THE CRAZY EIGHTS Thursday, March 29, at 8 pm, on CBC. Repeats Saturday, March 31, at 10 pm, on CBC Newsworld. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Call it passive-aggressive propaganda.
A new CBC documentary presents a sympathetic look at Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan. Too sympathetic, perhaps.
The soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment Charles Company Eight Platoon - the Crazy Eights - have been involved in the toughest fighting of any Canadian unit since the Korean War and have suffered more casualties than any in Afghanistan.
Yet what stands out about them as they suck sand and eat Taliban tracer fire in this compelling day-in-the-lifer is how incredibly average, guy-next-door they are.
Yes, they engage in harrowing gun battles and make even more nerve-racking "routine" patrols along dusty roads rife with IEDs (improvised exposive devices). But these scenes are never sensationalized, exploitive or remotely Fox News-ish.
In sharp contrast to recent American documentaries about the frontline experience, in which U.S. soldiers are often seen riding into battle with rap music blaring in their headphones and their fingers itching on the triggers of their M-16s, there is none of that GI Joe gung-ho-ness about the Crazy Eights, despite the unit's name.
They marvel at the local wildlife ("I've never seen a camel before"), play ball hockey and bemoan the fate of their beloved Maple Leafs ("I could die and never see the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. Keep that on your conscience, boys").
There's little talk of why they're in Afghanistan or how they feel about the job they're doing. They're just doing they're job - with an admirable lack of flag-waving.
In an inherently Canadian way, they're even matter-of-fact about the casualties they've sustained, either from enemy or friendly fire. (Last September, the Crazy Eights were mistakenly strafed by U.S. warplanes; one soldier was killed and 30 others injured just one day after they were involved in a massive anti-Taliban offensive.)
The closest thing to a war story they tell is counting up the number of shrapnel wounds each of them has sustained, although they might as well be counting bug bites at summer camp.
Not that the day-to-day insanity of Afghanistan doesn't take its toll on the Crazy Eights. One soldier, initially reluctant to discuss his experiences, eventually opens up during a tent-side chess game with filmmaker Gordon Henderson, who does a remarkable job of allowing the soldiers to tell their own stories with little editorializing.
While the film is certainly well-executed - Henderson spent a month embedded with the Crazy Eights in October - and noble in its intentions, it's also a little unsettling, and not because of its depiction of roadside explosions and mortar attacks. The unnerving part is the way the film allows us to relate to these soldiers and admire them. As a result, we want to support them - and by extension, the war effort - while the film never calls into question the reasons they're in Afghanistan.
Not the filmmaker's intention, I'm sure, but something to be aware of when you're watching.
Boys in the ’hood
SHATTERED DREAMS Saturday, March 31, at 7 pm, on Global. Rating: NNN
Shattered Dreams is a bad movie-of-the-week-type title for what is actually a pretty good documentary about Toronto's disadvantaged youth.
Inspired in part by Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech, social worker and filmmaker Ian Brewster introduces us to the kids of Scarborough's Glendower Circuit, a gangs-and-guns ghetto about as far removed from life on Degrassi as you can get.
All of them have been touched by drugs and violence. Stories of drug deals, playground shootouts and SWAT team takedowns are chillingly common.
None of them has a father living at home, and area pastor Bruce Smith sees that as the cause of the overwhelming sense of powerlessness and frustration among today's black youth.
But Brewster stops short of trying to supply easy answers to a difficult problem. He despairs at the gangsta attitude he encounters, and acknowledges that the problem is never clear-cut. As he says, "Something is killing us slowly, and it is not white culture, the government or the police. It is something more personal, something inside of us."
Toronto's so-called Year of the Gun is a couple of years behind us, but Brewster reminds us that the problem is still very much upfront.