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From Farmhands to Heroes
Sat, 11/01/2003 - 02:00
Filmmaker Deborah Scranton van Paassen enables the small town veterans of Goshen, NH to communicate their untold World War II stories in the documentary "Stories from Silence: Witness to War," screening at the Somewhat North of Boston Film Festival this month.By Dan McCallum
In 1940, the farming community of Goshen, New Hampshire had 342 inhabitants. By year’s end, 47 of those 342 would be shipped off to various parts of the world, beginning their journey as soldiers of World War II.
Barely wet behind the ears, 46 young men and one woman left behind families, friends, and small town values to become machine gunners, tank operators, weapons specialists, intelligence officers, and navigators without hesitation. Some volunteered; some were drafted. All were happy to serve their country and all were forever changed by the horrors of war. These 46 men and women of Goshen, NH break their silence (some for the first time) in the new documentary "Stories from Silence: Witness to War" screening at the Somewhat North of Boston Film Festival this November in Concord, NH.
Deborah Scranton van Paassen returned to her family’s 150-acre farm in the sleepy town of Goshen, NH in 2000 after working as a writer, reporter, and producer for networks such as ABC, ESPN, Fox, MTV, Outdoor Living Network, and USA Networks. "I used to be on the road six months of the year when I got married five years ago and I couldn’t be on the road anymore and have a kid. So I stopped working" Scranton van Paassen explains.
A fourth generation Goshen citizen, Scranton van Paassen was not planning on making a film about World War II veterans. She explains how this happened. "I’m on the Historical Society here and the Library board. This wonderful woman, Lilyan Wright, [the Goshen Chair of Library Trustees] attended a statewide conference of the NH Library Trustees Association and they requested local libraries archive interviews with WW II veterans from their own towns... I’ve got my two Sony broadcast digital cameras here and I was like, ‘Well, you know, I can do that.’ So I volunteered to archive the oral histories."
"I just fell in love with these [veterans]," she gushes. What began as random oral accounts quickly turned into something much bigger than simply recording these veterans’ stories. Collaborating with Peter Ciardelli, a Film & Video Production Advisor at Dartmouth College whose editing credits include the films "Collateral Damage," "Cast Away," "What Lies Beneath," and "Me, Myself and Irene," Scranton van Paassen began production.
The first interview was with her neighbor, the only woman from Goshen to serve, Rita Trudeau Purmont (WAVES, US Navy). Second was Frank Hodgman (10th Coast Artillery Sergeant, US Army) whose daughter Scranton van Paassen used to ride horses with. The third interview is what changed the direction of this project.
Calvin Leavitt, a very soft-spoken US Army technician, told his tale with such passion that Scranton van Paassen’s storytelling instincts kicked in. "He was my third interview and he really did me in. He was the first one who saw action. He was the first one that had been on the front lines for the whole war. He looked at me and he said ‘If you do a book, I’ll buy it’ and I just got a lump in my throat because I can’t do a book, but I can make a film. So it just was a complete impulse that I said ‘Okay we’re going to do a film and we’ll show it at Old Home Day."
Old Home Day is a century old New Hampshire tradition, which was originally a weeklong celebration meant to bring town residents back in hopes of reinvesting in their communities. Today, these celebrations carry similar traditions and this year in Goshen, "Stories from Silence" made its debut. "It’s a very traditional New Hampshire holiday and it’s very important to me to maintain that integrity. So it was very important to me to have the world premiere of the film during our Old Home Day. We had 3 screenings and 600 people saw it. I had to add shows!"
Before "Stories from Silence" was to sell out Old Home Day, Scranton van Paassen put in 18-hour days full of research, tracking down the veterans, and getting them to trust her. Given her background in television, Scranton van Paassen’s reporting skills became her biggest asset.
"It’s my interest. I went to Brown and I studied semiotics so I was always interested in alternative narratives. So my big interest in filmmaking and in this project is giving a voice to those that are basically on the outside of our main society. Whether its small groups, whether you’re a woman or you’re gay or whatever. I like to have and present that alternative reality because a story might be an hour long but it’s infinitely wide. It’s as wide as every person living that same hour... I feel very strongly that the only way people feel included is to see themselves represented."
Her knack for making people feel comfortable and included in conversation began at an early age, "My Mom’s always said since I was five that I was lucky I got into journalism and storytelling because I found a way to say ‘Hi, my name is Deborah. Who are you?’ because that’s what I’ve always done." Childhood talents aside, Scranton van Paassen felt a real responsibility to these veterans. Given the size of her town and her families’ history in Goshen, many of these veterans knew Scranton van Paassen’s grandparents and she wanted to give them the respect and time they deserve.
"A lot of times, it’s going that extra mile. I feel a great responsibility when someone shares their story with me. I feel a great responsibility to try and provide a framework for people to see it. Like in the film, you get a feeling for who these men and woman are."
Told solely through the voices of the veterans and their experiences, "Stories from Silence" excels in its absence of voice-over narration. "I hate narration. I hate narration. You know where I came to the complete realization? I worked for MTV on show called ‘Like We Care’ which I think was only on for a few years... It was aimed at High School students. And through all the focus groups they [found that] as soon as there was a narrator, they [were turned off] because they thought it was either their parent or their teacher. Whereas, if the story was told in a contemporary’s voice like another kid, they listened... That’s why there is more of a story instead of a history [in "Stories from Silence"], because it’s their story. What can I say that is going to be anymore powerful?"
Drawing you further into the veterans’ stories is the natural setting of each interview. Filmed in the veterans’ own homes, wearing their own clothes, this hometown look coupled with the heartfelt proclamations separates this film from your traditional historic documentary. "One thing I don’t like about [typical veteran interviews] is that they are all dressed up with a black backdrop. You get much more of a sense of Frank Hodgman sitting in his torn shirt, sitting in his kitchen" claims Scranton van Paassen.
Getting to know these 46 men and one woman is what "Stories from Silence" is about. "It’s inevitable when you interview people that some people will just come to the forefront. It was important to me because usually the quiet guys are the ones with the most intense stories" explains Scranton van Paassen.
One quiet guy with an intense story is William "Billy" Harold Sr. Billy Harold (Private First Class, US Army) was the only soldier in his division to survive the battle of Monte Cassino, Italy. He also became the only soldier to survive his next mission with a new unit in Anzio, Italy. This past July, with Scranton van Paassen’s help, Billy Harold was awarded with six Medals of Honor including the Bronze Star by U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass.
Listening to Harold’s account of his time in service, it was nothing more than a job. Harold was drafted into the Army after skipping work one night to attend a dance against his boss’ wishes. Warned that if he went to the dance he would be fired, Harold attended the dance and come Monday morning, Billy Harold was off to the draft board. An incredible story that reflects an era of incredible dedication to our country, told 47 times over through these interviews.
According to Scranton van Paassen, "This film was really structured as a feature film. There was a story, there were lead characters and you really follow them through. One thing that I find with [conventional historical programming], it’s more like a visual textbook, there’s a lot of information there but not a lot of story... These characters are great. Real people, real stories."
Before the war, many of these Goshen, NH families’ stories were about barely getting by on the farm. "What I found so amazing about this story is that these are scrappy Yankee boys. They may not have received all those fancy stripes, but they survived," Scranton van Paassen says. "It’s hard times on these farms; they had tough lives before they went [to war]. A lot of them had moved in the depression, they took farms because they figured they could grow something to eat... The high school was six miles away and there were only four cars in town. They needed to work on the farms to make food, so most of them did not have the opportunity to go to high school." Hard times, a strict work ethic, and the drive to survive helped shape these veterans both during and after the war.
Whether joining the Army, Marines, National Guard, or Navy, these 47 veterans all served because they needed to. From Anzio, Italy to Normandy, France they fought to survive. From Utah Beach to the French fortress at Metz these Goshen residents never lost sight of their values or of their hometown.
"The one thing these vets taught me was grace and dignity. They never complained. These guys don’t blame anybody, nobody. And I think that is a huge lesson" says Scranton van Paassen. The remarkable will and spirit of these veterans is what gives "Stories from Silence" its heart and soul. "I think either you’re contributing or you’re taking," explains Scranton van Paassen. These veterans were all trying to do the right thing by contributing and making the world a safer place.
A war memorial inscribed with each of the 47 Goshen veterans’ names stands to remind younger generations of these stories. Of the 47 Goshen residents to serve in World War II, there was only one casualty. Marine Sgt. John Johnson Pikielnez was killed in Iwo Jima on February 27, 1945. "Stories from Silence: Witness to War" features interviews with the 20 living veterans of World War II. A final roll call of the Goshen veterans ends the film accompanied by moving traditional Contra dance music and interviews with family members of those that have since passed on.
"I felt it was very important that everyone on the memorial be represented in one-way or another," Scranton van Paassen says. "My goal was for people to know the faces behind the names."
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