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American Magazine April 2014

American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.

s the front hatch of the

s the front hatch of the military transport boat lowered and camo-clad Allied troops began pouring onto Omaha Beach, Doug Gritzmacher followed, armed not with a gun but with a handheld camera. He was a noncombatant on this D-Day, yet over the course of several hours of intense fighting, he took direct hit after direct hit from the opposing Germans. Each one stung. “Depending on how close a range you’re at, it lasts 30 seconds to a minute,” he says of the pain. “I had one hit that was three shots to the same spot, and it nearly brought me to tears. Back in my hotel room I counted about 50 welts.” The D-Day–inspired paintball game that plays out on 710 acres in a tiny northeast Oklahoma town each June does not determine the plight of the free world, nor is it a matter of life and death. But to the more than 4,000 participants in the self-proclaimed world’s largest paintball event, it’s only marginally less important. From the moment Gritzmacher, SOC/MFA ’05, and Michael DeChant Jr., SOC/ MFA ’05, first watched the spectacle, their eyes protected from pellets by full face masks, they knew they had to film it. After the opening scene of their colorful documentary, Soldiers of Paint, the audience sees why. When this army of weekend warriors storms the beach Saving Private Ryan style, it’s met not by the constant pop of machine gun fire but by the higher-pitched thwap of thousands of rounds of paintball ammunition being deployed at a staggering rate. “Paintball actually is used by the military for training because it’s the closest to replicating 30 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014 battle without using bullets,” Gritzmacher says. “Having gone to the game several times now, both [Mike and I] can attest to what an intense experience it is. There’s screaming and yelling, there’s physical pain, chaos, smoke. You have a little bit of everything thrown at you. You’re on high alert for the entire game.” And on the edge of your seat for the entire movie. he documentary is the second collaboration between Gritzmacher and DeChant. Both grew up as film fanatics and honed their craft in the School of Communication’s film and electronic media program. It was there they made Bone Mixers, a short documentary about a diverse group of individuals united by the game of dominoes. The movie screened at numerous festivals and won four awards. In 2007 they were looking for a featurelength project when DeChant was struck by a good idea at an event where many succumb to bad ones. “I was at a friend’s bachelor party,” he says. “We did a bunch of things that weekend, but one of them was to go play paintball. I had played three times in my life. While I was there I was shot, so when I was on the sidelines some teenager said to me in passing, ‘Are you going to D-Day?’ As a filmmaker, I said, ‘I need to know more about that.’” He shared the idea with Gritzmacher, who was equally intrigued, and the two headed to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, a town of 333 residents near the Missouri and Kansas borders. There Michael DeChant Jr., left, and Doug Gritzmacher

they met Dewayne Convirs, the event’s General Patton, grandson of a World War II veteran, owner of an army surplus and paintball store, and possessor of a thick Midwestern twang straight out of central casting. “I have had several people attempt to do movies or articles on D-Day,” says Convirs, who started the game in 1997 with 135 players on 20 acres. “So I was a little apprehensive at first. They hung out and visited and tagged along with me, trying to convince me that they could do this. It worked. I could tell they had their hearts in it.” or the next year, Gritzmacher, a freelance filmmaker, cinematographer, and photographer, and DeChant, a video producer for a Washington nonprofit, threw themselves— and plenty of their own money—into the project. They identified key players, like Supreme Allied Commander Ken “Psycho” Moore (day job: karaoke DJ) and German Supreme Commander Bill “Wilhelm” Bailey (day job: plumber), and shadowed them as they prepared all year for the one-day battle. It took time to earn the players’ trust. D-Day isn’t a reenactment; it’s a fiercely competitive “restaging” of the battle that at its core is a competition. Teams earn points for capturing battlefield flags and killing tanks (mostly refashioned old trucks), and players who are hit must temporarily sit out in a dead zone. “This time,” the Soldiers of Paint movie poster reminds us, “the Germans could win.” Espionage, as a particularly compelling scene in the film shows, is not unheard of. So each side’s leaders had the filmmakers sign a legally binding nondisclosure agreement that read in part, “any Combatant generated Classified Information shall remain confidential and will not be shared, at any time prior to the specific Event, with opposing Combatant.” Serious stuff. Gritzmacher and DeChant wanted to ensure that they presented their film in as serious a manner as the players take the game. Juan “Beatle” Parke doesn’t run the air conditioning in his New Orleans home until after the battle so he and his son, Deano, can acclimate to the Oklahoma heat. Spring can be quite sticky in the Big Easy. But not as brutal, as it turned out, as D-Day 2008, the culmination of the film’s story. It was 81 degrees that morning, and the forecast called for temperatures as high as 98 during the eight-hour battle. The elements were taxing, to say the least, on the film crew of about 15. “There are no breaks, so for the camera guys we had to have extra batteries, food, and hydration packets, because the environment is no joke,” DeChant says. “People go to the emergency room every year. We wanted to make sure that our embedded cameramen were not separate from the action; we wanted them to blend in and look like enemy combatants to the other team. So we were shot at like enemy combatants.” They captured 160 hours of footage, which over the next four years painstakingly was whittled down to 90 minutes. Throughout the process, they relied on a host of friends from their time at AU to provide everything from motion graphics to narrative reviews. “We had so much footage, and it was all intertwined,” Gritzmacher says. “Documentaries are really made through editing. You don’t always know what the story is going to be, unlike with a dramatic film, where you have a script. With a documentary, you have a hope and a prayer.” They came out with a film that, at its heart, is about what all good stories are about: characters. “It’s the Super Bowl of paintball, but these guys are in it for the brotherhood,” DeChant says. gainst the odds (making independent films is a passion, not a get-rich-ever scheme), they secured a distributor, and the film now is available on Netflix streaming, iTunes, Amazon, and DVD. The movie cost about $150,000 to make—“like true independent filmmakers, we begged, borrowed, and stole,” Gritzmacher says. They’re hoping to break even. “They never gave up on the project, and they easily could have,” Convirs says. “They’re tremendously talented and passionate. I never had a film crew dog me that long.” Both men have returned to the battlefield several times, as observers, and in DeChant’s case, as a player. “It’s as close as you can get to D-Day without actually having been there,” he says. “I’m a member of one of the units now. I try to hunt tanks, but they mostly shoot me.” LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 31