Reviews

Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker

USA, 2009

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 08 June 2010

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston

At the Q&A session following the IFFB screening for How to Fold a Flag, the film’s co-director Michael Tucker indicated that there was currently a “huge swing to stay away from this kind of stuff” in the industry at the moment. He was referring to films that take on the American “War on Terror” and all of its ramifications. Yet regardless of whether How to Fold a Flag finds an audience, it certainly deserves one. Following the lives of Iraq war veterans who were previously the subjects of Tucker and co-director Petra Epperlein’s 2004 documentary Gunner Palace, How to Fold a Flag puts a human face on a war that has been allowed to fade from the American public consciousness even as it drags on overseas.

The four veterans who are interviewed in-depth live notably different lives: Javorn Drummond is a college student who works nights in a hog processing plant, Michael Goss is cage fighter, Jon Powers is running for Senate, and Stuart Wilf unhappily holds down day jobs and plays with his band at night. The time that these men spent together in Iraq – and their subsequent struggles to readjust to civilian life – are the common thread.

Cynical viewers may think they know what to expect from a film like How to Fold a Flag (the film’s title refers to the intricately folded American flags used at military funerals—each of the twelve folds representing a virtue), but the individual veterans represent such a broad swath of personalities and experiences that many viewers will find their preconceived notions challenged. Wilf – who found a curious kind of notoriety after his photo appeared in an issue of Time magazine – is irritated with a group of veterans reenacting battle scenes at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, arguing that they’re perpetuating a stereotype of veterans reliving the war over and over again. Meanwhile, Powers dons his uniform to walk a local parade route and raise awareness about his campaign. Goss wears a T-shirt listing the names of fallen colleagues when he fights. Drummond’s veteran status earns him credibility after a scuffle with the police. The veterans’ wartime experiences mean different things in different contexts, and some of their echoes are unpredictable.

Not surprisingly, many of those echoes are also painful. Goss’ pain is perhaps closest to the surface. Dishonorably discharged after suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress (In a cruel bit of irony, dishonorably discharged veterans are not admitted to the VA hospital, rendering Goss unable to access needed mental healthcare.), Goss is father of four with a gentle demeanor who speaks frankly about his horrific recollections of the war, and of the ghosts who enter the ring with him every time he fights. Among the names of those killed in action on his fight gear, he lists himself. “The real Michael Goss died out there,” he explains.

Set against the backdrop of the 2008 election, and concluding with Barack Obama’s inauguration, How to Fold a Flag captures a specific moment in time, in the voices of the people who we don’t hear from on the six o’ clock news. All four men’s futures are uncertain (the country’s future is also in flux), but witnessing small slices of their lives proves vital. How to Fold a Flag is a reminder of the real human costs of war. Many of us aren’t reminded often enough. Perhaps we can never be reminded often enough.

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