5:31 PM EST, February 7, 2013
In the affecting new documentary "Not Yet Begun to Fight," a sound engineer is caught on film asking for a cigarette from one of the film's subjects, a Marine corporal from Evansville, Ind., named Erik Goodge, who lost an eye when he was wounded in Afghanistan. "You're bumming cigarettes off a one-eyed guy? What the hell's wrong with you?" Goodge jokes. And then, noticing the camera: "Is that gonna be in the movie?"
Barely old enough to drink, Goodge is the youngest in a group of five battered war veterans profiled in the film, all of whom spent a week together in the outskirts of Bozeman, Mont., for a week of fly fishing. (The film screens Saturday at the Siskel, followed by a post-show discussion with Goodge and co-director Sabrina Ross Lee.) The fishing program is run by retired Marine Col. Eric Hastings, who flies battered veterans from military hospitals to Montana each year during fishing season, from May through October.
Stoic and vague about the depth of his own war experiences, Hastings is a man who nonetheless wears his heart on his sleeve. He describes fly-fishing as a "constantly repeating series of occasions for hope" and founded Warriors & Quiet Waters after a 25-year military career that included tours in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
"I came back from combat and found I needed relief," he says, contemplating the camera. "And the more I was out there fly-fishing, the more I knew I needed more of it. It became an absolutely desperate physical and mental need. And I had to do it, or I was gonna kill somebody." Funded entirely through donations, his organization picks up the tab for each trip ($4,000 per person) and outfits the participants with "everything that they need to fly-fish for the rest of their lives," including fly-fishing gear and fly-tying gear. If your mind instantly went to the film "A River Runs Through It," you're not alone.
A former Chicagoan, Lee lives in Montana these days, and we spoke by phone earlier this week. "We made an effort to be as non-invasive as possible. We even chose very small cameras to shoot with, so they would not be physically intimidating."
Even so, on the first night it became clear that Lee and her co-director, Shasta Grenier, would have to be flexible. "The guys had just flown in. They were tired and had to get fitted for their gear and they were overwhelmed, and there we were with two cameras, a boom pool and a sound engineer — and we just felt that we needed to leave. We had planned to get all these shots and we got none of them, but it was a conscious decision. People often ask me, 'How does documentary filmmaking distinguish itself from reality TV?' and I think it's incumbent upon the filmmakers to not disturb what you're filming. And if you do, you've crossed a line and you're creating something other than a documentary film. There is a point where you see someone is having a weak moment and if you push them, that can feel exploitative."
If Hastings is the quiet backbone of the film, the stories of this small group who spent a week with him in 2010 give the doc its true heft. Some of the men are missing legs. Goodge is the one in the eye-patch.
Mark Hupp, who worked as a bomb technician, has no discernible outward injuries but clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "He basically did what the guy in 'The Hurt Locker' did," said Lee. "We talked to him at the hospital two days before they flew to Montana, and because he was struggling with a traumatic brain injury and he was going with a group of men he didn't know, I said to him, 'Is there anything that makes you nervous?' And he said, "Yeah. You."
Early on in the trip, Hastings takes note of Hupp's demeanor: "His lips are kind of tight and his arms are kind of crossed. I mean, he's not sure he's really happy to be here. He's got a very, very deep, almost intractable wound." And yet by the end, Lee said, "Mark was the person who I felt in some ways was willing to share the most, and he has since become a good friend." One who has visited and stayed with Lee's family in Montana in the two-and-half years since that initial trip.
If the film sounds like a downer, it's not. This is not a documentary that feels sorry for its subjects, nor does it force an artificially uplifting narrative on their experience. These men are in dark places. Marine Capt. Blake Smith served as a helicopter pilot. He survived a near-fatal crash that took one of his legs, fractured his spine and took a piece out of the back of his head. "Blake told me a story," Lee said, "when he was in the hospital, the Rangers who rescued him came and they apologized for rescuing him. And he said, 'That's when I knew how f----- up I was. They felt they had done me a disservice by saving my life.'" Smith was the only one to survive the crash and he suggests there are some who blame him for the accident. There is a moment, shot from across the room, of he and Hastings caught in deep conversation about this event in his life. They're not miked, but their body language is unmistakable.
The film calmly regards all this with genuine curiosity. "Col. Hastings wants people to come as close to the initial injury as possible (after they've returned stateside)," Lee said, "because he feels like that's when this experience can be of the most benefit. Within months, as soon as they are well enough to fly to Montana. He wants them when they're still struggling through that initial phase of re-entry."
The film is understated, but co-directors Lee and Grenier understand the power of personal storytelling and have made something that feels very much the antithesis of eat-your-vegetables filmmaking, with gallows humor threaded throughout the on-camera conversations. A trip to Yellowstone National Park prompts a discussion about prosthetic limbs as potential weapons in a grizzly bear attack. "Throw one of the legs at them!" jokes Smith. "Take it. Take the other one, it don't work either."
On that same bus ride, the puppyish Goodge sticks his head between the seats and jokingly humble-brags: "Dude, I failed Algebra II and I (got) paid to do math in firefights. How sick is that?" According to Lee, he now works as a manager at a pool warehouse. "It's a job he really dislikes. Can you imagine going from being a forward observer in Afghanistan to managing a warehouse?
"In high school he was the kid who didn't do well. And in the military he was a star. He was good at his job. You're going to miss that."
Unexpected as it seems, it appears Smith is taking steps to pick up where he left off. "He called me very early in the morning about a month ago," Lee said. "I thought something bad might have happened, but he called to tell me that he had flown a helicopter again. He had been struggling with what he is going to do with his life, and flying was the thing he loved more than anything. So now he’s looking at pursuing a commercial pilot’s licence because it’s evident that he’s physically able to do the job. He went out with an instructor and the guy told him that he was still a great pilot."
"Not Yet Begun to Fight" screens 12:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Siskel Film Center. Director Sabrina Ross Lee andErik Goodge will be present for discussions after both screenings. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Atmosphere Casting is looking for extras and background players for the upcoming film adaptation of Evanston writer Veronica Roth's sci-fi novel "Divergent," which will shoot in Chicago April through July. The projects will star Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") and, if rumors are to be believed, Kate Winslet. Costume fittings for extras will begin this month. The agency is looking for people with military, weapons or martial arts training, as well as stunt or stage combat training. Also: People with a hippie or bohemian look (and long hair), visible tattoos or piercings and also those who possess a so-called "rural farmhand look." The open casting call will be held 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Cinespace Chicago Studios, 2602 W. 16th St. Go to atmospherecastingchicago.com.
Banned in Iran
The daughter of a wealthy Iranian family explores her sexuality in modern-day Tehran in 2011's "Circumstance," a flawed film that works primarily because of its young stars, "two photogenic and expressive marvels," in the words of Tribune critic Michael Phillips. It screens 7 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers (and is co-presented by Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival). Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
Dating from the early '70s, the documentary "Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute" focuses on a former Karayuki-san, a term that roughly translates as "Miss Gone-to-China," the Japanese phrase for women who were taken from their homes and forced into prostitution after World War II, working in Asia and Southeast Asia. The film's subject was sent to Malaysia and is 74 years old at the time of her interview. Plays Friday and Sunday at the Siskel Film Center. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
First season gets longer
After an uneven start, ratings for NBC's locally shot "Chicago Fire" improved dramatically in January, up to 8.5 million viewers, prompting the network to order two more episodes for the season, for a total of 24. That kind of good news translates into more money spent in the state and more paychecks for local crews. Chances look strong that NBC will renew the freshman series from "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf for another season, especially in light of the weak ratings for the debut of "Do No Harm" and the return of "Smash" earlier this week.
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