“The Fuckee’s Hymn is a sober and dark portrait of war through the twisted story of a veteran whose glorious history haunted him because the truth was dark and not heroic, a contemplative work that is affecting and deeply critical of the way society deals with the narratives of war.”
“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.” – The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
In 2011 American director Travis Wilkerson brought his film Distinguished Flying Cross to Cinéma du Réel, the Paris-based documentary festival that has become one of the major festivals of its kind in the world. The film centres on a Vietnam veteran animatedly telling war stories to his sons. Over the course of the film the tone changes, not because of the man’s spirited recollections but because of the way Wilkerson starts to incorporate grimmer images of the war into the frame. That man, a decorated helicopter pilot, was Wilkerson’s father. Twelve years later he returns to Paris with his latest, the bawdily titled The Fuckee’s Hymn, in which Wilkerson again examines war stories, those of his father in particular. Wilkerson Sr. is no longer there to tell them, having died six years ago, but The Fuckee’s Hymn is a film that is in conversation with his stories in Distinguished Flying Cross as it demythifies the idea of the war hero by unravelling truth and fiction in stories and atrocities.
In Distinguished Flying Cross, William Wilkerson and his sons sit around a living room as the older man shares his memories. In The Fuckee’s Hymn that house has become a place of darkness for his son, and Travis mostly wanders through the forest outside as he ponders what the stories and the decorations that came with them have done to his father. Stories that covered up blunders. The stories that gnawed at his father after his return to the US, and in a sense killed him, unable as he was to let go of the war. It never seems to end indeed. And the war didn’t let go of him either: Wilkerson Sr. died of complications related to myeloma, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Now that’s a war story you never hear, just like the story which earned Wilkerson his Distinguished Flying Cross. The true story, that is, the one involving the helicopter Wilkerson heroically flew back to base after it had been hit by friendly fire instead of a Vietcong attack, as the official story goes.
“The bigger the fuck-up, the bigger the medal.” – Travis Wilkerson
Most of The Fuckee’s Hymn consists of static shots in high-contrast black and white, some of Wilkerson’s parents’ house in stark darkness, most of the forest outside it. The foliage evokes the image of the Vietnam jungle as so often seen in films set during the war, films that tell stories of heroes. Gradually Wilkerson weaves in another film, Nguyen Hong Sen’s The Abandoned Field, a war story told from the perspective of the Vietnamese, whose dreams are haunted by American helicopter pilots. A deep orange-red creeps into the film, giving it a nightmarish edge. The intense electronic score by Hellish Cashtrap intensifies this uneasy feeling of dread.
The Fuckee’s Hymn is obviously a deeply personal film for Travis Wilkerson, whose sonorous voice spits fire at the image of the American war hero and the pedestal the military is placed on in the US. Wilkerson has been called American cinema’s political conscience, and the activist filmmaker minces no words when chipping away at the high regard in which troops at war are held, without actually diminishing the people that form them. Atrocities turn into heroics as we mould them into stories, and stories can kill. The Fuckee’s Hymn is a sober and dark portrait of war through the twisted story of a veteran whose glorious history haunted him because the truth was dark and not heroic, a contemplative work that is affecting and deeply critical of the way society deals with the narratives of war.
“A true war story is never moral. If a story seems moral, don’t believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you’ve been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” – The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien