One year ago my soul path brought me to know that I had to make the documentary “Stranger At Home.” Something re-awakened within me. It was a callback, actually, to a feeling I had in a movie theatre, at age 19, after sitting through a Pittsburgh premiere screening of “The Deer Hunter.”
The extensive, back-home, post-Vietnam sequences of this chilling film had been shot on location in Clairton, Pennsylvania – a small steel town just across the river from P-burgh, where I was attending a theatre school as an acting major. The campus and the whole community, really, was a-buzz with news of this film’s impending release.
Some of my luckier classmates had an opportunity to work on the film during the summer break, prior to this wintery debut. I could only lay claim to the story that an overstuffed, thrift store chair, that was in our off-campus house had been one that Robert DeNiro’s famous rear end sat in when he visited the house that previous summer.
As the rumor went — he’d come back with a female classmate to have some fun. Even then I was too naïve to understand what “fun” really meant. What can I say? — I’m a late bloomer. The real point is, I wasn’t there to see this acting royalty in my house, yet I romanticized that beaten-up chair, and in my eyes it became quite the revered throne – a home tour focal point for any visitor.
Besides Mr. DeNiro starring in “The Deer Hunter”, the movie starred and launched the film careers, in many ways, for Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and the late John Cazale. My “dramat” mates and I were in awe of these fairly new actors. Their work in this critically acclaimed film about what coming back from war looked like made us believe that these exceptional acting opportunities were possible for us, too, once we graduated and took on the world.
Truthfully, for me, “The Deer Hunter” before I saw it was a daydreaming notion about fabulous future roles, not the mindful truth of the tearing apart of the real lives these roles were based upon.
In all fairness, I really knew nothing about the Vietnam War. I was young enough to not have the deeper understanding of the serious injustice of this war – both our being involved and worse, how we treated and regarded those who served upon their return. I am grateful because as unschooled as I was in the savvy ways of relationships as a kid, my empathy muscle was advanced. I got called ultra-sensitive – a lot.
Yes, somehow, the God of my understanding spared me the deeper impact from the Vietnam War experience – both in my limited social circle and in my immediate home — and waited until I was 19, sitting in that movie house, on that snowy day in Pittsburgh, and said, “I want you to see something and it’s going to change your life.”
“But God,” I said, “what about boys, what about dating, can you change that for me?”
There was no answer. The film started instead. As I watched, all romantic ideas went out the window and I basically had one of those ah hah life moments. My deep knowing — whether I liked it or not – was that I was never gonna be one of those girls who partied and played effortlessly, who looked good no matter what she wore, or sounded cool no matter what she said. Instead, love myself or fight myself, I was gonna be someone who would always be questing for the thing to stand up for, and as far as attraction assets went, if you dug an activist with a big heart, then I could potentially be your gal.
No one in the packed audience stood when the film ended and the credits finished rolling. No clapping either. There was just shocked silence. After a long sit in that stillness I could hear others begin to cry. The emotion overcame me and I broke down into an all-out sob. Nothing pulled together about it. Yeah, try as I might, I would never aspire to coolness.
I felt it all –- the injustice, the helplessness, the anguish for those who lived through the combat experience, but will never be the same when they return home – nor will the people who loved them before they left. And we did what? What?? – call them “baby killers” instead of thanking them, instead of bending over backwards to help heal these people who defended their country? How is this possible? Empathy on overload.
After watching this powerful movie I was no longer a war virgin. In two hours I understood the fallout. I got it — the consequences of becoming slaves to aggression, fear, and separatism and this was the most painful part — I hadn’t a clue as to how to help.
I’ve never had a film watching experience like that again. Oh, I’ve been moved by wonderful, beautiful films throughout the years, films that fire on all cylinders – be they comedies, dramas, documentaries – stories and characters that have drawn me in and taught me something, but nothing that changed my outlook on life so fundamentally as “The Deer Hunter.”
It’s no wonder that my acting path would lead me to my storytelling path, which would lead me to my filmmaking path.
It’s no wonder that the identity of activist would morph into choosing to become a servant of peace – to the best of my ability – in all I do, say and create.
It’s no wonder that “Stranger At Home”, a voice for peace, for wellness, for healing, for the caring of each other – not only our veterans, but every one of us — fuels my spirit and reminds me daily, through all the doubt and uncertainty of making this film that:
Daring greatly is synonymous with loving deeply.
And to my 19 year-old self I would say, “it took a bit, my friend, but we figured out a way to help.”
Peace and love,
“Stranger At Home” – a 501c3 non-profit documentary film – explores de-stigmatizing PTSD and the deeper psychological injuries of combat, and in doing so, fosters the crucial importance for comprehensive mental healthcare in the military, this country and worldwide. It is through generous contributions of all amounts that this movie is getting made. Every contribution is fully tax deductible. You can help by clicking here: