Director of ‘The Tillman Story’ discusses documentary

ASU alumnus Pat Tillman is well known for turning down a lucrative NFL career to enlist in U.S. Army after 9/11, but the story is much more than that.

“People think they know this story, but they don’t. They think they know who Pat is, and they don’t,” Amir Bar-Lev, director of “The Tillman Story” told The State Press in a conference call Wednesday.

“What really hooked us [to make “The Tillman Story”] was when we realized how far off the mark the public’s understanding was,” Bar-Lev said.

Tillman decided to not re-sign his contract with the Arizona Cardinals after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and enlist in the Army Rangers to serve his country.

On April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan, Tillman was the victim of friendly fire. But, in an attempt to raise support for an unpopular war, the George W. Bush administration initially covered up that fact, telling instead a tale of how Tillman died in a heroic battle of good and evil, a fictitious act for which Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Several weeks after Tillman’s memorial service, it was revealed that Tillman died as a result of friendly fire.

Tillman’s mother, Mary, received over three thousand pages of documents from the military recounting the events of April 22, 2004. The military hoped that the sheer volume of information would be intimidating and discourage Mary from further investigating Tillman’s death. It did not, and Mary Tillman, meticulously went through every page, demanding that the people behind the cover up confess their guilt and tell the whole story of what happened. They never have.

Amir Bar-Lev, director of 2007’s “My Kid Could Paint That,” said, as a journalist, Tillman’s story was immensely appealing to him.

“I was just one of many, many filmmakers who was trying to get the family to work with their crew,” Bar-Lev said. “It’s got everything you would want in a movie. It’s got a school teacher single-handedly taking on the most powerful institution in the world,” Bar-Lev said.  “You have several love stories. You have the love story between Pat and his childhood sweetheart, you have the love story of his family to him after he died. I really feel what they’ve done for him is a love story for the ages.”

But the appeal of Tillman’s story for Bar-Lev goes beyond just having the pieces to a great documentary to investigating a government cover up and showing how the American people turned a very private person into a public hero. A hero-figure who Tillman, when enlisting, made a conscious effort to avoid being turned into.

“At the center, you have a mystery, a person who’s not really asking for any attention, and is not lending himself to our culture’s obsession with narrative,” Bar-Lev said. “In the case of Pat Tillman you have somebody who refused to grant any interviews and didn’t want to be a celebrity, and against his wishes we turned him into a spokesperson for duty and patriotism and all these things which he never spoke about.”

Tillman exemplifies “this idea that our culture these days refuses to allow any area to be private, to not be narrativized,” he said.

For Bar-Lev, he said he saw something in the Tillman family that is uncommon in today’s world.

“Hopefully, what comes through in the film is a family with a very healthy sense of their own privacy. I think we live in a time where that idea is almost anachronistic, the idea that there are certain things you don’t share with everybody. We live in this time where everyone is tweeting: ‘Oh, I’m going to the bathroom now,’ and blogging,” said Bar-Lev. “This is a family with old school values; it’s old school because it’s how we lived five years ago. [1]

“[It’s a family] that feels that sometimes you cheapen things when you talk to everybody about it. One of the ways this family decided to hold onto Pat was to not turn their memories into a bunch of sound-bytes.”

Bar-Lev said he hopes, though the core of the film’s story comes from a terrible loss, the audience will leave the film with more on their mind than tragedy.

“Spending three years on this film, I was constantly taking notes about things I want carry forward in my life. About integrity, loyalty, a sense of humor, all the things that the Tillmans embody,” Bar-Lev said. “I hope that people come away with some of those aspirations from the film.”

The movie, which has been in limited release since Sept. 3, is now playing at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale.

Reach the reporter at pmelbour@asu.edu


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