One islander’s experience with the Vietnam War, along with recognition of the young men from Vashon who died in that war, will be featured in a new documentary at the Vashon Theatre next week.
Islander Peter Ray filmed and produced the 70-minute film featuring Christopher Gaynor and named it after Gaynor’s self-published book, “A Soldier Boy Hears the Distant Guns.” Gaynor is known to many islanders for the photographs he took in Vietnam while a young soldier there in 1967 and 1968. His photos and letters to friends and family were featured in the award-winning show at the Heritage Museum in 2012, Home of Record. Since that time, several large news outlets, including Time magazine, the BBC and The Daily Mail of London, have also featured Gaynor’s photos and war-time experience. Gaynor, who battles Parkinson’s disease because of his exposure to Agent Orange, focuses considerable energy on veterans’ matters close to home. Some of that work, including tending the six local graves of the Vashon men killed during the war, is featured in the film. For his part, Gaynor describes the film as, “my experience with the war and the relationship between that and the Vashon community.”
Ray began the project more than four years ago after meeting Gaynor at the Heritage Museum while Gaynor’s show was on exhibit. At that time, Ray had taken film classes, was looking for stories to share and asked Gaynor if he would be open to the experience.
“It just seemed to be something that needed to be told,” Ray said, about Gaynor and his story.
Between 2013 and 2015 Ray filmed Gaynor in a variety of settings, going about his life.
The result is a film that features Gaynor at his home, reading letters he wrote about his experiences and feelings during the war; at Cafe Luna, where his photos hung in a show in 2014; at the Vashon Vietnam Veterans Memorial, talking about the young men memorialized there, and at the Vashon Cemetery, tending the soldiers’ graves before he presided over the traditional Memorial Day Service.
While Gaynor was uncomfortable with the filming initially, he said he grew accustomed to it, and noted that a significant portion of the film is about the Vashon men who died in the war. During those years, Gaynor said he believes Vashon’s population was less that 6,500 people, and it was unusual for a community of that size to lose 12 young men.
“Statistically, that is a lot,” he said, adding that Vashon has a history of military service, with many longtime island families sending men to different wars.
Ray said he did not know the direction the film would take when he set out following Gaynor around with a camera. But he read all Gaynor’s letters and found that the most poignant and descriptive ones were between him and his mentor Anne Blackwell, which Ray features in the film. He said he was also certain he wanted to include “The Vashon 12” who died in the war.
“I really wanted to add that. It was local history that was not really told,” he said.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary on the Vietnam War will premiere on PBS the same week Ray’s film will be shown on Vashon, a fact Ray said he finds ironic. While he expects the Burns-Novick film to be sweeping, his film is specific: Viewers see Gaynor and how he dealt with the war as a young man and how he deals with it now.
“You can see how much it affected him — that encapsulation of the personal experience — that is what I would like people to take away from the film,” he said. “It really should make people question why we subject kids to this.”
The film will be shown at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Vashon Theatre. There is no entry fee, but donations will be accepted to offset production costs.