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Film

How to Fold a Flag

Director: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Cast: Javorn Drummond, Michael Goss, Cornelius Massey, Jon Powers, Stuart Wilf

(Heros Film; US theatrical: 1 Dec 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 17 Apr 2009 (General release); 2009)

The Leaves Fall


Home just means, to me, in a sound mind.
—Michael Goss


Every day, Javorn Drummond goes out to get the mail. Shuffling to the mailbox, he looks tired. He’s not looking for any particular letter or package, but he’s grown used to the routine of looking. “My family’s lived out here for decades,” he says of Fayetteville, NC. From the mailbox, he walks back inside, his beaten-down home set alongside the empty road. “This is the dungeon right here,” he says, remembering the pit bull now missing, either run away or stolen. “This is MTV Cribs,” he smiles, “the poor nigger edition.” 


An Army Specialist with the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit, Javorn is one of four soldiers featured in How to Fold a Flag, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s second follow-up to 2004’s Gunner Palace (the first is the remarkable The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair). Screening 1 December in IFC’s Stranger Than Fiction film series (followed by a Q&A with the directors and film subject Jon Powers), the documentary observes the soldiers’ post-war experiences, on their own now after 15 months in Iraq together.


“This is how I live,” Javorn says of his close quarters. “I need to bust out of this.” Toward that end, he’s majoring in criminal justice at college, where his classmates are surprised to learn he’s a veteran (“I seen the palace y’all was in,” says Regina, as the frame tilts down to show the baby in her lap, suggesting her own story is more complicated than it appears at first glance). Javorn is also working at the local hog processing plant, Smithfield Foods. “It’s a cold hell,” he says, over a shot of a parking lot filled with cars and trucks and nighttime mist. “When you come back from war, you come back to what you left.”


For Javorn’s fellow Army Specialist Stuart Wilf, this return means working at a convenience store and dealing daily with “assholes.” The camera peers in the window as he looks back, putting up his middle fingers or otherwise performing his resistance and frustration. Whether posing in front of a U.S. flag with his gun cocked, spray-painting graffiti or seated against a backdrop of green trees, Stuart is nothing if not self-aware, performative and pissed off. His mother Becky, a real estate agent, calls him “Forest,” after Forest Gump, or Ferdinand, after the bull who liked to “sit under a tree and listen to music and be peaceful, at one with nature.” With a younger brother deploying to Afghanistan, Stuart finds some respite in music. Much as he displayed in Gunner Palace, Stuart plays fierce guitar. Now in a metal band, he’s transformed on stage, neck bulging and eyes narrowed. “The kind of music I play, I think it describes me better than I could describe myself,” he says.


Stuart’s self-definition—his turmoil expressed in art—seems on a continuum with those shows put on by schoolteacher and Army captain Jon Powers, campaigning for Congress in New York’s 26th District, and Sergeant Mike Goss, now a cage fighter in Texas. Insistently hopeful as anyone running for office must appear to be, Powers knocks on doors and strides (in slow motion) during a Memorial Day Parade, encouraging voters to send him to Washington, in order that he might retake the “America” currently governed by cynical politicians and lobbyists.


Goss has another mission, which begins with the questions facing him at every step of his new life. “Generally,” he says, “The moment you do something in war that involves you hurting a civilian who is not even a combatant and you start feeling remorse for it, you are no longer considered a soldier. You’re considered a pussy.” In an effort to keep control of his memories, to manage his feelings, Goss writes the names of all his fallen unit members on the sleeve of his robe, so that each time he heads into the ring, he remembers. “I feel like there’s ghosts out there with me, or spirits pretty much whispering what to do next,” he says, whether to punch or kick.


“Fighting in a cage is an outlet,” Mike says. Shot through the bars of his new stage, Goss appears well-trained and focused. Diagnosed with PTSD, medicated for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, Goss made a video in an attempt to express his pain. The military dishonorably discharged him and suggested that, given his new state of poverty, he move his family into a shelter. “Chaptered out,” Mike says, “I felt like the only person in the world.” Mike’s performance is heartfelt, an effort to remember and reframe; Stuart resists another sort of remembering, watching Iraq War veterans who are staging a protest at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. For Stuart, the street theater scene—bagging a body as if in a nightmarish moment in Iraq—only keeps his fellow veterans focused on the past, encouraging observers to believe the “myth that people who go to war are stuck here forever.” He protests to the camera: “Part of me isn’t still there.”


As the soldiers seek peace, or a way forward, they can’t help but look around them. Javorn observes, “Nobody really cares. We’re like the downgrades of society, like you chose to be in the military. I didn’t choose to go to war for no bullshit.” He takes a breath. “If I was gonna fight, I wanted to be fought relevant and definitely in relevance to the Twin Towers being crashed and the Pentagon.” In Iraq, he says, the war is “not relevant.”


Looking for ways to feel relevant now that they’re back, the veterans in How to Fold a Flag are surely up against it. Though its outrage on behalf of the soldiers is at times too overtly telegraphed through a plaintive soundtrack, that outrage cannot be too strongly stated. As the film shows, in images both sharply etched and allusive, they embody difficulties—ideals and disappointments, memories and expectations—that most citizens, safe at home, have been encouraged to forget. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” observes Javorn. “Every fall, the leaves fall.”


 

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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