wheelchair-accessible home.

“It was pretty tight quarters at first, having strangers looking over my shoulder. I didn’t know if I should mind my p’s and q’s or just do whatever I felt like. But as I got used to having a camera in my face I let my mind and mouth run free.”

“Body of War” begins with Young’s wedding to a school classmate and chronicles the ups and downs of his personal life and his growth as an anti-war activist.

Young enlisted in the Army just two days after 9-11. While he was still in training, the Bush administration began making its case for invading Iraq, a development Young found incredible.

“I joined to go to Afghanistan, to get the people who attacked us. I was against going to war with Iraq long before I was sent there.

“It’s sort of like if after Pearl Harbor we declared war on China. You know, just because those people all look alike.”

He’d been in Iraq a little less than a week when a sniper’s bullet severed his spine.

While recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Young asked his mother, Cathy Smith, to contact Ralph Nader, the only 2004 presidential candidate who supported immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Nader showed up for a bedside visit, accompanied by his friend, TV personality Phil Donahue.

“From our first meeting I knew this young man was special,” Donahue said on a recent visit to Kansas City to promote the film.

“He’s a political animal. He has something to say, and he wants the message to get out. I remember thinking, `Everybody should see this.’ It took a while before I decided I might be the one to show it.”

Having never made a documentary, Donahue went looking for help. He decided to team up with Spiro, a documentarist based in Austin, Texas .

After months of hanging around Young’s home and accompanying him to anti-war rallies, Spiro became a huge fan of her subject:

“He’s amazingly enlightened for a 27-year-old. He realizes that showing your vulnerability is actually a demonstration of strength. And what Tomas has chosen to show is a side of war you can’t see anywhere else.”

Moreover, Spiro said, she now feels a genuine sense of intimacy with Young and his family.

“I don’t believe in journalistic separation from your subject,” she said. “If you’re a human being, you get involved with your subjects, especially if you’re with them for months. I honestly feel like part of this family. I spent a lot more time with the camera turned off than on.”

Despite the trust that built up between filmmaker and subject, Young drew the line when it came to recording certain aspects of his daily routine.

“I can remember Ellen wanting to film me doing what is called a `bowel program,’ a process that involves me on a toilet for about an hour and a half.

“Well, you won’t see that in the movie.”

Still, the film offers an unflinching look at the physical difficulties Young deals with every day ... pain, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, a breakdown of internal organs - even a disrupted internal thermostat that, on hot days, requires him to wear a vest lined with ice packs to prevent overheating.

Donahue is largely responsible for the editing of “Body of War,” which alternates scenes from Young’s life with footage of the Senate roll call vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq and bits of speeches in which supporters of the war parrot the phrases used by President Bush.

“You can see how easy it is to control the population and Congress if you scare them enough,” Donahue said.

He refers to “Body of War” as “a series of miracles.”

“When you start a project like this, you have no idea what you’ll end up with,” he said. “But so many things fell our way. For starters, Tomas is a great, compelling subject.”

The movie’s buzz picked up steam when Eddie Vedder volunteered to create a song for the film. After talking to Young, the former lead singer and composer for Pearl Jam had a new tune written and recorded in just four days.

“And that’s mushroomed into an album of anti-war songs by two dozen artists,” Donahue noted.

Young served as the executive producer of the CD, “Body of War,” which he refers to as his “personal soundtrack for survival.” It will be released March 18.

In its world premiere at Toronto, audiences voted the film their third favorite out of more than 300 on display. Young recalls how nervous he was before attending the screening.

“I knew that there would be a Q&A session after the film and that Eddie Vedder would perform his song from the stage. I was a little concerned that my film would end up being the opening act for Eddie Vedder.

“But it didn’t happen like that. The audience got the jokes - my gallows humor - and we got what I’ve been told was the longest standing ovation in festival history.”

Last week Young flew to New York to be interviewed by Billboard magazine about the CD. And a tour is in the works that would have him taking the film to college campuses.

But first there’s the inaugural run in Kansas City, followed by a rollout of openings across the country.

“To borrow a vaudeville term,” Young said, “now we’ll see how it plays in Peoria.”

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