Poetry in Motion

Paul McNeill’s attempt to unravel the truth about war trauma is a long story made short in his new five-minute flick, War Poet.

photo Jeff Wheaton

November 11, 2004. A couple thousand people come together for a Remembrance Day ceremony at Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth. Paul McNeill and Catherine Cooper are among the families and neighbours who have devoted the day to appreciating the men and women who sacrificed everything for their country’s future; or, more precisely, us.

After all the poems are read, the songs sung and the speeches given, the commemorators make their way home to relax and enjoy the rest of their day off from work.

Except McNeill and Cooper. They go home and write a movie.

Dartmouth filmmaker Paul McNeill has found inspiration in unlikely places before. After winning the 2004 CBC/NSFDC Bridge Award in February, he and his company, Portara Pictures, dove into a wacky but moralistic 22-minute adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, Little Claus and Big Claus. After the success of the classic fable, McNeill was feeling a bit restless by the time Remembrance Day rolled around. He and screenplay-writer Catherine Cooper eased into writing for War Poet and managed to finish the script in one night.

Hastily submitting the movie script to the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative Film 5 Grant Project on the November 12, 5pm deadline, McNeill, Cooper and filmmaker John Feron knew two things; that they had slipped in just before the post-Remembrance Day due date, and that their movie was damn good.

“We sent it in and called the next day,” says McNeill. He says he was aware that if he wanted the short to ever get off paper and onto film, he’d have to apply for the AFCOOP program, which provides $20,000 in cash and services for winners. The money, though seemingly small compared to most film budgets, was appropriate for the five-minute War Poet.

“After going through a bunch of World War One short stories,” says McNeill, “and some ideas I had worked on before, we just completely reworked them and wrote the script in one day.”

The five-minute short is a fictional story about a shell-shocked sniper and the poetry he left behind in a crater. Set roughly in 1916 Belgium, Will (Blaine Anderson) is a farm boy from Nova Scotia who spends his days and nights shivering with fear alongside his only friend, Charlie (Edwin Kabatay Jr.), a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia.

“There is a whole history there and this is just a five minute show of a really interesting part of World War One because most people just know about the big charge—guys jumping out over no-man’s land with their bayonets and charging their enemy, but that only happened once every few months,” McNeill says. “Whereas every single day there were snipers out there.”

War Poet’s ending unfolds the disturbing mystery of Will’s scrawling scribbles. But what the auteur in McNeill subliminally sheds light on with this film is the truth behind the common misconception. Traditional war movie themes typically include glamour, action, drama and love—but what is just as compelling for movie-goers is the deliverance of pain, an emotion that translates well to War Poet audiences.

According to the film’s synopsis, the acclaimed war poetry of writers like Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon is powerful and articulate, and since they had the liberty of writing it in the comfort of their homes, imaginative too. The frontline war poet’s writing in McNeill’s film, however, is a stark and startlingly real reflection of the chaos and disillusionment that occurs in one’s psyche during the harrow and trauma of war. There is no charming imagery or heroic fantasy in real war experience, just raw, wrenching emotion. War Poet illuminates our naïve outlook that war is anything more than the realization of hell on earth.

After finding the perfect “poet,” casting director Catherine Cooper found the part of Charlie a little more challenging to fill. “We needed somebody who was young, someone who was between 16 and 18,” she says, “so it was going to be somebody who was in high school.”

Cooper knew that it would be tough to find the perfect Mi’kmaq soldier because of the demands that were on the actor portraying such a character. He had to be able to do the accent of a Native Canadian, and since most Mi’kmaq in Halifax who still speak their traditional language are middle-aged or older, there were very few audition attendees who fit the description. Furthermore, the role was of added importance because McNeill had also envisioned Charlie as a sort of homage to all the Natives who sacrificed their lives for Canada—a fact that is often overlooked in history books.

Cooper had almost given up on finding the perfect Charlie until the last day of auditions.

“Edwin (Kabatay Jr.) was one of the last people to get back to me and he lives in Membertou which is a four-hour drive from here,” Cooper says. “So his father, Edwin Senior, drove him four hours to get here for a 15-minute audition. He was the last person to come in.”

Not only did Kabatay fit the description of Charlie and demonstrate coachability as an actor, but he also shared some uncanny personal associations with the film. “His audition really impressed us, and there were a lot of little things that were kind of cool,” Cooper says. “He lives on Veterans Lane in Membertou, and his great grandfather and great uncle were in World War One. Plus, his name was Charlie, which is the name of Edwin’s character in the movie.”

McNeill’s first public screening of War Poet is at this year’s Atlantic Film Festival, but the five-minute flick has already touched the hearts of the behind-the-scenes volunteers and filmmakers, as well as the actors in front of the camera. Perhaps when audiences to see the film it will change the way we read the troubled verse of a writer in war.

War Poet screens as part of the PS atlantic shorts gala, 7pm, september 20 at the oxford.

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