Michael Tisdale's Play on Reality

Director Michael Tisdale (left)
and Actor Bill Irwin
When I first watched Michael Tisdale's short film Goldstar, Ohio, the first minute or so had me convinced that it was another in the long list of documentaries playing at the Hearts and Minds Film Festival on Saturday, April 2nd. It starts off rather unassumingly with archival footage like you would expect in a documentary. There's even a man whom you see at the beginning dressed as a police officer sitting down and being interviewed like he would if he were in a documentary.

Yet, this police officer isn't in a documentary and this entire movie isn't a documentary. Tisdale, however, convincingly makes us believe otherwise. Avid television viewers might recognize a few of the faces here, but anyone walking into this movie cold might assume that these people are the real members of the four families who lost men in Iraq.

In Goldstar, Ohio, members of four families recount the day that the military notified them that men whom they loved, men related to them, were killed in the Iraq war. Everything that is said, every word that is uttered is an actual word that the real families said. Tisdale went to the families and recorded his conversations with them. He wrote a script based on those recordings, but he didn't do what Aaron Sorkin did for The Social Network.

Tisdale took no liberties. He didn't alter any lines, re-arrange or dramatize anything. All he did was take what was there and streamlined it. He had roughly 70 hours of audio. He just needed to cut it down to an appropriate length without sacrificing context or meaning. He then wrote his script, or rather he wrote a transcript, and hired actors to recite the words.

Tisdale said some of the actors listened to the audiotapes and others did not. The methods of certain actors when creating characters or embodying other people is different for each one, but Tisdale said one of his goals was to be completely faithful and honor what the families told him about their losses. Whether it was through his earnest direction or through the poignant performances of his actors, Tisdale accomplishes that.

Tisdale didn't envision this piece initially as a movie. In fact, his script was produced as a stage play at the Cleveland Public Theater in 2008. The 16-minute movie playing at Hearts and Minds represents a segment of that full play. The full play deals with the lives of these families and how they're affected, even years after their losses.

The short film only offers a glimpse into how these families handled the news of the deaths and how there were different reactions, but the film also offers how people can come together in shared grief. Tisdale conceived this project in 2005, when his father passed away in the same week as the soldiers from the four families died. Tisdale's father was in the military, and as the funerals and memorials where happening simultaneously, Tisdale felt a connection and also compelled to reach out to the four families. Tisdale notes that the entire state of Ohio it seemed was in mourning.

But, this piece isn't just about shared grief. The movie is as much about storytelling itself. Yes, it's a metaphor for what the families did with Tisdale, which is tell the stories of the worst day of their lives, but Tisdale noticed as he talked with the families multiple times that those families were telling those stories in multiple ways.

Tisdale wanted to be completely faithful to what the families told him, but he saw that he had an opportunity to experiment with the idea of storytelling. Even though the short film is produced like a documentary, he has actors in place of the actual persons speaking the same words almost verbatim, but it's not about mere mimicry. It's about the filters and other factors that go into telling a specific story, not only from the person who experienced it but also by others who hear it.

For more information, go to http://www.goldstarohiofilm.com/ or


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