Co-Directors of Zinn Bio-Pic Ready to Release New Film in the Works for 8 Years About Iraq and Afghan War Veterans

 

DENIS MUELLER AND DEB ELLIS

CO-PRODUCERS/DIRECTORS – PEACE HAS NO BORDERS

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FC:  Where did you grow up?

Deb Ellis:  I grew up in a small town in Vermont where everyone knew everyone. But, between that and the larger small city I moved to before high school, I have always felt a connection to community.

Deb Ellis
Denis Mueller:  I grew up in Chicago. It was a very working class neighborhood.

 

FC:  Were your parents supportive of your creativity?  Were they artists?

Deb Ellis:  My mother is an artist and teacher. Creativity and the arts were an important part of my household growing up.

Denis Mueller: Not at all. They were not art oriented and nobody I knew was.

 

Denis Mueller

 

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FC:  How did you both discover filmmaking?

Deb Ellis:  Life magazine was always in our house growing up in the 60s, and I had an intuitive sense about the power of images. Several years after graduating from college I took a summer film course. One night around 2am I found myself sitting in front of a 16mm viewer and gang-sync and something clicked about what happens when you put sound and images together. I knew that I had to figure out how to make films for the rest of my life.

Denis Mueller: I liked movies and thought they were magic. I also loved history and somehow documentary film became the melding together of these two passions.

FC:  What was you first film about and how did you get involved with the subject matter?

Deb Ellis:  I’ve been making films for a long time. I made several smaller films before I made THE FBI’S WAR ON BLACK AMERICA, my first film with co-director Denis Mueller. We started the film in the late 80s when we were both working as free-lance editors for MPI Home Video. There, we were editing historical films from material in their archives. One day we started thinking about how to propose a film that we wanted to make, out of material in their archives – and get paid. We decided to start working on a film about the history of the civil rights era. We lived in Chicago at the time, and started interviewing people. The term COINTELPRO kept coming up, and we didn’t know what the reference was. When we started to look into it, we realized that COINTELPRO was an FBI mounted program designed to “prevent the rise of a Black messiah” in the 60s and 70s, and that it had a profound effect on the lives of many people, including assassinations.

Deb Ellis
 
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‘My son grew up in the height of the Iraq War. Some of his friends joined the military. He had an anti-war poster on his bedroom door, but he still questioned what I was doing making a film that appeared to him to be critical of his peers. Today, seeing his friends coping with life after serving, he has a better sense of why I was compelled to make this film. His friends are struggling and the promises they were given by recruiters in high school didn’t manifest. Economics were a clear delineator between who went and who didn’t. Same as the Vietnam War. Draft dodgers of that era tended to have a social and economic background that gave them the ability to make a choice to cross borders.’  Deb Ellis

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Denis Mueller: It was about the VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) and one of those welcome home parades for Vietnam veterans. I was from the same generation and had remembered the VVAW. I decided to hook up with them. Out of that came my first film.

FC:  What were the main lessons after finishing your first film?

Deb Ellis: The biggest lesson from making that film was the importance of following intuition and seeking out truths that start to emerge from the material you’re working with.

Denis Mueller:  It was very positive in that I saw I could do this kind of thing..wow… I can do this.

Denis Mueller
 
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‘Our topic is a tough film. After all it is edgy and full of moral questions. Audiences have always liked us more than funders. We needed to turn to our audience.’  Denis Mueller

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FC:  What is PEACE HAS NO BORDERS about?

Deb Ellis:  We started PEACE HAS NO BORDERS with very different intentions than the film that we’re finishing today. It started out as more of an intimate portrait of a couple and their child who had come to Canada. For a variety of reasons that tend to happen during production, we started to branch out and see that the film is about more than an individual, and instead is about a broader question about what choices a soldier has when he or she grows to oppose war. And, in a bigger sense, it’s about the community that supports these particular resisters when they arrive in Canada, and their political and legal struggle to stay. We anticipated a heroic story about people standing up to the war machine. Instead, we have a bittersweet story that parallels a growing conservatism in Canada.

Denis Mueller:  PHNB is about moral questions that are very difficult to answer. When does one become a conscience objector? How do you balance loyalty with your conscience? How does a group of people challenge power? Who gets punished? Is it the people who resist war or people who lied about war?

FC:  Why are you crowdfunding?

Deb Ellis:  We need hard cash for some of the key post-production costs. We’ve each contributed significantly, both time and financial resources, and we feel a compulsion to finish the film. With support, we can take the next big step, get to fine cut, and get the score written and recorded. At that point, we anticipate being able to approach broadcasters and distributors.

Denis Mueller: Our topic is a tough film. After all it is edgy and full of moral questions. Audiences have always liked us more than funders. We needed to turn to our audience.

FC:  How did you discover this topic?

Denis Mueller: I saw an ad on the Internet called Peace Has No Borders and saw about this meeting of Iraq era resisters with the Vets For Peace and resisters from the Vietnam era. It caught my attention and passed it along to Deb. We had finished Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and I thought the event looked really interesting.

Deb Ellis::  After we finished our previous film, HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN, we were exhausted. I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot the event, but then I read an article in the Buffalo ArtVoice about one of the resisters, Patrick Hart. And, I saw a compelling human-interest story. We, met Patrick and some of his family, and started off. At that point we didn’t know where this project would lead, nor the people we would meet over the upcoming years.

 

FC:  Do you remember the day you said ‘yes’ to this project?  Were there hesitations?

Denis Mueller: It wasn’t one day. We were shooting IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War) events as well and going to Canada. We thought about trying to tell the story of both, but the resister story in Canada became more interesting to us. It was more our type of film. We like things on the edge. This was 2006-07.

FC:  Eight years is a long time to work on a movie. How often have you wanted to quit this project?  What keeps you going?

Deb Ellis:  I don’t know that eight years is long. It’s amazing how long documentaries take. And, there’s a really interesting thing that happens when you take the time. Stories unfold in a way that can’t happen in a short period of time.

Denis Mueller: I was ready to quite several times but there was always something to keep us going. I always wanted to make a film like this. The hard thing is to understand when is it finally over and wanting to go the limit to do whatever that it takes to get to that end.

FC:  Why are veteran’s rights of interest to you?

Deb Ellis:  It’s not so much a matter of veteran’s rights as it about how to say “no” to war. Our subjects all saw war from inside, and developed a sense that what they were being asked to participate in was not right.

Denis Mueller:  I grew up in the Vietnam era and was inspired by the VVAW throwing their medals away at the famous Dewey Canyon demonstration. I also like people who change their minds about war.

FC:  Have either of you served in the military or have family who has?

Deb Ellis:  My father is a WWII veteran.  I never had any desire to serve in the military, but I respect people who’ve made that choice. Today, even though there isn’t an official draft, many people who end up serving do so because they don’t see an other viable economic choice.

Denis Mueller: My father did and my mother’s brother was an RAF pilot in Britain who was killed in the war.

FC:  How is this new generation of war resisters different from prior generations? Do you feel the economic crisis factors into many decisions?

Deb Ellis:  My son grew up in the height of the Iraq War. Some of his friends joined the military. He had an anti-war poster on his bedroom door, but he still questioned what I was doing making a film that appeared to him to be critical of his peers. Today, seeing his friends coping with life after serving, he has a better sense of why I was compelled to make this film. His friends are struggling and the promises they were given by recruiters in high school didn’t manifest. Economics were a clear delineator between who went and who didn’t. Same as the Vietnam War. Draft dodgers of that era tended to have a social and economic background that gave them the ability to make a choice to cross borders.

Denis Mueller: The resisters are more working class because it is a back-door draft. There are no senators sons in these wars.

FC:  Who is opposed to the subject matter in your film and what is your response to them?

Deb Ellis:  We haven’t experienced opposition to our film in the big picture. It’s hard to deny real stories. The big issue people tend to have revolves around the fact that there’s not a draft today, and they question why our subjects are didn’t accept their obligation to serve after they enlisted. In other words, they joined of their own volition and when they joined, they signed a contract. In a story with political ramifications there are always factional disputes about who owns the rights to various parts of the legacy. In the big picture though, this is a universal story.

Denis Mueller: The opposition we get, if you want to call it that, is questioning about the decisions our subjects made. It’s true they volunteered, but they didn’t volunteer to commit war crimes.

FC:  What’s been your experience getting access to the veterans and other interview subjects?

Deb Ellis:  The story of Iraq and Afghan veterans who crossed the border to Canada instead of serving another tour is under told in the mainstream media. We met people along the way who were involved with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto. One of them was Alex Lisman, a cameraman. He shared some of footage with us, and eventually, he became a collaborator.  That relationship was key to our ability to cover some events gain access.

Denis Mueller: They want to tell their story so it has been easy.

 

FC:  Is there a story from one of your interviews that is especially moving?

Deb Ellis:  In 2008, Alex Lisman was with a group of war resisters and the campaign traveling to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa to witness a vote on a bill that would allow the resisters government protection to stay in Canada. During the trip, he shot one of the resisters talking to a reporter on the phone. During the call he describes an incident in Iraq when he came upon a group of US soldiers using a human head as a soccer ball. That story let me know a lot more about why he made a decision not to go back. While that scene isn’t in the film, it was a powerful catalyst for continuing our work.

Denis Mueller: When one of our subjects, former Chief Petty Officer Chuck Wiley, 16 year Navy veteran tells a story about how the aircraft taking off from his ship strafed and killed people running away from the building they were bombing. He realized they were shooting civilian targets.

FC:  Was there a book/film/album/world event which left such an impression on you toward activism?

Deb Ellis:  I need to think about this… growing up, as a child in the 60’s there was always a sense that things were not right. The Kennedy assassination had a profound affect on me. Then, when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, I knew everything was upside down. I was still pretty young, but I think these events, having the nightly news of the Vietnam War on every night… it was a charged environment to grow up in. And, people were fighting back. So I guess I emerged believing activism was an option. I don’t get the sense that a critical mass of young people thinks that today. We know the NSA is listening. We’ve been “calmed down”. Young people are saddled with debt. They have learned to just be quiet and get their lives in line. It’s too bad, because together we can work in little bits, to make the world a better place. I always love the last line of our Zinn film:  “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. And if we do act, in however a small way, we don’t’ have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presence, and to live now, as we think human being should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Denis Mueller: I was moved by meeting Howard Zinn. He was an icon and his belief in the possibilities of hope was inspiring.  But before that, it was the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement that captivated me. I loved their righteousness. We did a powerful film called The FBI’s War on Black America. There is nothing like it. Our films have chronicled activism.

 

FC:  What do you hope to accomplish with PEACE HAS NO BORDERS once it’s released?

Denis Mueller: I’d like to begin a discussion about amnesty, a pardon, for Iraq and Afghan vets, like what happened in the Vietnam era. These are the only people being punished for what was wrong in these wars; so let them come back if they want. The people who committed atrocities and tortured people will get off. Not to mention the politicians, who remind me of great line from Bob Dylan: “and the executor’s face is always well hidden.” Instead, they get called up for television appearances. The subjects of our film had a conscience, and that conscience is the only thing that separates us from our own worst instincts. They deserve to have their story told.

Deb Ellis: Ditto

FC:  What is the budget for PEACE HAS NO BORDERS?  Where did you receive the funding? Where did you meet your investors?

Deb Ellis:  We have made this film on a shoestring, with a huge investment of time and personal resources. We’ve received some small foundation grants along the way, but investors? Really? If we had investors, why would we be doing a crowd-funding month?

Denis Mueller: As I say above, it’s our audience who is our ultimate investor. There’s not a lot of people busting doors down to fund production of films that challenge the status quo. You have to be willing to go out on a limb to get them done.

FC:  Do you believe that having a prior successful film has been an immense help toward launching the current project?

Deb Ellis: I think you have to prove yourself every film. You would think that having a previous film that was short-listed for an Academy Award would make it easy next time around. It might open a few doors, but it doesn’t make your next film. You have to do that yourself.

Denis Mueller: A bit but not as much as we thought it would. We make films that challenge the American narrative. These types of films are never easy.

FC:  Tips to filmmaking collaborators on being harmonious with one another?

Deb Ellis:  I can’t tell you how often we are not harmonious. Life is hard, and making films makes is hard. In the big picture I think there are shared values and hopes, and that’s what carries us through.

Denis Mueller: Be a little hard of hearing.

FC:  Any parting words to fellow documentarians?

Deb Ellis: Do what you believe in. Don’t give up. And, learn to listen to criticism from people who know what they’re saying. We have some incredible people who have questioned us along the way. Know your friends.

Denis Mueller: Let your films build in an organic manner. Do not try to impose on the film what is not there. The film you end up with may be quite different and that is OK. Often better.

FC:  What’s on board for your next venture?

Deb Ellis: I’m in development on another film with other partners. My guess is that it’ll be just as difficult, partly because the subject is so tough. More on that later! (It’s called END OF LOVE)

Denis Mueller:  We have worked over 25 years together. I am 64 so I’m not sure what I want to do. I just finished another film about the writer Nelson Algren so I have no idea what is next. PHNB would be a fine last film if it is meant to be.

PEACE HAS NO BORDERS – read more here!
A group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans battle to stay in Canada after following the same route as their Vietnam Era predecessors, only to find a different welcome from the Canadian Government….from the makers of Howard Zinn: You Can´t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
ABOUT PEACE HAS NO BORDERS:

We owe a debt to a current generation of soldiers who had the courage and moral fortitude to say ‘No’. Peace Has No Borders is an important story about a group of brave men and women who chose to seek refuge in Canada instead of participating further in the Iraq and Afghan wars.” Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers

U.S. civilians and veterans continue to contend with the consequences of the last decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq – complex conflicts that the documentary film world has deeply probed. Yet soldiers who refused to fight for myriad moral and political reasons remain critical but largely unexamined participants in this story.

For their latest documentary, Peace Has No Borders, Vermont filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller have spent the past eight years capturing the often wrenching stories of soldiers who refused to fight and exploring the social and political ramifications of their actions.

Peace Has No Borders follows a group of U.S. Iraq and Afghan war veterans who crossed the border to Canada instead of returning to war. The film takes place within the backdrop of a previous migration, when more than 80,000 Americans sought refuge in Canada from 1965-1973 in protest of the Vietnam War. Forty years later, Canada faces the same political dilemma – and the sometimes heated challenge – of providing sanctuary to U.S. veterans who have refused to participate in U.S.-led wars.

Peace Has No Borders completes a trilogy of films by Ellis and Mueller that address social movements. The FBI’s War on Black America is a rigorous examination of the FBI’s infamous 1960s-era COINTELPRO Program. Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, (short listed for an Academy Award) looks at the history of social movements of the 20th century through the eyes of activist and historian Howard Zinn.
The film will be ready for release in Spring 2015.

Deb and Denis’ previous films examine significant social/political movements. The FBI’s WAR ON BLACK AMERICA is a rigorous examination of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO Program during the 1960s. It remains a relevant cautionary story about the dangers of government surveillance. HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN looks at the history of social movements of the 20th century through the eyes of activist and historian Howard Zinn. It remains in active distribution. PEACE HAS NO BORDERS is the final chapter of a trilogy reflecting on the impact of social activism on war.

Deb Ellis:

Deb Ellis (Co-Director) is a filmmaker whose work includes the Academy Award short-listed film, Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The film was released theatrically on over 100 screens nationwide, signed multi-year broadcast contracts, and is still actively distributed by First Run Features in NYC. She supports local and regional filmmaking through her participation on the Vermont International Film Foundation’s Board of Directors. Ellis is Associate Professor in the film and Television Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

Denis Mueller, Ph.D. – Co-Producer/Co-Director:

Mueller has produced many documentaries throughout the years.  The FBI’s WAR ON BLACK AMERICA became a favorite of the black community. 20 years after its initial release, the film is an underground web classic and has been re-released on DVD.  He has produced several documentaries on Vietnam veterans, including, I WOULD NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. His most successful film, produced and directed with Deb Ellis, the critically acclaimed HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN, was released nationally by First Run Features, opened on 100 screens across the country, appeared on the Sundance Channel, has screened and won awards at festivals around the world.  Mueller received his Ph.D. in American Culture Studies in 2007.

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