Canadian filmmaker debuts documentary about gritty reality of U.S. soldiers

Tiffany Crawford Canadian Press June 9, 2004

Film director Sarah Goodman (right) with Nelson Reyes, one of the characters in her documentary Army of One. (CP / handout)

VANCOUVER (CP) - When U.S. recruiters told Canadian film director Sarah Goodman she could gain access to an army base if she became a journalist for the military she told them she'd make a lousy soldier.

Goodman instead hounded a long line of army officials for months to allow her to shoot a documentary film. In the security-tight world of the U.S. army where it's nearly impossible to gain access anywhere, it was Goodman's natural curiosity that wooed such higher-ups as the army's chief of public affairs in Los Angeles and local officials at Fort Benning in Georgia, where much of the filming took place.

She said officials could read her genuine interest in what it was like for young Americans to essentially train for war.

But mostly she attributes her success to dogged persistence.

"I had never known anyone in the military before I did this film, and I was fascinated, you know, who was this person who lives in the back woods of Alabama and works for public relations in the army?" Goodman said from New York where she has lived for the past eight years.

With little else than naked ambition, Goodman, 31, embarked on a two-year project culminating in her first feature documentary called Army of One. The documentary premiered in Amsterdam where it was an official selection of the International Documentary Film Festival. It debuts in Canadian theatres this month.

Strapped for cash, but eager to tell the story of three young Americans who sign up for military service post 9-11, Goodman worked full time in an advertising firm during the shoot to pay for the film's expenses.

"It was tough there to make ends meet," the passionate director said.

The heart of the documentary looks at why so many youths found a military calling after the terror attacks on the U.S.

"For me, the military was just a frame to look at my wider fascination," Goodman said, "which is about the state of young people who are directionless and rather apolitical and I wanted to look at this extreme microcosm of where they turn to for answers."

The one woman and two men that Goodman follows all join for different reasons, but all seem to share a common bond of disillusionment with the direction their lives are taking.

Goodman met Sara Miller in New York where the 22-year-old dreamed of being a dancer. However, at home one night with her conservative right-wing father musing on the "train-wreck" of her life, Miller decided to do an about-face and join the army.

And unlike the two other characters, Miller excels in the military and becomes obsessed with making it all the way to Iraq.

She succeeded and was stationed outside Baghdad where she was a night guard at a watchtower on an army base. She has since returned home uninjured and has been promoted to sergeant.

Then there is Nelson Reyes, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican high-school dropout from the South Bronx looking for respect and a ticket out of the ghetto. He was originally supposed to be Goodman's sole character.

But as luck would have it, she wasn't able to film Reyes at the Georgia base because he was undergoing some form of military punishment. So after spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets and camera equipment and not wanting to waste time, she searched the base for a third candidate.

That's when she met Thadd.

A self-described psychic, 22-year-old Thaddeus Ressler gave up a cushy job as a stockbroker after Sept. 11 because he felt it was his personal duty to join the infantry and kill Osama bin Laden.

With the image of the war hero rapidly fading, Ressler became depressed and resigned to the drudgery of an army misfit, cleaning latrines and driving supply trucks.

When he asked officials to leave for psychological reasons, instead of recognizing the "uncharacteristic" suicidal behaviour he was demonstrating and sending him home, they shuffled him to the front of the line for duty in Iraq.

It's these unscripted layers to the story that Goodman says developed unexpectedly while making the documentary.

What she discovered was a very real story of American youths sold on slick TV images of heroes, success and the proverbial quest to make a difference in the world.

For example, she said Reyes had watched a lot of army movies to get pumped up prior to enlisting.

"But he had no concept of actual training or what an actual military career involved, it was all the image to him, the uniform, and he could have been a rap star, it was just one uniform or another," Goodman said.

Goodman also said it was fascinating to watch his story unfold because where Reyes went in search of respect, he found an environment based on equal opportunity humiliation.

"That's when the penny dropped for him and he went AWOL."

The idea for the film came from American "army of one" commercials that present a sexy image of what it means to be in the army.

"I really wanted young people to see the contradictions and complexities that I saw and the struggle of young people to define themselves in society in a time of war," she said.

But it's when the recruits at the army base chant slogans that the banality of the military hits home.

"The real absurdity of these chants, you get up in the morning at camp and sing a camp song and in the army you sing about how you're going to stab people between the second and third rib."

Goodman, who's from Toronto, admits that Canadians who see the film are likely to have a different perspective than their American counterparts.

"When I speak of people who have pre-judgments and a kind of a black-and-white analysis of the army, I'm thinking often of Canadians who might harbour a certain view of the U.S. military."

The documentary, produced by Red Storm Productions of Vancouver, opens June 11 in Vancouver and June 25 in Toronto.

The Canadian Press 2004