Breaking Ranks

Breaking Ranks (Written and directed by Michelle Mason. produced by Screen Siren Pictures and The National Film Board of Canada, 2006.Breaking Ranks is an advocacy documentary promoting the cause of American military deserters seeking permanent refuge in Canada. The film weaves together portraits of four deserters, in each case using talking-head interviews as the anchor for brief forays into the backgrounds of each soldier. The film also includes brief b-roll sequences from the combat zone intended to illustrate points made by the soldiers as they explain why they deserted. For all four––three privates and a private first class––their reasons lie in a belief that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq and is doing great harm there.

The film includes an extended portrait of a Canadian lawyer, an American expatriate who had fled to Canada during the Vietnam War and is now working on behalf of current deserters. There are a few briefer scenes showing the deserters interacting with Canadian host families, being interviewed on a radio show, appearing at anti-war rallies, and interacting among themselves. Peppered throughout the film are shots of posters and banners announcing “War Resisters Welcome Here,” and the final end-credit invites viewers to find “more information on the war resisters” at

The film does not argue that the Iraq war is immoral; it takes that as a given. Its central goal is to persuade Canadians that their government should welcome deserters from this war. The film has two interesting arguments available to it. One is that in its recent past—during the Vietnam War––Canada publicly welcomed American draft-dodgers, tens of thousands of whom fled to Canada. The film includes a news clip of Premiere Pierre Trudeau, in the late 1960s, declaring, “Canada should be a refuge from militarism,” and the quote appears on a t-shirt for sale at a rally. The second argument, although not so clearly stated, is that Canada should not be afraid to dissent from wrongheaded or immoral American policies, and that providing a refuge for deserters (another term the film prefers to avoid) is a meaningful and even morally obligatory way to demonstrate independence.

On this latter point, the film has an interesting lineage. It was co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, which in the late 1960s began to issue the occasional film dissenting from and, later, denouncing United States’ policies.One of the first to do so, and one most pertinent to Breaking Ranks, was a documentary about Vietnam, Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970), directed by Michael Rubbo. Until this film was made, NFB documentary projects had to include “Canadian content,” and although Rubbo and his crew initially went to Vietnam with the intention to film some Canadian project there, the resulting film had no Canadian content at all. It examined the brutal and debasing effects of the war on the culture and people of Saigon. It did so through intermediary portraits of three young American journalist/volunteers working to ameliorate conditions where they could and sending news stories back to the United States. The film’s release was briefly in question because of its anti-war (and therefore arguably anti-American) stand and its lack of Canadian content. The notion that Canada had a right and duty to comment on world issues regardless of Canadian content arose and prevailed, although without ever (to my knowledge) being publicly stated.

A further link exists between Sad Song of Yellow Skin and Breaking Ranks. The latter’s director, Michelle Mason, has made one previous film, The Friendship Village(2002), which is about an American war veteran’s efforts to help establish a facility in Vietnam dedicated to treating children suffering from maladies believed to result from exposure to Agent Orange.

Mason’s two films compare unfavorably to Sad Song of Yellow Skin. Sad Song of Yellow Skin is as cinematic as a documentary can get, rich in emotionally powerful and challenging, surprising, unexpected material. While The Friendship Village and Breaking Ranks include heart-rending shots of suffering children, the children are kept at a distance—unengaged by the filmmaker in the earlier film, appearing in apparently archival footage in the second. Both of Mason’s films are, at their core, interview films with illustrations; the children are b-roll material adduced in the service of praising the film’s dissenting American subjects. Rubbo also employs interlocutors, the three Americans, but as a means to get to know the Vietnamese and their situation.

Rubbo’s film is remarkably honest about what it knows or thinks it knows. Both Rubbo’s motives and those of the American volunteers are questioned and their limitations acknowledged. Breaking Ranks accepts the testimony of the four deserters at face value, and rests almost its whole argument on that testimony. But only one of the four seems to possess a degree of self-knowledge, admitting that he knew what the Army was all about when he enlisted. It is hard to invest confidence in the ex-soldier who says he turned against the war when he realized he could be killed. A third has a sneering manner about him and seems to find everything in life wanting, even at one point his Canadian hosts. The Friendship Village hangs its argument almost entirely on the testimony of George Mizo, but he speaks with a quiet charisma that is disarming and compelling. Although the film disappoints with its token, bordering-on-exploitative use of the Vietnamese children, it leaves one believing in at least the genuineness of Mizo’s motives and vision.

Comparing Breaking Ranks to Sad Song of Yellow Skin may not be fair. Rubbo was (and is) an exceptionally talented filmmaker. When he made his Vietnam film, the NFB was still a vital institution with high standards which filmmakers consciously or unconsciously sought to meet. They had the support to reach them: talented co-workers available in almost every aspect of filmmaking; ample budgets; and freedom from strict deadlines. And it was only around that time that the dominant cinematic style in documentary began to reverse the relationship between interviews and actuality footage. Instead of using interviews to help interpret primary, actuality footage, filmmakers began using actuality footage, if at all, to support statements made in interviews. By the time Mason started making films, the interview had come to dominate documentary filmmaking.

But there remains one troubling aspect to Breaking Ranks that can’t be blamed on changing documentary economics or aesthetics: instead of embarking on an independent search for truth, the film seems to be carrying water for The War Resisters Support Campaign, the organization linked to in the film’s closing credits. The organization makes several appearances in the form of meetings, individual supporters, demonstrations, and banners. What jumps out is the use of the word “resisters,” which so pervades the film that it was not until my third viewing that I noticed that the American expatriate refers to himself as a draft dodger and that one of the deserters identifies himself as a deserter. This is honest. The young men who fled to Canada during Vietnam were overwhelmingly draft–dodgers, not resisters. The resisters stayed home and resisted.

The men profiled in Breaking Ranks are not resisters, they are deserters. To suggest, as the film does, perhaps unintentionally, that dodging, deserting, and resisting amount to the same thing is sophistry. The Campaign’s reluctance to use the more accurate term, and the film’s acquiescence in this, suggests a lack of complete confidence in the rightness of their common cause, and it makes an open-minded viewer at least a bit suspicious about the honesty of other material and statements in the film. If participation in the war is immoral—the film’s unquestioned position––then what is wrong with deserting from it? Why mince words?
D.B. Jones Drexel University

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