Heidi Specogna's "The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez" sensitively and methodically tells the story of the first U.S. soldier killed in the 2003 Iraq invasion, a refugee from Guatemala. Pic traces Gutierrez' sad journey -- surviving homelessness in civil war-wracked Guatemala to a new life in the States, where he joins the Marines to get an education. Compact but thorough pic will rack up fest appearances and draw interested buyers in Euro territories.
Losing both of his parents in Guatemala's three-decade-plus war (waged by a string of juntas supported by the U.S.), Gutierrez had to fend for himself as a street kid. Specogna follows his life by visiting each place he is known to have passed through, including an orphanage run by the caring Patrick Atkinson, who vividly describes a lad combining street wiles and vulnerability. More than anything, Gutierrez wanted to find his sister, and perhaps his one triumph was finally uniting with sis Engracia, who tearfully describes their reunion thanks to the help of social workers.
As if chasing Gutierrez's ghost, Specogna's camera travels north via Chiapas in Mexico and through Tijuana to Los Angeles, where, with some bitter irony, the boy ended up homeless once again. Gutierrez planned to channel his love of drawing and architecture through schooling, which a military stint could pay for. He opted for the Marines when the Bush Administration established a new law allowing citizenship to emigres who served in the military. His field commander, Marc Montez, and buddy Miguel Perez, recount Gutierrez's death on the first day of the invasion almost as if it were a dream -- until the loss hits them emotionally when they revisit it in front of Specogna's camera.
Technically, pic is distinguished by Rainer Hoffmann's clean lensing and Specogna's intelligent and politically aware narration.
Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Rainer Hoffmann; editor, Ursula Hof. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 23, 2006. Running time: 90 MIN.