How do you stay focused when making a movie about a musical work based on a collection of poems written about the life of a World War II medic?
For local five-time Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Karyl Evans, the answer is easy: Focus on the people. Even in a multilayered work like Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio, a film about art, war, and PTSD that Evans released in 2015.
In the film’s closing section, with a medic’s satchel slung low over one shoulder and a rifle held high above the other, John Meneely looks plaintively out at the audience and sings. He sings of the trauma and confusion of war. He sings of American boys from Kansas and Maine, shot down by friendly fire. A chorus marches in place in the shadows behind him, affirming his lament.
It is a moment in the life of Meneely, a Yale-trained medic who served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. From 1941 through 1945, Meneely was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and then in Italy, where he witnessed and participated in violent combat that would stick with him well past the end of the war. But it has an aria sung by Greater Middletown Chorale tenor Jack Anthony Pott, playing the lead role in a large-scale musical work written and composed by Meneely’s daughters a half-century after their father’s death. Only through the recent discovery of his wartime correspondence did poet Nan Meneely and composer Sarah Meneely realize the extent of their father’s PTSD, an illness they then wished to explore and come to terms with through their own craft.
“I have a very definite point of view about the importance of the dignity of every person, whether they lived 100 years ago or whether they’re living now,” Evans said on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Deep Focus.” “My mother and father also had PhDs. My mother’s a professor, and I was a professor. So I’m very interested in educating people, but in an artistic way. In a quiet way, that shows dignity to every person.”
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This fascination with individual dignity is the animating force behind much of Evans’ filmography, from The Amistad Revolt to The Road to Freedom to Letter from Italy. Watching a musician perform at the end of a movie becomes a richer experience when the filmmaker has dedicated the previous 45 minutes to presenting in fullness the musician himself, the composers of the music, the poet who inspired the music, all the way back to the father and soldier who inspired the poet.
Evans has been making documentaries for the past 25 years, often in collaboration with the Connecticut Humanities Council and Connecticut Public Television, that explore the state’s history with a careful attention to detail and to unique and yet representative personal stories.
“As a historical documentary filmmaker, my number one aim is to educate and to make sure that my films are accurate,” Evans said. “That’s my contract with my audience.” Often, she works with academic and public historians, such as Frank Mitchell and Jeremy Brecher, to help fortify her screenplay even before she begins seeking out interviews.
But Evans also takes the unique stories of the people who have lived in this state and teases out larger themes that transcend time and place.
Letter from Italy starts out as a documentary about the creation of a work of art about a man who fought in World War II. It broadens into a story about two women grappling with the lasting repercussions of their father’s PTSD. Finally, the movie takes one more step back, encompassing not just the Meneely family’s experience with an illness, but a whole community’s recognition that PTSD is something that every generation that has gone to war has had to grapple with.
“When I showed the film to a group of PTSD sufferers at a VA hospital in Connecticut,” Evans reflected, “the film so connected to them and what their experience had been, in a very gentle, dignified way. It doesn’t hit you in the face, it kind of comes in the back door. And at the end of it, people with PTSD feel understood. So when I showed it to veterans, they would say things to me like: If I could only show this to my daughters, or if I could only show this to my mother, they would finally understand what PTSD is and who I am as a person.”