An initial version of “Clearing the Way,” a documentary capturing the story of combat engineers from 23 Field Squadron, was screened to an audience of United Nations members, Canadians, and military members on June 27 at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti.
It was an important milestone not only for the producers of the film but for Col. Mark Gasparotto, editor of the book, titled the same, that served as the inspiration for the documentary.
“I found it quite poignant. It took me back to Kandahar in 2006, to when we were all together. When I first saw it it was quite emotional for me,” said Gasparotto on seeing the documentary for the first time.
The initial draft of Clearing the Way was well-received by the audience, who gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti to view the documentary as a farewell to Gasparotto, who is returning to Canada after a posting in Haiti.
Clearing the Way captures the story of the combat engineers of 23 Field Squadron and their time deployed to Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan from Aug. 2006 to March 2007.
The book was compiled by Gasparotto, who collected the stories of the soldiers that served under him. The aim was to accurately capture and record the tale of Canadian combat engineers during that time.
“I thought we had quite the story to tell, not just my story, in terms of being a major in charge of the squadron, but I also encouraged all of my soldiers to write,” said Gasparotto.
The documentary is a compilation of the first-hand accounts of these soldiers and what their role was in the war.
“From my perspective, I believe, from reading the book and talking to other people, the engineers are the unsung heroes of the Afghan War. It’s not only the story of 23 Field Squadron, but I believe, it is the story of all engineers and their experience of being in Afghanistan at that time,” said Paul Culliton, producer, and director of the documentary.
From constructing roads to building forward operating bases, the work of the Canadian combat engineers ensured the safety of their fellow soldiers.
The documentary takes audiences a step further from the “six o’clock news” stories of the Afghanistan War to the emotional and very real journeys of combat engineers, that many members of the public may not know.
“I have a deeper understanding of why stories like this matter. Not just for the people that were directly involved, but also their families and just anybody associated with the military. I think for people who don’t necessarily have direct connections to the military, it’s hard for them to understand. Often times all they know is what they see on the news,” noted Brendon Culliton, editor of the film.
Paul Culliton has a longstanding relationship with the military community that began when he published If I Should Fall: A true story of the Afghan War experience.
“I just have a profound respect for them because I’ve gotten to know them. Once you get to know them, you really become attached to them, especially when the soldiers sit down and tell you their story. Because it’s actually a very rare thing for a soldier, who has been in combat and gone through trauma and grief and seen violence and death on the scale which our soldiers saw in Afghanistan, you become very much emotionally attached to them,” explained Culliton.
After completing the documentary, which details the life of a fallen Canadian hero, Culliton started looking for the next story of the Canadian soldier he could tell through his camera.
In 2010 he was introduced to the book Clearing the Way.
After meeting with Gasparotto, Culliton began filming interviews of soldiers featured in the book but hit a wall in the production process.
“A lot of the guys who had been in the eye of the storm just weren’t ready to talk about it,” remembered Culliton.
The project was eventually shelved until the fall of 2016 when Culliton decided he wanted to do something for the tenth anniversary of Op Medusa, a central event for 23 Field Squadron.
Culliton, along with his son Brendon, then spent the next few months, into 2017, collecting stories from dozens of soldiers.
The experience was considerably impactful for both the father-son duo and the soldiers who opened up their stories, some for the first time.
“I think it can be very cathartic and healing for them to know that their story is being heard and also for them to actually be able to tell their stories as well,” said Brendon.
He then spent the last few months bringing the stories together to tell a single narrative.
“The only thing I needed to do was to be true to the material, take all their stories and craft them into one large storm from begging to end that would give someone that is looking in a snapshot of what it was like to be an engineer in the Kandahar province in 2006 and 2007,” noted Culliton.
Culliton and Brendon are currently working on polishing up the documentary, considering any feedback they may have received from the documentary’s first screening. They hope to screen it at film festivals this fall.
“This is a way for us to thank the men and women who served, in a lot of ways, by telling their stories. This is a way, not just for us as the film editors to be able to express our gratitude, but a way to invite the public to express their gratitude,” mentioned Brendon.
Click here to go to the Clearing the Way GoFundMe page. Donations will go towards finalizing the documentary.