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Student Film on Iraq War Prompts Community Conversations

  • Bob Kelleher

A student film project at a small Minnesota high school is getting high praise from the town, already touched by the war in Iraq. The film is called When A Country Goes to War. It's a personal look at Cloquet, Minnesota's young people in the Iraq war. The film has generated new conversations across the small town. It's also given a group of at-risk students a chance to succeed.

The 18 young people accepted the assignment last fall: to pull together a documentary film that tells the stories of Cloquet's connections to the Iraq war. A year ago, the war came home to this small community, with the combat death of Marine Lance Corporal Levi Angell, 20. Nearly everyone in town knew either him or his family, or someone else who is now serving in Iraq.

The project stirred up emotions even the filmmakers hadn't expected. "We were surprised when we really starting digging in and saw just how many people are really impacted by this war," says Jason Richardson, an English teacher and Executive Producer for When a Country Goes to War. He calls Cloquet "a microcosm for the whole area" in the sense that everyone had been touched by the conflict.

The film is a collage of still photos, newsreel footage from Iraq, interviews with soldiers, and excerpts of their letters home. And there are other voices. A veteran of the Vietnam War shares his experiences and his thoughts on the current conflict. And a soldier's father talks about how he copes day to day, knowing his son is in harm's way: "You wake up every single day, and you hope for 7:30 to come around," he says, speaking into the camera, "because you'll know that that day you probably won't be contacted. There won't be two soldiers showing up at your door to tell you that your kid has been killed."

The documentary features young men, many in uniform. Recent high school graduates, they are already combat veterans. Some express confidence in the Iraq mission. Others express sincere doubts. In their letters home, the soldiers share pride, fear, and at times, gruesome details of combat -- graphic descriptions that senior Susan Paulson wasn't expecting. "I think when I first read a couple of those letters, I didn't think that they would write about that to their family," she admits. "I thought that they'd be like 'oh yeah, it sucks over here but I'm dealing with it.' I didn't think they'd go into detail. And it just kind of ... It kind of shocked me."

Junior Ryan Lambert wasn't as surprised, "just because, … it's war. We're documenting war. I mean, there's no easy way about it, really."

A recent screening left hundreds of high school students speechless, some in tears. Cloquet High teacher Bill Hudspith says the film generated an hour-long conversation when it was shown to the community. "The biggest thing I heard from people is how powerful it is," he says. "You know they talk about 'a bullet whistling by my neck, and I can feel the wind.' And they talk about shooting, and shooting people, and their perception. And it really opens the door to what war is and how it impacts Cloquet. It's affecting us right now."

Producing a film about the war's impact also affected the teens who made it: a small group of talented high school students who weren't succeeding in school. Many, in fact, were in danger of not graduating. Their production was a special project in an experimental program called Light at the End of the Tunnel.

The program was limited to 18 students, about half the number in a typical classroom. It was a tough course, requiring college level writing and research, but Bill Hudspith says the kids got a lot of attention from teachers. "These are not special-ed kids [students with learning disabilities]," he emphasizes. "They're very gifted kids. But they, just for some reason, couldn't adjust or fit into the traditional classrooms." He says the project demonstrates that with a creative and flexible approach to education, any student can be successful. But it will take more than creativity to keep the program going. It will take money… and with cuts in the education budget, Bill Hudspith and his fellow teachers worry that the Light at the End of the Tunnel may be snuffed out.

If it is, When A Country Goes to War may be the first and last project from an innovative program that got students, parents and their community talking.