Natick filmmakers Eric Neudel and Alison Gilkey spent seven years working on their new documentary feature, “The Wake Up Call” about the folly and collateral damage of war. It will have its world premiere on April 17 at the Boston International Film Festival.
They had no way of knowing how pertinent their story would be to the situation in Ukraine today.
Although the theme is broad, the story is told through a single character, Vietnam veteran Dave Evans who lost both his legs in Vietnam and then became a renowned maker of prosthetics for international victims of war. He worked in Jordan, Iraq, Angola, Cuba, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, the United States, and many other locations, both in clinics he helped establish and in war zones.
“The film is about Dave, as a vehicle through which to talk about the human cost of war,” said Neudel, who runs Natick-based Storyline Motion Pictures with Gilkey. “All the people he helped have in common that they are civilians or fought in wars. In Dave’s mind it didn’t matter who they were if they needed a leg. He would do it. He could never stop trying to heal the wounded.”
As the film opens, Evans explains what motivated him to enlist in the Marines in 1969 when he was 17. Inspired by the rhetoric of the era about freedom and justice and the advance of Communism, he wanted to be “the best Marine I could and try to serve honorably.”
But he became horribly disillusioned very quickly. He wasn’t on the field ten minutes on his first day in battle before being struck above his eye by shrapnel. He watched a fellow Marine blown clear in half and watched him die. He saw small children and elderly women dead on the ground. Later, he spotted a severed leg with a boot still on it – and realized it was his.
“The waste and the uselessness of being there,” Evans said in the film, ‘and you ask yourself ‘why?’ Are we there – to kill people so we can save them?’”
He was airlifted out and eventually healed, at least physically. But his decision to devote his life to working with other war victims was motivated by a sense of outrage and betrayal by his own country over Vietnam.
Evans died in 2020 at 68 before the film was completed. “I think his body just gave out,” said Neudel. “He’d lived so hard and been in so many places with so many diseases around him. His body just couldn’t do it anymore.”
But Neudel is convinced that were he alive, “he’d be in Ukraine right now trying to figure out a way to help these people.” The fighting in Ukraine has so many parallels to Vietnam and other wars, he believes – the blind acceptance of wars often based on lies, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim he started the Ukraine war to fight Nazis. Young men coerced to serve in the military, believing it’s their patriotic duty. The propaganda that feeds atrocious acts. The seeming interchangeability of conflicts from nation to nation.
“It almost becomes like a tale of good and evil,” Neudel said. “In wartime, people forget what is right and wrong.”
Neudel and Gilkey have worked on four films together, including the critically acclaimed 2011 PBS documentary “Lives Worth Living,” about the disability civil rights movement. For two years they traveled with the documentary to Laos, Vietnam, Russia and Pakistan, as film envoys with the U.S. State Department’s cultural exchange program, American Film Showcase. They also co-curated America’s first Disability Rights Museum on Wheels.
Neudel, 75, grew up in Tewksbury and traces his “humanistic” approach to his life and work back to his 1960 Bar Mitzvah in Malden, at his grandfather’s Orthodox shul, Congregation Beth Israel.
He had spent months learning Hebrew and studying his haftarah with a kind man who had survived Auschwitz and wore a tattoo on his arm. “I was puzzled by the image of God [the haftarah reading] presented,” he said. It focused on the incident where Uzzah tried to stop the Ark of the Covenant from falling off a cart. For this, God struck him dead.
“But I was on Uzzah’s side,” he recalled. “I would have reached out to stop the Ark’s fall too. If this God is so relevant to every day human actions, why didn’t this God strike down the people who put that tattoo on my tutor’s arm?”
He remembers looking out at the congregation and seeing “the unquestioning men who were not paying attention to the paradox in the words I had just chanted,” he said. “I didn’t want to be like that,” he said. (He also noticed that women were separated from men in the shul and he didn’t think that was fair either.)
“That day I rejected the vengeful God and embraced the importance of my actions for the benefit of others,” Neudel said. “My films always account for human vulnerabilities, our weaknesses turned to strength. I have a fundamental belief in equality and that most of what preoccupies people is illusion.”
The world premiere of “The Wake Up Call” takes place in Boston on April 17 at the AMC Boston Common at 3 p.m., as part of the Boston International Film Festival.
Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org