The Times of Acadiana
Pat Mire found a lot to be proud of in one corner of Acadiana history
By MARSHA ENGELBRECHT
Freelance writer of fiction and journalism
The scene was set nearly 40 years ago at the Liberty Theatre in Eunice, as two young brothers sat watching a movie on a Saturday afternoon.
The name of that movie has long since been forgotten, but the movie's impact on the life of the younger brother is still very much alive. Pat Mire, that young boy whose passion for the art of filmmaking began in those early days at the Liberty, is back home in Acadiana, working on what promises to be another gem in his series of acclaimed documentary films.
Keeping it close to home and close to the heart is what Mire does best, and his current project is true to that formula. Mon Cher Camarade, the film's working title, is a television documentary that highlights the pivotal role of French-speaking Cajun GIs who served as interpreters for the United States military in the North American and European theaters during World War II. It is a story, according to Mire, that is long overdue in being told.
The communication skills of these Cajun soldiers were vitally important to U.S. military success, yet the world, including Acadiana, is largely unaware of this story.
"Cajun translators were as important to the American war effort as the much-acclaimed Native American Code Talkers yet, the Cajun translators' contributions have been entirely ignored," says Dr. Carl Brasseaux, historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
With a fervent commitment to preserving Cajun culture and heritage, Mire is passionate about bringing this topic to the public's attention.
"It's a project that I've always wanted to do," he says.
"I was moved to tears," Mire explains, "at the opening of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, being in the company of all these veterans, realizing that our freedom was won with their blood." The experience prompted him to discuss the role of the French-speaking veterans and what it was like at the front with his father. Felix Mire served in Patton's Third Army in the Thunderbolt Division, which spearheaded the attack at the Battle of the Bulge.
A raconteur in his own right, Felix Mire tells of going from being a shy soldier from the small community of Point Noir to being at the forefront of the war in Europe and becoming the "most popular guy in his outfit" because of his ability to speak French.
After being told as a child that his French was no good, suddenly his ability to speak the language made him unique and important. He realized that not only was he serving his commanding officers in his role as interpreter, he was also serving his fellow GIs in ways that were just as necessary, such as negotiating with French locals for luxuries like a bottle of wine or cognac, fresh eggs or dry socks - and, of course, being able to converse with the local girls.
Mire searches Acadiana for other veterans with similar stories to relate. In an interview taped in French with Willis Fontenot of Opelousas, Mire asks if boot camp in Louisiana in July and August was hard.
"Mais yeah, it was hard," Fontenot says, "but it wasn't as hard on me as it was on those boys from up north."
"What do you mean?" Mire asks.
"I was used to following a team of mules from sunup to sundown," Fontenot says. "Those boys were passing out from the heat." Later in the interview Mire says, "I hear you captured some Germans." Fontenot nods and says "a truckload."
Such poignant and spontaneous insider perspective is what gives this project its heart and soul. Departing from more traditional styles of aloof film narration, Mire places the storytelling authority right where it belongs: in the hands of the veterans themselves. In this way, the film will become an intimate portrait of the delicate balance between South Louisiana's indigenous Cajun culture and the American experience of World War II.
This approach serves Mire well. Actor Ben Mouton (Basic Instinct, Flatliners), who starred in Mire's feature film Dirty Rice (1997), is quick to praise Mire's innovation.
"Pat has a wonderful ability to improvise and be creative," Mouton says. "We are so lucky to have people who are very good at what they do."
The folks at Louisiana Public Broadcasting and PBS agree. Mon Cher Camarade is slated for national PBS distribution. Clay Fourrier, executive producer of LPB, mentions enthusiastically that Mire's work has led to a number of high-profile projects that have been aired nationally on PBS, garnering "both LPB and Mr. Mire numerous awards, including nationally recognized Telly and NETA awards of excellence."
All of these films highlight "the good things about South Louisiana and the Cajun culture," Fourrier says, adding that "In his films, Pat shows the contributions of real people, not Hollywood stereotypes, to our country. This is the underlying theme of all his work."
"I feel this is my most important work," Mire says of Mon Cher Camarade. In documenting for the first time the contributions of hundreds of Louisiana Cajuns to the American war effort, Mire finds that many of these veterans are finally realizing with pride that they were something special, that where they came from was special and that they played a vital role in this country's freedom.
Mire's own intense pride in his Cajun heritage has won him several awards, including the Award of Excellence at the American Anthropological Association Film Festival for his 1993 Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras. He has been honored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities with a Special Humanities Award, and in 2000 he received an "Artist of the Year" award in Washington, D.C. Against the Tide: The Story of the Cajun People, which Mire directed, was a November 2000 PBS "Pick of the Week," capturing 49.9 percent of the American market.
As for future projects, Mire would like to make another feature film and says that "for pure fun and entertainment" he plans on doing a short film in the spring of 2004 based on a short story by a Lafayette writer. He says, "It's a narrative fiction with teeth, and I can't wait to work with the actors and musicians from here."
Pat Mire's passion for filmmaking arose from his boyhood days at the Liberty Theatre in Eunice. His tenacity and pride are hallmarks of his heritage, and with each film he makes, he proves that he is proud to call Acadiana home.
Cajun World War II veterans are encouraged to contact Pat Mire at 232-0700 to tell their stories for both his film and his continuing research with the Center for Louisiana Studies.