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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Deserter
Deserter
Other // Unrated // March 1, 2008
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Chris Neilson | posted April 30, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Ryan Johnson, the subject of the 24-minute documentary short Deserter, enlisted in the Army in November 2003, eight months into the occupation of Iraq. The 20-year-old was eager to receive the benefits offered: free housing for him and his wife, complete medical and dental coverage, paid annual leave, more than $40,000 for college, and a steady paycheck that was larger than what the high school dropout could have earned anywhere else. In addition to all the perks spelled out in his contract, Johnson claims that the recruiter also verbally promised that he'd get an office job stateside and never actually have to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Believing he could receive all the benefits of being a soldier without any of the risks, Johnson eagerly signed on the dotted line.

Shortly after completing basic training, Johnson learned the hard way what every American teen should already know: verbal promises made by military recruiters, especially in times of war, are worthless. Despite his wish to spend his enlistment tucked behind a desk near home, Johnson's unit was ordered to deploy to Iraq. Dead set against going, Johnson sought a medical discharge alleging a bad back. When that was turned down, he went AWOL, and subsequently deserted the Army fleeing to Canada along with his wife where they are presently seeking asylum.

Filmmaker Rick Rowley (This is What Democracy Looks Like) documents the period following Ryan Johnson's decision to go AWOL till shortly after crossing into Canada. In the early footage Johnson appears scared and uncertain as he hangs about his parents' home after failing to deploy with his unit. As the short documentary moves forward, Johnson gains increasing personal confidence and certainty about his decision as he's repeatedly told he's a hero by other "war resisters" and their sympathizers.

Deserter is partially narrated by Ryan reading from a letter to his mother explaining his decision, and ends with a telephone call from him to her after arriving in Canada. The call is heartbreaking. Ryan Johnson's devastated mother ends the call by telling him she loves him, but that she'll just tell everyone that he's been deployed to Iraq.

What appears on camera is fine so far as it goes, but the limited resources of filmmaker Rick Rowley is telling in what's left out of this 24-minute short. Rowley appears to be a one-man film crew. He travels with Ryan and Jen Johnson, but is unable to devote the time or resources to interview anyone else. A better funded filmmaker would have interviewed the parents, would have had a second film crew with Ryan's mother during that pivotal call from Canada, and would have continued the filming on for far longer covering Ryan and Jen's efforts to obtain asylum and settle in Canada. The lack of running time for this documentary points more to the lack of filmmaker resources than it does to the dearth of content to cover.

The Video:
Deserter is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's a bit of video noise and digital combing, but overall the image is better than expected given the low-budget nature of the production.

The Audio:
The 2.0 audio track does fine for audio added in during post-production, but much of the dialogue recorded by the camera mic is difficult to understand. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles provided for this release.

The Extras:
The main extra for this release is footage from a live video post-screening Q&A with Ryan Johnson from the January 2008 Mountaintop Human Rights Film Festival held in Waitsfield, VT. The Q&A suffers from a terrible internet connection that renders much of what Ryan says unintelligible, but this is largely overcome thanks to forced subtitles. During the Q&A led by Amy Goodman from the television and radio program Democracy Now, Johnson provides an update on his relationship with his family and his ongoing efforts to obtain refugee status in Canada.

Six trailers for other Big Noise Films releases are also included. The trailer for Deserter is not included.

Final Thoughts:
The DVD blurb from the distributor describes Johnson's decision to flee to Canada as "a heroic stand." Readers that find Ryan Johnson's decision to enlist in a war-time Army but then desert when called upon to go to war something less than heroic can safely skip it. Everyone else may wish to rent this one as the list price is a bit steep for such a limited short.

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