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Afghanistan war documentary gets St. Albert premiere

The film shot in locations around Sturgeon County, and 300 volunteers from the area helped recreate scenes like the Highway of Heroes
Producer Karen Storwick and director Robert Curtin at the St. Albert Landmark Cinemas 8 premier of the documentary film Fallen Heroes: Their Journey Home.

A film that premiered in St. Albert last week aims to educate Canadians about veterans’ experiences in the Afghanistan War.

To tell the story of Fallen Heroes: Their Journey Home, director Robert Curtin and producer Karen Storwick relied on Canadian Armed Forces veterans for help recreating scenes from the conflict. It’s a tactic that paid off in moments of catharsis for the veterans who volunteered on the production, Curtin said.

“Before we began filming, I brought our extras together, including the soldiers who had served, and I said, ‘I'm the director, we have a script, but this is your story, so it is really important that we make sure that everything that we do is absolutely authentic,’” Curtin said. “They really took that to heart.”

Fallen Heroes, a documentary, chronicles major events of the war from a Canadian perspective, including moments such as the battle at the White School, the Tarnak Farm friendly fire incident, the bombing of a Canadian military vehicle and the repatriation of fallen Canadian soldiers. It combines interviews with dramatic recreations.

The crew filmed several scenes in Sturgeon County and Edmonton. They used the Anthony Henday as a stand-in for Ontario’s Highway 401, also known as the Highway of Heroes, the stretch of road used to ferry the bodies of many fallen Canadian soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to the Toronto coroner’s office.

In many cases, Curtin cast the very veterans who survived combat and other violent incidents to play themselves.

Curtin recalled meeting with Master Corporal Paul Franklin, who lost both his legs in a suicide bombing on a military vehicle, the night before shooting a recreation of that scene.

“He had his service dog beside him, we were sitting down, and he said, ‘Robert, tomorrow is going to be a trigger; it's going to be a really powerful trigger,” Curtin said.

But Franklin told Curtin that shooting the scene was “too important,” Curtin said.

Veterans wanted to confront difficult memories, and the film gave them chance to do so, Curtin said.

“The guys that were playing in the movie had left the forces, and for the first time in a long time, they were together with fellow soldiers,” Curtin said. “They were sharing, over beers at night, their experiences. It was so, so valuable for them.”

Many veterans grew extremely dedicated to the project. While filming in Sandy Pont, Alberta, a veteran who was bitten by a rattlesnake continued with the filming for several days even as he became ill, according to Curtin.

The ramp ceremony

Master Warrant Officer Jim Butters attended the premiere. Butters created the ramp ceremony, a repatriation service in which soldiers’ coffins are unloaded from an airplane as part of a military precession that happens in public view.

This ceremony was the starting point for Fallen Heroes. In fact, the film’s creators intended for the ceremony to be the film’s sole focus until the project expanded into a larger exploration of the Afghanistan War.

Butters came up with the idea for the ceremony after the 2002 friendly fire incident, when a misdirected American bomb killed four Canadian soldiers from the from the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

At the time, Butters faced opposition from an American military that feared having the whole Canadian contingent on a tarmac in range of the Taliban would be a huge security risk.

But he persevered. The U.S. military supported the first ceremony with 2,000 troops, and the ceremony became standard not only for Canada’s military but also for many other nations involved in the War in Afghanistan, including the U.S..

Butters said that he still gets emotional seeing the film, even though he was intimately involved in its creation. In one scene he plays himself, working at night in a military tent on the plans for the ramp ceremony.

“Anybody that goes to war and comes back, whether they like it or not, they're affected by it, and it affected their lives,” Butters said.

An interview with the sister of a fallen soldier is particularly emotional for Butters.

“I think I think every Canadian citizen should see [the film],” Butters said. “A lot of people don't understand what actually took place.”

St. Albert premiere

The idea for the film goes back all the way to 2010, when Curtin and producer Karen Storwick were working closely with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) north of Edmonton.

That connection is a primary reason they decided to host the premier in St. Albert.

“St. Albert is a community that's filled with veterans and serving members,” Storwick said. “It felt right to have it here and make it accessible.”

Over 300 volunteers for Fallen Heroes came from St. Albert, Edmonton, Sturgeon County and other nearby areas. Storwick said she was excited for that group to be some of the first to see themselves on film.

The film will play in Landmark Cinemas across Canada on Sep. 11, 2024. It will have another screening at Landmark Cinemas 8 in St. Albert on May 29 at 7 p.m.

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