Louisa native Stephen Canty’s documentary about adjusting to civilian life after Marine Corps deployment to Afghanistan was released in November. A lot’s changed since the UVA alum began working on the film, Once a Marine, more than seven years ago.
For one thing, he is no longer a Louisa resident. Canty followed a girl to New Mexico, and the desert setting, similar as it is to the Afghan plains, appealed to him. The girl’s gone, but Canty’s love of New Mexico remains.
For another, Canty has released a documentary that’s far more introspective than he intended when he set out to tell the story of his own Charlie Company and its deployment to Marjah, Afghanistan.
“I didn’t intend to really go as deep, or bare as much of my soul and my friends’ souls,” Canty says. “It was originally meant to be a little more surface level: ‘I don’t like being a civilian in society, and being in college is annoying.’ Just the irritation and frustration a lot of us felt.”
After returning from his second Middle East deployment as a Marine, Canty wanted to tell the stories he and his fellow infantrymen couldn’t tell civilians back home—the difficulties normies just wouldn’t understand. He figured he could get his combat buddies to speak to him in a way they couldn’t to anyone else.
Canty could see the shift in the film’s tone just a few interviews into the process.
As company mate after company mate dumped their deepest feelings in his lap, Canty realized he would have to handle his film’s subject matter with care. Over seven years, he collected more interviews and B-roll, and found one of the stories that would eventually anchor the film—the apparent suicide of a fellow Marine.
Canty learned more about filmmaking, editing, and tinkering, trying to strike the right thematic balance as his fellow soldiers opened their hearts on camera.
“How do you honor them for their sacrifice and for showing that part of themselves to the audience and to you?” Canty asks. “A lot of the time I spent editing this, it was like trying to find a place where what I showed wasn’t exploitative but still showed the parts where people were sad or hurt.”
The film, Canty’s first, is rough around the edges. The characters are initially hard to follow and the lighting fluctuates, but the combat footage is hard hitting, and the viewer can’t help but be struck by the youth of the Charlie Company boys who are willing to say things and recall images that slicker productions would almost certainly avoid. One soldier and a music composer on the film, Chuck Newton, describes a sordid hand-to-hand combat engagement in which he shot an enemy at point blank range.
“I watched the life come out of his face, and he fell on the ground,” Newton says in the documentary. “And that is an image I can’t get out of my head. Because the image of someone dying as you look them in the eyes is something nightmarish. It’s something no one should ever see.”
Once a Marine features little of the behind-the-battle-scenes partying and lightheartedness Canty envisioned for the film seven years ago. But other elements of the filmmaker’s original intent remain in the final version, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime. The difficulties of returning to a pedestrian life from the battlefield still take center stage, ranging from the mundane—“over there…you don’t have to fucking do homework”—to the morbid.
“Two weeks ago…I shot a dude and blew his shoes off his feet,” a soldier known as Heath says in the film. “Now I’m holding a baby, and I have to change a diaper…Every time I change a diaper, I think about holding someone down and trying to pack a wound. Every time I wipe an ass. I don’t know why. That’s what I think about.”
Once a Marine co-producer Darren Doss also figures prominently. One of Canty’s closest friends from Charlie Company, Doss dealt with heroin addiction after returning from Marjah. Canty hoped working on the film would serve as a kind of way forward as Doss escaped drugs. Doss is clean these days, Canty says, and has settled down, finding “a purpose and a woman.”
Doss and the other soldiers depicted also recognize the purpose in the film. Canty says “they have been very supportive, and they have made peace with what they said and the parts of themselves they showed.”
While Canty worked on his film, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood also became interested in Charlie Company and its deployment to Marjah during Operation Moshtarak, which featured some of the heaviest combat in the Afghan theater. Canty and others from his company appear prominently in Wood’s book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars, published in late 2016.
When he sat for an interview with C-VILLE Weekly in September 2013, Canty said filmmaking had become his passion. It made him “awaken” in much the same way combat did. Now, the Santa Fe resident says he’s looking forward to a career making films, though perhaps about less personal subjects.
“This first one, it required me not only to grow as a human being and confront what I had been through, but to find a place for it in my own life. It was such a difficult film to make,” he says. “I am looking forward to making something that doesn’t hurt me every time I look at it.”