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War and peace and friendship at FLIFF

The magic of the documentary film "Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" happens in the Holey Land, a Palm Beach County corner of the Everglades, its vast silence and transcendent beauty an embracing retreat, where one man can help a stranger quiet the savagery of war that echoes inside him.

But to get to the dawn of this unlikely friendship, you must take a dark ride with First Sgt. Rudy Watt of the United States Army.

Three minutes into the 25-minute film, Watt, who addresses the camera with a dignified directness honed by 21 years in the military, goes on an errand. It is in the tight quarters of his truck, where Watt seems to have forgotten there is a small Go-Pro camera mounted on the dashboard, that we meet the demons he fights valiantly to keep at bay.

The 6-foot, 5-inch man shown in an earlier snapshot, in his fatigues, smiling brightly in front of a map of Iraq, now grips the steering wheel menacingly, eyes darting at passing drivers, the target of a profane and paranoid soliloquy. As he jerks his way through South Florida traffic, Watt seems hell-bent on confrontation.

"The symptoms of PTSD is actually what the military wants you to be," Watt says later in the film, screening on Veterans Day at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (with free admission for veterans and their families). "You are a better soldier, a better fighter, if you're angry."

Of the many "triggers" that can aggravate post-traumatic stress disorder in a veteran, driving is among the most common. Getting past the hostility and suspicion in this scene with Watt, a self-described shut-in in his Miami Gardens home, much less getting him to open himself up for a documentary film, would take something remarkable.

A SALON STORY

Neal Stark, of Davie, is an in-demand hairdresser at the posh L'Estetica Salon in Aventura who is so good at his job that filmmaker Abigail Tannebaum Sharon continued to see him even after she moved from Hallandale Beach to her hometown of Washington, D.C. It wasn't just the styling she valued, it was Stark's sunny gift of gab.

In his free time, Sharon would learn, Stark, a husband and father of two, was a tournament fisherman. And there was another layer: Stark used his Nitro Z-9 bass boat to create a nonprofit foundation called Fishing With America's Finest, taking veterans suffering from PTSD to fish as a form of recreational therapy.

To hear Stark tell it, he gets as much out of the trips as the veterans do. His first outing was in 2009 with a veteran who was part of a program that had offered him a trip to South Beach. The soldier wanted something quiet and calm. He wanted to fish. A friend with the program put him in touch with Stark.

"His name was Matt. He had gone through three tours in Iraq and had experienced some pretty rough stuff," Stark says of the trip, which included the soldier's father. "We get out there, and I get to watch him interact with his father and catch some fish. And I could see the weight peel off of him. We had an amazing day."

Stark soon got a letter from the soldier, thanking him for the trip with an offer of military memorabilia. Calling the experience a personal "intervention," Stark had another idea, asking Matt instead to spread the word: Any veteran had a free fishing trip waiting for them on his boat.

With help from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Stark created a 501 C3 nonprofit foundation, and now takes veterans out into the Everglades two or three times a week.

"The guys have always expressed a sense of spirituality they find out there," he says. "I've had men and women who can't walk onto the boat, some have had to be carried. Some of the deepest wounds are the ones that you don't see. To be able to pick up a rod and cast with them is something very moving."

Listening to her hairdresser describe these trips, Sharon, a filmmaker whose resume includes work for the National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel and PBS, was at first incredulous, but quickly saw a documentary taking shape.

"I was stunned. I had trouble reconciling these two separate sides of him," she says.

"Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" was shot in 2013, and completed with $15,000 in Kickstarter money and no shortage of volunteers donating their time, Sharon says, including cinematographer Pablo Durana, part of the team that made the Oscar-winning documentary short "Inocente."

"He turned down a paying job to do this, just because he believed in it, and he wanted to get Rudy and Neal's story out there," Sharon says.

A SOLDIER'S STORY

Watt, who moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to Miami as a child, first got wind of the film project through his recreational therapist with the Miami VA Healthcare System, Tabitha Aragon. He agreed to take part, "to get the word out about what we soldiers are going through," but there were lines that could not be crossed. The filmmakers were not invited to film inside the home he shares with his two dogs.

Now on retired-reserve status after 21 years in the Army, Watt isn't interested in detailing what happened during an 18-month tour in Iraq that began in 2003. When he returned, a doctor who had known him before his tour, told him: "You're not the same person I knew."

Watt says the face of PTSD is not "a guy up on a roof with a rifle," but the veteran still on patrol in his own home, uneasy in large crowds, but masking it in public with a stoic distance.

"He's got a real heavy weight. He's living what he was trained to do, living that every day," Watt says. "Hyper-aggressive, you survive on very little sleep. You stuff your feelings so you don't appear to be weak. You have to be able to come out of a fire fight and function like normal. As a leader you have to stand in front of your guys and make decisions without showing them any kind of feelings. Because they will start to mistrust you."

The cameras are rolling when Watt and Stark share their first handshake. It's not long before they learn they are the same age (53), and as kids used to run around in the same fields along Snake Creek where Sun Life Stadium now sits.

More than a year later, the two still fish together. During a phone conversation, Stark refers to Watt as "my brother."

When "Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" is screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Tuesday, Veteran's Day, Watt will be there with Stark and Sharon. It's not an environment he enjoys. But, Watt says, following through on a commitment is how he was raised, and how he was trained: "I still live the Army values. Courage, honor, strength, discipline, loyalty, honesty."

"Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" ends much as it begins, though you do discover that Watt knows how to smile. But maybe that, too, is a mask.

"I am coping with it more. But there is no real healing," Watt says. "You can't get rid of a memory. It's always there."

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

If you go

Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival screenings of "Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" are at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11, at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (2008 Hollywood Blvd.) and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale (503 SE Sixth St.).

Sgt. Rudy Watt and Neal Stark, joined by filmmaker Abigail Tannebaum Sharon, will take part in Q-and-A discussions at both screenings, which will be free for veterans, active-duty military and their families (who get free popcorn in Hollywood, and a hot dog in Fort Lauderdale).

At 4:30 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz will be joined by Watt, Stark and Sharon at a press conference highlighting PTSD.

"Rudy + Neal Go Fishing" will be shown at both theaters in tandem with "And Great Showers of Tears Came Down," a profile of Vietnam veteran Alvin W. Roberts by South Florida filmmaker Dalton Narine, who also will be in attendance at the screenings. Tickets: $10, $8 students. Call 954-525-3456 or visit FLIFF.com.

For more on Fishing With America's Finest, go to FishingWithAmericasFinest.org.

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