Voices in Wartime
(2005) 74 min. D: Rick King. Cinema Libre.
If you are lucky in this life,
a window will appear on a battlefield between two armies.
And when the soldiers look into the window,
They don't see their enemies.
They see themselves as children.
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep.
When they wake up, the land is well again.
—Fourth-grader Cameron Penny, 2001.
Voices in Wartime is an ode to poetry as a coping mechanism for soldiers and civilians in times of war. If the medium isn't always as sturdy as the message, that's a fault that can be readily overlooked, at least by like-minded viewers. Friends of Bush may not take as kindly to Voices in Wartime as will kindred spirits of "Poets Against the War."
Director Rick King takes a scattershot approach, but attempts to anchor his leaping timeline with a recent event: the Laura Bush-sponsored conference "Poetry and the American Voice,” which was such a boondoggle that it was cancelled before it could occur in February of 2003. Poet Sam Hamill was so gobsmacked by the wartime invitation—which promised a presumably non-political discussion of socio-political poets Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes—that he immediately commissioned poems protesting the invasion of Iraq.
King tells this story in bits and pieces and responses, including a variety of talking heads and glimpses of a benefit reading of some of the poems. The rest of the film is comprised of sometimes grisly archival footage, poets reading their work to the camera, and a historical perspective on the world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq, with nods to Homer and Sumerian poet/priestess Enheduanna ("Lament to the Spirit of War").
The impact of the poems and King’s technique is variable. The potency of war veteran poets—from the Great War's Wilfred Owen to Vietnam vet David Connolly—is so strong that the civilian poetry smacks of artistic hubris. Connolly's devastating "Why I Can't" (which he recites in the film) begins with battlefield horror and ends with the lines "and still people tell me,/'Forget Nam.'" After a poem like this, the customary peacenik poems pale in comparison.
A bigger problem is that making poetry cinematic requires greater imagination than King evinces here. At his worst, King stuns imagination by literalizing the poems with accompanying concrete images and sound effects; at best, he shoots someone reading the poem into his video camera (to his credit, King also makes found poetry of FDR and Lyndon Johnson's war pronouncements).
Like Cinema Libre's Robert Greenwald films, Voices in Wartime culminates in a talking-head epilogue that explains why what you've just seen is "so important." The topic of art's response to war is worthy, though your 74 minutes might be spent just as well at the film's excellent website, www.VoicesinWartime.org.
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