We Went To War: A Healing Portrait of Veteran Loneliness

By Jim Treadway

In 1970, English documentarian Michael Grigsby released I Was a Soldier, which explored life after war for three young men returning from Vietnam to their homes in the heartland of Texas.

Grigsby went back to Texas last year, rekindling his friendships with these men and their families, and telling their updated story in We Went To War.

After a screening at the Frontline Club on September 17, Grigsby and co-director Rebekah Tolley answered questions from the audience. They elaborated a philosophy of film that seemed, at its very core, to be about feeling, healing, and connecting – processes that veterans, weighed down by trauma and loneliness, can find as rare as they are vital.

Tolley and Grigsby were asked how they had captured such authenticity in their subjects.

"It’s a word called trust," Grigsby answered.  "Very simple."  

When making We Went to War, he and Tolley spent the first few days with their subjects discussing directions the film might take, but the next three weeks without a camera, simply spending time together.  In the end, Grigsby reflected:

"We gave the [subjects] the space to be themselves … That’s a crucial thing in the way I like to make pictures: let people be what they are, and don’t let’s try to have an agenda in which we try to force the pace."

 Yet once filming began, they shot We Went to War in only 11 days.  

"I like to shoot fast, actually," Grigsby said.  "The main reason is … if you’re invading some people’s life, you want to give them the minimum hassle."

Meditative in style, We Went to War’s scenes often contain little more than shots of Texas’ beautiful rustic landscape, set to a mournful guitar.  Grigsby explained:

"When you hear some very powerful dialogue, I want time to absorb it, actually. I don’t want to be pushed on to the next scene, and the next scene.  And one of the ways we’ve done that, I think, is just cutting to a landscape … and you can just resonate, and think, about things … just to give us, the audience, time to think, to feel, to listen.  And I feel very deeply this is something sadly missing now … that time, the space, to think, to feel."  

Another reason to highlight space, Grigsby said:

"Was to emphasize all that loneliness.  I feel, in the world, we’re like figures in a landscape.  We rarely communicate and rarely touch one another."

"In a sense, I don’t think we [as documentary makers] have a mission to explain.  We have a mission to feel."

Both I Was a Soldier and We Went to War have drawn rave reviews, particularly from veterans. Grigsby shared:

"We heard of one veteran who saw the film … and we’re told that he went home and apologized to his lady of 40 years, that he hadn’t been able to understand what she was going through.  And for the first time in 40 years, it seems that they are now having a dialogue.  And that’s incredible.  It’s just incredible to ask that one film can actually just open the eyes and the heart a little bit and enable this thing to happen.  That’s, that’s beautiful."

We Went to War has not been officially released yet, but the trailer and future screening dates can be found on this website