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September 2007
Mark Twain War Protest Poem Interpreted Visually and Posted on YouTube

“Only dead men can tell the truth in this world.”

That was Samuel Clemens’ reaction when he heard that his anti-war poem, “The War Prayer,” had been rejected for publication as “too radical.” The new century had dawned with America taking its first steps as an imperial power, having defeated Spain and crushing an emerging Philippine independence movement.

Clemens was enraged by the country’s new direction. In protest, the writer also known as Mark Twain wrote a poem where a society beseeches God for victory in war. A prophet appears. God can grant the prayer, but the consequence is the horrific torture that war inflicts on a defeated nation. The prophet is ignored and written off as a lunatic.

A century later, “The War Prayer” delivered a powerful message when a video interpretation of Twain’s work appeared on YouTube and the Web site, www.thewarprayer.com. Directed and produced by Washington Monthly publisher Markos Kounalakis, the 14-minute short film employs hauntingly stark graphics by Greek illustrator Akis Dimitrakopoulos.

Scored by accomplished Polish composer Wieslaw Pogorzelski and recited by Emmy-award winning narrator Peter Coyote, “The War Prayer” describes the blind hypocrisy of enlisting God to ensure victory in war — sadly, a tragedy as persistent today as it was during Clemens’ twilight years.

Kounalakis discovered a copy of “The War Prayer” inside the library of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he was posted as a correspondent for Newsweek and NBC during the early 1990s. It immediately made an impact on Kounalakis, who as a war correspondent, was about to witness the devastation in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of that country.

During 2006, Kounalakis gathered an international pool of talent to help him translate “The War Prayer” into an unforgettable visual and audio experience. Much of the work, including that of narrator Peter Coyote, was volunteered without compensation.

“The War Prayer” did eventually see print in 1916 in Harpers Monthly during the middle of World War I. The horrors of that global conflict echoed the message of “The War Prayer,” but its lesson remained ignored.

A century later, released through a medium unimaginable in Clemens’ time, the context of “The War Prayer” remains strikingly unchanged. Societies still seek battlefield triumph through the assumed endorsement of a deity, guaranteeing instead only unending destruction and misery. The expanding bloodbath in Iraq is only one example.

Clemens died in 1910, six years before “The War Prayer” appeared in public, his words about dead men and truth as real in 1916 as they are in 2007.

"The War Prayer" was also viewed on Brightcove.com and was rated #39 in the "Top 100 Buzz Videos."

A DVD of “The War Prayer’ is available overnight by calling Chris Holben at (916) 446-9900 or through the website www.thewarprayer.com.

An Interview with Markos Kounalakis

Why The War Prayer? How did you run across it? What struck you about it?

I found it in the US Embassy lenders library in Moscow, right around the time I was getting ready to go to Afghanistan to cover the end of the Soviet war and occupation. I took it home, read it, and have not let go of my copy of it in the last 17 years; its universality spoke to me. It seemed relevant to me when I went to cover the Afghan war and it seems relevant to me now, with religious jihadists and extremists targeting our civilians and with George Bush invoking the counsel of a “higher father” to justify his war on a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

Why do the film now? Why do it in this version (with still-life tableaus)?

Mark Twain’s words are very powerful and I wanted to make sure not to detract from them, but rather allow enough of a strong narration and simple imagery and motion to amplify and underscore the words. There are no explicit symbols used: the flag is blank, the house of worship has no crucifix or other explicit reference to any specific religion. I did not want to detract from the message and words in my production.

How did you assemble your team?

I am lucky. I have my San Francisco offices in Francis Ford Coppola’s building and a lot of talented people come through there. There is also a recording studio and screening room downstairs, so that makes production easier. I worked primarily with my good friend, Jim McKee, with whom I founded Earwax Productions 25 years ago, and he worked selflessly on the audio tracks. I knew Stephanie Coyote (Peter Coyote’s wife) and she suggested I talk to Peter about his helping us on this project. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a friend of ours who also has the famous City Lights bookstore a block up from our offices. I had worked with almost everyone on one project or another prior to “The War Prayer.”

What did each bring to the project?

When you get that much talent in one room, the only thing you can expect to happen is magic. For anyone who collaborates in high-level creative projects, this magic is familiar. It is nearly always a greater product than what a solo performance can create. Ensemble work is the most gratifying and most enhanced, in my estimation.

Why put it on YouTube and not release it otherwise?

My goal was to get it out to as many people as quickly as possible. The on-line medium allowed me to bypass the usual marketing and distribution bottleneck and go directly to the audience. If the project is worthy and it speaks to people, then they will pass it on to others and it will find its audience. If not, then it will wither and die in an ignored, dusty corner of the web.

What further plans do you have for the film?

In less than a week, I have been asked to consider broadcasting it on a satellite television network (not yet at liberty to discuss which) and present at a film festival. In this short amount of time, it seems also to have struck a chord amongst the on-line religious community and the on-line anti-war community. This is acceptance and reception is already beyond my initial plans.

Why do you feel so strongly about this subject?

I have been to war and there is nothing holy about it.

What other initiatives might you personally take?

I recently began co-anchoring my weekly nationally syndicated radio program (the syndicator is Tom Athans, a fellow Greek-American from Michigan and Senator Debbie Stabenow’s husband), “Washington Monthly on the Radio,” which regularly features newsmakers. We recently had Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Bill Bradley, Cong. Charlie Rangel, and many others. This and the magazine and AKT Development - and let’s not forget I’ve got a couple of small boys – are more than a full-time job. I did “The War Prayer” because I had to, not because I had the time to do it.

Have you directed anything before?

Yes, a number of short films back when I was working at the Swedish Broadcasting company in the early 1980’s. And I also did a good amount of radio drama and “Audiograph” directing and producing. I’m not new at this, just rusty.

What was the experience like?

All in all, I am very pleased. I love doing this. It needs to be driven by passion. It needs to be a labor of love.

What did you hope to accomplish by this project?

No more than I already have. If you go to the multiple sites (Daily Kos, Political Animal, or just blog links on Google, etc.) where “The War Prayer” has been presented, you will find long threads of fascinating conversations around my movie. They focus on Twain, the Spanish-American war, Iraq, George Bush, God and Justice, etc. You will find that it is mostly a civil, thoughtful, reflective, and passionate conversation that the movie has inspired.

What more can I ask for?

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