Brian Willson, a profile in pacifist courage at the Awareness Film Festival
S. Brian Willson

LOS ANGELES—“In America, if you say ‘Brian Wilson,’ people think the Beach Boys, but in Nicaragua if you say ‘Brian Willson,’ people think of the peace activist,” said Frank Dorrel, associate producer of Paying the Price for Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson & Voices from the Peace Movement. Dorrel made his comments at a Q&A following a screening of the 97-minute documentary, which was screened in Los Angeles as part of the 8th annual Awareness Film Festival (AFF), Oct. 5-15.

As Bo Boudart’s award-winning nonfiction film recounts, what made this Brian Willson so prominent is the Vietnam vet’s commitment to the cause of peace, culminating in an enormous personal and physical sacrifice, as the title indicates. Willson paid an unimaginable price for peace, but this documentary is also about the antiwar movement. Although Boudart’s sprawling film focuses on Willson, it is also a compendium of the struggle for peace from the Vietnam War to the bloody U.S. intervention in Central America up to the ongoing armed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

In addition to Willson himself, other notables of the antiwar movement from the 1960s until now are also featured in archival, news and original interviews and footage. These stalwarts include: Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers noteworthiness; Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July based on his two tours of duty in Vietnam and the injuries tha left him a paraplegic ; Roy Bourgeois of the School of the Americas Watch; CODEPINK’s intrepid Medea Benjamin; KPFK Radio’s Blase Bonpane; actor/activist Martin Sheen; author Alice Walker; Democracy Now anchor Amy Goodman; former U.S. Attorney General-turned-activist Ramsey Clark; soldier-turned-war resister Camilo Mejia; TV talk show host Phil Donahue; Col. Ann Wright, a high-ranking officer who resigned from the State Department to protest the Iraq invasion; author/blogger David Swanson, co-creator of the After Downing Street website; whistle blower Chelsea Manning; Sandinista rebel and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega; anti-Iraq War mom Cindy Sheehan and more.

As Ken Burns’ recent Vietnam War PBS series reminded us, no motion picture dealing with that conflict is complete without a rocking soundtrack, and Paying the Price is no exception—although unlike Burns’ opus, Boudart’s independently funded doc wasn’t financed by a Koch brother and Bank of America. The nonfiction film includes songs by Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Barry McGuire.

In chronicling the U.S. peace movement for about half a century, Paying the Price performs an invaluable service. I can’t think of any other comparable documentary that provides so comprehensive an overview as Boudart’s well-made if a bit unwieldy picture (as is its longwinded title). However, the doc doesn’t ask this all-important question: Why is the anti-war movement so small and relatively weak compared to its heyday during the Indochina Wars?

With Trump rattling nuclear sabers at the DPRK (North Korea) and provoking Pyongyang with dubious war games, why aren’t masses of protesters filling the streets and storming the White House to prevent this madness? During the aforementioned post-screening talkback a questioner put his finger on what may be the biggest difference between then and now: Elimination of the younger generation’s primary impetus—the draft. This was one of the great triumphs of the anti-war crusade. But minus compulsory service, military deployment has fallen on the shoulders of a handful of “volunteers” desperate for any kind of employment (even if it gets them blown to smithereens in the process).

Nevertheless, Boudart’s doc, narrated by Peter Coyote (who also did the narration for Burns’ Vietnam series), is essential viewing for everyone concerned with issues of war and peace. After Brian Willson’s unbelievable act of courage to stop the imperialist Contra wars in Central America, Nicaragua’s first lady, the poet Rosario Murillo, visited him in the hospital, and today Willson lives in Nicaragua, where he is rightfully hailed as a hero.

Paying the Price for Peace won the Grand Jury Documentary Feature Award at AFF. According to its mission statement this unique filmfest’s goal is: “bringing awareness and to open eyes to some of our world’s pressing issues: Ecological, Political, Health/Well Being and the Spirit. We showcase both Documentary and Narrative Features, as well as Short Films, Music Videos and Public Service Announcements. We have filmmaker Q&A’s, filmmaker Panels, as well as conscious art and music. The Awareness Film Festival was formed by Heal One World, a non-profit charity. This Festival is also a fundraiser for Heal One World.”

To watch a trailer of Paying the Price for Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson & Voices from the Peace Movement see here. To watch the entire film go to this site.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.