Film Review #213: Tattooed Under Fire
Director: Nancy Schiesari
“The Vikings wore their shields on their backs when they went into battle, so it should be on the back,” says Josh, 22, a soft-faced boy with wide eyes and still a bit of baby fat around his middle. It’s April 2005, 1500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and Josh is deploying there in two months. In Nancy Schiesari’s documentary Tattooed Under Fire, Josh is explaining why the Viking shield tattoo he has worked to design with the artists at River City Tattoo in Killeen, Texas, incorporates the Norse “tree of life” into its design and will cover most of his back.
“I’m Norwegian on my mother’s side, so as a warrior, this is another link to my heritage,” he adds, his upper lip beaded with sweat as the needle bites into his back. I have a bit of ink, so I know this peculiar sensation. It doesn’t exactly hurt, because the needle’s never in one spot long enough, but it’s always just about to, so you can reach your limit for a session.
Diamond Glen, the senior tattoo artist in the shop, is familiar with tattoo’s rituals and lore. He elaborates that ancient warriors painted and tattooed themselves to intimidate the enemy, part and parcel with the fearsome pounding on shields and bellowing that we all know in movies from Stagecoach to Braveheart to Steve McQueen’s Hunger.
“Tattoos are like permanent war-paint,” says Glen, who says he has two sons himself, that these Fort Hood soldiers are “good kids – babies, most of ‘em.”
Roxanne, who owns River City Tattoo and could easily pass for any of her soldier clientele’s mothers, says she grew up around the military and she respects their desire to do their duty.
“But I don’t like the duty this time,” she says. “These kids put their heart and soul into these designs. They’re saying, it’s my body, it’s my life, and I want to design it.”
Fort Hood, Texas, scene of last week’s horrific mass shooting and this week’s somber observances, is the largest U.S. military facility in the world. A major center for deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Hood also houses the Army’s Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program for the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Increasingly, many U.S. men and women in uniform – one estimate, according to the film, is that 95% of those deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan – choose tattoo and other body art to express their complex reactions to combat both survived and anticipated.
This week, Schiesari’s documentary about the use of tattoo among U.S. troops begins airing across the nation on PBS stations. Its first Central New York airing was Monday night on WCNY Channel 24. Initially scheduled in honor of Veterans’ Day, the timing takes on added urgency after the Fort Hood tragedy. Tattooed Under Fire was filmed in Killeen, Texas, just outside Fort Hood, over about a three-year period. Schiesari is a native Brit who’s made documentaries about the photographer Hansel Mieth and filmmaker Martin Scorsese for the BBC, along with work for England’s Channel 4, ABC, National Geographic and PBS, and she’s served as cinematographer on films like Alice Walker’s 1993 Warrior Marks. Now she teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas/Austin, where Tattooed Under Fire premiered in September 2008. Before the awful coincidence of last week’s Fort Hood shootings, the film had already gained increased attention on this year’s festival circuit - deservedly so, for it leans in close with a group of young soldiers, mostly men but including three women, decent, sometimes unknowing, as they talk about their hopes and fears and anger and sometimes grief, make jokes, try to get ready.
In just 56 compact minutes, Schiesari profiles nearly a dozen of them, sometimes including reprise interviews when they return. A medic has an hour glass with wings flying through a thunderstorm across his upper chest – carefully below the collar line of his dress uniform. A soft-voiced young Latina says she’ll maybe buy her mother a house if she survives; an African American woman has grown increasingly bitter about the armed services. One rookie pushes a few envelopes when he designs a fetus in a blender design for his bicep and poses “making a muscle” with it before he ships out – he says any one of them could wind up “mush” – and then Schiesari catches him when he’s back from his hitch, chastened by real war’s proximity and amazed no one shot him for the excess of such an image.
Of course it’s really the war itself that has got under all our skins, marking the rest of us indelibly as these young soldiers.
This review was part of the 11/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Look for additional screenings of “Tattooed Under Fire” on your local PBS station. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.