Ready For War: Showtime Documentary Highlights Plight of Deported US Army Vets #TIFF19

Ready For War
Directed by Andrew Renzi
Look for it on Showtime October 26, 2019
& On Demand November 22 

The person who left never came home.
I struggle every day just to feel human.

Ever wonder what happens to those US veterans who are deported to Mexico? Every now and then, there is a story in the news as a veteran, a legal US resident, is deported, but if that's all you know about the subject, it's hard to truly grasp its dimensions.
Hector Barajas in Ready For War
As the documentary Ready For War notes, I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) doesn't keep any data on just how many veterans end up on the deportation list. But, as the film also illustrates, there are communities in Mexico that number hundreds, if not thousands, of people who put their lives on the line for a country that literally tossed them out.

In truth, immigrants have been fighting for America as long as there has been an America. Ready For War fleshes out the headlines by following the stories of three vets who were sent back to a country they didn't know at various stages of the process.

Hector Barajas has been separated from his family back in the US for 14 years as we meet him. He's nonetheless relentlessly positive about his prospects for re-entry as a naturalized citizen, and a super patriot with an office full of American flags. In the meantime, he's in Juárez running a service to help re-integrate the constant stream of new arrivals, trying to keep his hopes up.

Miguel Perez' case is just entering the American judicial system. He's been released from one jail, only to be snapped up by ICE and jailed indefinitely, with a view to eventual deportation, and separation from his family in Chicago.

Many immigrants assume that, when they join the US Army, they are automatically given citizenship. That's just not true. As the cases in the film illustrate, a familiar pattern emerges. A vet returns from one, and often more, tours of duty a changed man, suffering from PTSD, depression, and other ailments both mental and physical. He drinks too much, or drugs his problems away. He gets into trouble and lands in jail for a non-violent offence like possession or even drunk and disorderly.

And that's it. One chance, no mercy. Instead of getting the medical help that his service entitles him to, he's deported through a loophole in the law that was created in the 1990s.

Director Andrew Renzi's punctuates the stories they tell, and the institutional gloom of the ICE prison, by taking viewers on a nerve wracking ride through hell in cartel territory, riding alongside a cartel enforcer by the name of El Vet. He too was sent back to Mexico, and deposited right in the middle of a cartel war. Threatened with violence and death on only to himself and his family, and abandoned by the system, he becomes a full fledged member. Inside abandoned and bleak interiors, we see his masked figure as he cooks meth for them...and much worse.

The cartels, see, recognize the value of having this influx of men with American military training. As El Vet tells the camera, drug enforcer hits once looked like a messy show of violence. Today, they are executed with the precision of a military operation. The US Army, in other words, is fueling the violence that constantly simmers at the border.

"The cartel knows the soldiers are valuable," El Vet says matter of factly. "We got skills."

Director Andrew Renzi already had a couple of documentaries under his belt when he got wind of the potential of this story. "I was introduced to Hector Barajas by a colleague," he recalls. Renzi was attracted to a story about second chances, as well as the growing realization this was a much bigger issue than he'd supposed.

After a trip to Juárez, Renzi made a local connection who introduced him to Miguel and El Vet, the latter being a dangerous prospect from the outset.

"Probably the hardest part was how to tell the cartel story," Renzi says.

Filming took the better part of two years. Even though it's a documentary, Renzi wanted to treat the story as fiction, and builds a narrative through the three men and their journeys through bureaucratic hell. "How do I tell it as a taut thriller?"
El Vet, Ready For War
Much of it was shot very simply with only Renzi and cinematographer Jeremy Peterman, and their subjects. That led to the jittery sequences of cartel ride-along, and a very real sense of inherent danger. "It was really important for me to show how far this could go." Even if they could trust El Vet, however, his environment was unpredictable and violent. "The biggest fear is not him, it's the people that come for him." It led to hair raising situations. "I had a bag over my head for three hours," he recalls. "There were moments when I thought, I've gone too far."

Footage with figures like US Senator, Army veteran and advocate Tammy Duckworth add a larger context to the story. Renzi's hope is that the issue is seen as one that can cross party lines. Shouldn't those who have put up their lives for the United States get some help for their post-war troubles, instead of an immediate deportation?

Visually, Peterman intercuts broad views of the often bleak areas where the men live with the jittery secret camera of the El Vet segments, and Hector's office in Juárez, stuffed with upbeat Americana. It's effective in adding texture to the story line.

What's most heartbreaking is that, even with deportation, most of the vets are still devoted to America, and don't regret their military service.

The list of executive producers who got behind the story is impressive in itself, including David Ayer, Chris Long, Tara Long, Aubrey 'Drake' Graham, Adel 'Future' Nur, and Vinnie Malhotra.

Director Andrew Renzi was born in Washington, DC, and studied literary arts at Brown University. He has directed the short films The Fort (2012) and Karaoke! (13), the documentaries Fishtail (2014) and They Fight (2018), and the fiction feature The Benefactor (2015). Ready for War (2019) is his latest documentary, and got its World Premiere September 8, 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival.