In 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., inscribed with the names of 57,939 members of U.S. armed forces who had died or were missing as a result of the war. More were added, with the list of American dead at 58,220.
Over the course of the 1964-1975 conflict, the Secret Service recognized 171,000 conscientious objectors. David Harris, arrested and imprisoned 20 months, and boxing champion Muhammad Ali were two famous ones.
Steve Ladd was another. Though perhaps not famous, Ladd was one of integral believers of Harris’ “The Resistance” organization that led to the end of the drawn-out skirmish between the U.S.-allied South Vietnam and North Vietnam.
Ladd’s participation led to a career in mostly behind-the-scenes work on social documentaries, from fundraising to marketing to web designs.
However, “The Boys Who said No!” is a documentary that Ladd, 70, has more than a passing interest in. He’s an associate producer, getting to briefly tell his story on the screen with others in what’s considered the first film to elaborate on those who refused to take part in the controversial conflict.
It was a speech by Harris — now 74 and a Mill Valley resident — on the UC Berkeley campus promoting draft resistance and nonviolent action that convinced Ladd to resist the draft.
A second-year Vallejoan, Ladd talked about the film that streams at the 43rd Mill Valley Festival this Thursday through Oct. 18 after a world premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival on Aug. 2.
The Mill Valley festival is available both online and at a specially constructed drive-in theater at Lagoon Park in San Rafael.
The early reviews “have been heartening,” said Ladd.
“I think the most difficult aspect is not knowing if we were ever going to complete the film,” he said, acknowledging the emotional moments of “just hearing again the stories and the sacrifices people made, thinking back. These guys sacrificed a lot in their lives to do what they felt was right for a cause they thought was just. They certainly were not the first and are not going to be the last.”
Witnessing the final product “filled me with a sense of pride, that people were willing to stand up and still are to what they think is unjust. Hopefully, this film will encourage others to the power of nonviolent action, non-violent civil disobedience,” Ladd continued.
Ladd transitioned from living in the L.A. suburbs to U.C. Berkeley in 1968. It’s where he became familiar with war conscription and film — at the same time.
“My father had an eight-millimeter camera that he gave to me,” said Ladd, remembering “some footage I have of the draft board in Berkeley. Women who ran the draft board would peak out .. until police came and took us away. I have some video of that. Those times got me started. Though I wasn’t really a filmmaker, I got into film distribution, helping filmmakers create their films and distribute them.”
A communications and public policy major at Cal, Ladd was only 17 1/2 entering college. Still short of 18, “I had a little time to think about what to do in terms of registering for the draft,” he said by phone Tuesday.
When Ladd turned 18, “I decided to file as a conscientious objector,” he said. “I felt increasingly that the war was not right. I also began to develop a sense of ‘Where do I stand?’ on the war.”
Ladd’s father understood. His grandfather a WWII Navy admiral and WWI veteran, not so much. No matter.
“Even though I could have gotten a student deferment, I turned in my draft card,” Ladd said. “I thought that being a conscientious objector was enough at the time.”
At Berkeley, Ladd said he was encouraged to get involved with a group formed to organize against the war non-violently “which was important because Berkeley was becoming known for violent demonstrations; People’s Park in 1969 when (President Ronald) Reagan sent in helicopters to drop tear gas on campus to quell riots.”
Ladd joined the Berkeley Peace Brigade, relying on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principals of non-violent action to oppose the war.
He remembered a rally of 15,000 students and faculty at the Greek Theatre on the Cal campus following the 1970 killings at Kent State University.
“We went around and collected as many draft cards as we could… several thousand .. and 25,000 draft cards were turned in around the country,” Ladd said. “Selective Service found it harder to do what it needed to do. Tens of thousands of people risking several years in federal prison as Harris and others did in the film. We were able to inspire an anti-war movement.”
The film not only spotlights those who refused to fight, but many “who managed to survive the war and organized against it,” Ladd said. “They talked about their experiences. The G.I. resistance became a big phenomenon. Guys over there saw that it was basically senseless.”
Ladd was involved with the “Boys Who Said NO!” documentary “from the beginning,” having set up the initial advisory committee.
When he took a step back and watched the film honestly, “I was quite moved, especially by some of the individual stories and knowing some of these people,” Ladd said. “It’s an important, untold story.”
Ladd continues to keep an eye on the social pulse of America, believing Black Lives Matter “is an obviously necessary movement for today. There’s still so much inequality and injustice gong on and our society has failed after decades and decades of knowing. This is a huge problem that we should all face together and deal with it once and for all.”
Again, it all should be protested nonviolently, Ladd emphasized.
“What we proved during the Vietnam war .. civil rights .. the women’s movement and others is that there are powerful ways nonviolently to oppose injustice and it can make a difference. That’s what we want our film to show and people seem to be hearing that.”
Ladd said a silver lining of COVID-19 is that the United Nations Film Fest out of Palo Alto is also screening “The Boys Who Said NO!” at its Oct. 15-25 event, which wouldn’t happened with proximity clauses typical of most festivals in a possible conflict with MVFF.
“The films opens at Mill Valley, which is an honor, and closes at the UNFF, which is also an honor,” Ladd said.
While the UNFF honors Joan Baez, the Mill Valley Film Festival pays tribute to a plethora of stars including: Viola Davis, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Sophia Loren.
For more about the Mill Valley Film Festival, visit mvff.com.