A black screen drips with a single verse, Percy Shelley's indelible chorus of fear and heroism left to linger over the lined face of one of the greatest American Peace activists in history: George Mizo.
"If I had my druthers, I would never speak about Vietnam," he says, chewing the words like old taffy. "I would just stay in my cave, read my books, take care of my flowers ..." And here he pauses, jaw and lips barely quivering over a deep, deep sadness. "But I know that's not the reason I survived."
Cut to planes flying low over the dense jungles of Vietnam, their cargo holds filled with a silent killer. It is Agent Orange, a dioxin-heavy herbicide used during the war to expose Viet Kong guerillas. What soldiers like Mizo didn't know at the time was that the spray would seep into both soil and skin, twisting the cells of food crops and unborn children to create a generation of misshapen youth. And though the war ended long ago, the poison will continue to kill and maim for at least a century.
This difficult truth introduces the real message of The Friendship Village, Michelle Mason's award-winning documentary about Vietnam. Rather than saturate her audience with the horrors of Agent Orange and the war itself, she informs gracefully and gravely before detailing the life of a hero and the legacy of his fight.
"When I first set out to make this film five years ago, I was basically told that 'while war stories make "sexy" films, stories of healing and reconciliation do not,'" Mason said. "Nevertheless, it was clear to me at the time--and even more so now--how important the reconciliation process is to finding nonviolent means to resolve conflict ... I think audiences understand that, and so the film is becoming a rallying point for those seeking another path."
The other path is exemplified by Mason's portrayal of Mizo's culminating achievement, a village built by many nations to house and heal the wounds of war. Completed in 1998 after years of negotiation and fundraising, the Friendship Village is now a self-sustained community of over 70 children and 30 adults suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. Demonstrating her skill and subtlety as a director, Mason first shows the smiling face of a seemingly healthy boy and later pans to allow a view of his severely deformed body. The injustice is clear, but Mason focuses more on the fact that despite the incredible odds he faces, the boy is laughing and moving forward.
"You close your eyes and just hear kids playing. Then you open them and see crutches and wheelchairs and torn apart bodies, but they are still just kids being kids," said Jeff Schutts, Mason's husband, co-producer and connection to George Mizo (though he claims to be only a "cheerleader husband"). Schutts befriended Mizo after experiencing a similar disenchantment with fighting for his country and realizing he was doing more harm than good. He has worked for many years speaking out and raising money for causes like the Friendship Village and threw over half a decade of time, money and energy into helping Mason create something important. "Everyone said this was an impossible project, but Michelle wouldn't take no for an answer," he said. "It has been consuming, but it was definitely worth it. The film doesn't look away from reality, it shows you what really happened and suggests that we use our shared humanity to do something better."
After several minutes of viewing, it is obvious why Mason's film has already won three major awards and been recognized by some of the foremost voices for peace. The visuals range from historic press footage and propaganda to personal testimonies to scenes of damaged children both living and dying. It is elegant in form and content and manages to break your heart while cementing the hope that change is possible. Although Mizo passed away in 2002, he would no doubt be pleased with Mason and Schutts' continuing mission to challenge, educate and inspire.
"Every day around the world, the news reminds us of our capacity to for horror and violence," Mason said. "I wanted to make a film that reminds people of our capacity for transformation and peace."
The Friendship Village screens at The Flicks August 31 at 7 and 9 p.m. Michelle Mason and Jeff Schutts will attend both viewings and be available for questions.