Listen to Reel Progress’ interview with Phil Donahue:
Back in April of 2008, Reel Progress hosted the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles premieres of “Body of War.” The documentary chronicles the life of paralyzed veteran Tomas Young as he comes to terms with his disability and finds his own passionate voice against the war in Iraq. “Body of War” will make its TV debut on the Sundance Channel on November 11 (Veterans Day) at 7 pm. We talked to the documentary’s co-director and executive producer, Phil Donahue, about his journey with the film and the need to support our veterans.
Reel Progress hosted the premieres of “Body of War” in D.C. and Los Angeles, so we were there with you at the beginning. Can you tell us a little about the response as you took “Body of War” around the country?
I’m happy to share with you this once-in-a-lifetime experience, having never made a movie before. We knew we had a difficult sell. This is not a “take-your-girl-to-the-movie” movie. We’ve been hugely received by festivals. It’s been such an ego boost for all of us. The festivals just grabbed our films with both hands and we’ve won many awards.
It is also true that our film does not sell popcorn. We were on the marquee in Washington, D.C. for about six minutes. I thought we would do well in Washington, because our film features so many personalities from the Hill, and all these senators and congressmen have how many people working for them? I felt, silly goose, if there were a movie out there that would be of interest to all the junior staff on the Hill, it would be “Body of War.” And nobody went to this film.
So I had to be a big boy, suck it in, lean into the wind, and keep moving forward with what we know is an important film. It’s not a preachy film. It’s only 87 minutes long and that’s on purpose. We knew we couldn’t rant. We knew we couldn’t lecture. We knew we had to get our movie-goers to dinner by 9 o’clock.
We will air this coming Tuesday—Veterans Day—on the Sundance Channel at 7 pm. We keep pushing this film up the hill, because we think we have an evergreen here. We think we have a film that will become even more important as the years go by.
When we screened this film in D.C., the audience really connected with Tomas, the young soldier featured in the film, who is paralyzed from the chest down. How has Tomas been doing the last few months?
There’s been a pretty significant health event for Tomas since the movie has been completed. About four months ago, Tomas was discovered in a coma. He was rushed to the hospital and it was discovered that Tomas sustained a pulmonary embolism. Tomas awakened with a speech deficit. He can communicate and he’s totally cognitive. He smiles and at the moment is in great emotional condition. The pulmonary embolism also left him with reduced mobility with his arms and hands. Tomas is at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He’s taking very intense speech therapy and his arm movement is improving, but he still can’t hold silverware. He’s playing cards with physical therapists and relearning to manipulate his fingers. I suspect that his speech and his arm and hand capacity will be restored. I see him focused, concentrating, and I think once again Tomas is going to pick himself up off the mat.
Since we screened the film back in April, Congress, led by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), passed a new GI Bill. What are your thoughts on this bill and do you have a sense if it will make a difference in the veteran community?
Senator Webb has such a military credential. And the nation is embarrassed by what we’ve done to these troops. You know, we where out here yelling, “The troops, the troops, the brave troops, the wonderful troops.” We deify the troops. And the troops come home and the VA (Veterans Administration) doesn’t call them back. Now we have to get rid of this pretense and I’m sure people like Senator Webb and others who have been there, done that, know the feelings of isolation, abandonment, and all the indignities that we heap on these young men and women when they come home. So hooray for the new GI Bill, and I think with the new administration that we’ll actually provide decent care for these veterans. How could we not?
Is there anything else you’d like to see from the upcoming Obama administration?
Well first of all, on the war in Iraq: We went to the moon; we certainly should be able to get out of Iraq. Let’s take a look at ourselves here. We couldn’t wait to get to Iraq, and now everyone suddenly decides to become cautious. There was no such caution when we sent 150,000 young men and women to this battle zone. And once again it took us six minutes to get into war, and it may take 60 years to get out. This is awful. And I expect President Obama to start the wheels here, and to engage in a responsible withdraw where the United States commits itself to rebuilding a country that we’ve destroyed, to providing the kind of attention that we provided during World War II. This is the nation that provided the Marshal Plan. We can be very, very generous to people in foreign countries and we can behave like members of the whole community of nations. But we haven’t recently, and we’ve got to get back to that. And I’m very confident. First of all, this new administration will reach out rather than lash out and that’s going to make us safer.
You can watch “Body of War” at 7 pm on the Sundance Channel on November 11 and purchase the film online at www.bodyofwar.com.