'The Wake Up Call' Documentary Explores A West Virginian's Fight After War
West Virginia native Dave Evans enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was only 17. A year later, his unit was ambushed in Vietnam. Most of the men were killed. Evans survived but lost both legs.
He returned to the United States, where he was fitted with prosthetics.
Evans went to school, joined the national anti-war effort and became a peace activist. He later divided his time between West Virginia and a long list of war-torn countries, where he traveled to help fit prosthetic limbs to civilian survivors, many of them children.
Evans died in 2020 at the age of 68. Filmmakers Alison Gilkey and Eric Neudel gathered footage of Evans and interviewed the activist and others about the personal devastation of war to make the film, “The Wake Up Call.”
Inside Appalachia Producer Bill Lynch spoke with Gilkey and Neudel about the film.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lynch: First off, tell me about this film that you've made.
Neudel: We had this idea to do a film about war. It started out in Laos when we were there on a trip for the state department as part of the American Film Showcase. They were showing a film that we had made. That film was traveling around the world. We went up to northern Laos to the border with Vietnam and China, in this area called the Plain of Jars. It's actually a bigger area than that. What we discovered there was that it was highly bombed. There were lots of unexploded bombs there. We filmed. We had our equipment. We filmed a lot of the kids and people.
Anyhow, we got great material, beautiful material about these people have been damaged by this American bombing. That area is the most bombed area on the planet. A million tons of ordinance was dropped in Laos. It was a neutral country, but it was a good dumping zone.
Gilkey: Well, and that's kind of the point of how awful this bombing was, because it was the American warplanes that couldn't land at the airbase with ordinance. So, they just indiscriminately dumped whatever munitions they had left over the mountains of Northern Laos.
Neudel: And in the farmlands, too. So a lot of the people who were injured were farmers and their children.
Gilkey: Well, we got back home with it. Hours and hours and hours of footage. And we were super excited to explore this idea further. And as we were going through the footage, of course, the light bulb went on, oh my goodness, we're essentially looking at a foreign language film here.
We couldn't afford a translator. We had many, many hours of footage. So we then started thinking about, 'okay, this is a really important subject area, but how are we going to tell something about war? And who can we find to be the main character?'
Well, turns out that decades ago, Eric had worked with this man, Dave Evans, who is the main character in the film, shooting Dave, as he was working in prosthetics clinics. Nothing came of that project.
But we were able to contact Dave at his home in Antigua, Guatemala, and he graciously agreed to allow us to come and stay with him for a couple of weeks.
Lynch: Can you tell me a little about Dave — his personality and what he was like?
Neudel: Well, he was an amazing character, irascible, sometimes really difficult, sometimes a super great buddy. It was wonderful to go out to a restaurant with him or a bar and talk with him. He had this vast amount of experience in the world. And his story was amazing.
You got the feeling with him that he was a person possessed. He himself needed repair. And I think the way he thought he could repair himself was repairing other people. So, he was really passionate about that, and really obsessed with doing his best.
Gilkey: He saw himself in the amputees that he was trying to assist.
Lynch: Dave passed away in 2020. Did that have any effect on the making of the documentary? Did it change any directions or thoughts that were planned?
Gilkey: No. In fact, the film was finished — its structure — everything was in place. By the time Dave passed, we were going through the process of hiring a composer and doing the post-production work.
Neudel: When he died on July 3, Allison called me and said, "You know, I have some really, really bad news for you, and I know you're going to be really upset.”
And when she told me that, the first thought I had is, “He never got to see this. He never had...”
This film had finally, totally gelled and was resonating.
I was so anxious. We were both so anxious for him to see it that it kind of, like, broke my heart that he didn't. He didn't. This is his legacy, I think.
Gilkey: It's part of it.
Neudel: I mean, he's got a lot of people. He trained a lot of people he's helped. So that's, of course, a bigger legacy than what we did. But in terms of expressing his spirit. I think this is a good vehicle for getting across who he is and was, and what he meant. You know, I was… when he died… it was painful.
Lynch: What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Gilkey: I hope it makes people think. As Dave himself says in the film, I wish people would just think, think a little. These young kids that we send off to war... I mean, the film is not anti-military, but it is anti-war because we send these young kids off and they are kids. Dave was only 17. He wasn't even old enough to sign his own enlistment papers, you have to ask his mum to do it.
What do we think is going to happen to these tender young hearts and minds, when they see, inevitably, what they're going to see in war? We bring them home. They're not the same people.
So, think, just listen to the wisdom in the film. This wisdom comes from people who have lived that experience.
Neudel: The other side for me, the second part for me is that Dave, as I said earlier, he was repairing himself by repairing other people. In my mind, I think one of the lessons is that if you really want to do something, if you want to be happy, if you want to repair yourself, do something for other people. Try to focus on helping other people and it will yield a kind of redemption for you.
It may not be as in Dave's case. Vietnam always haunted him, but it filled him, and it made him a better person. He was not someone who just gave like five bucks to a cause and that's it. You're done.
He went actively, existentially into that world, and he made it better for real human beings in very tangible ways.
Lynch: Eric… Allison… thank you very much.
Neudel and Gilkey: Thanks so much. Thank you. Appreciate it.
“The Wake Up Call” will be shown at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 23 at the Culture Center Theater at the Capitol Complex in Charleston. A pre-screening reception begins at 6 p.m. For more information, including ticket prices, visit festivallcharleston.com.