JACKSON, Wyo. — Wyoming filmmakers Mark Pedri and Carrie McCarthy will be screening “Dear Sirs,” a documentary about Mark’s grandfather’s experience as a prisoner of war in World War II, in Jackson on Wednesday, June 22.
Growing up in Rock Springs, Mark had a pretty typical childhood living across the street from his grandfather, Silvio Pedri. He worked summers at the mobile home park Silvio owned, played the accordion as part of the Italian family’s tradition and sat on the porch with Silvio listening to the trains go by. Mark knew his grandpa had been in World War II, but like many veterans of his generation, he didn’t talk about it. Instead, Silvio focused on family and his work in the Rock Springs coal mine.
After Silvio died in May 2009, his house sat empty for the next decade. When Mark and his wife Carrie visited Rock Springs for Thanksgiving 2017, they stayed in Silvio’s house. What they found on that trip kicked off a four-year journey of discovering who Silvio Pedri was through his experiences as a soldier in World War II.
Tucked into the frame of Silvio’s bed was a long, sharp knife, left untouched since he had passed away 10 years earlier. Intrigued, Mark stayed up all night, scouring the house for anything he could find that would provide a reason why his grandpa slept with a knife. The next morning, he showed Carrie a treasure trove of his grandfather’s documents, photos, letters and paraphernalia from World War II.
For the next seven months, Mark obsessed over these records and developed a deep desire to connect with his grandpa through his story. The couple decided to move into the Rock Springs house in June 2018 and start digitizing the documents, eventually making a short film that traced Silvio’s capture in Metz, France, to his time as a prisoner of war in Limburg and Sandbostel, Germany. That version of the film wasn’t quite right, though.
“We made the worst version first using imagery from the archive, but there were so many holes,” Carrie said in an interview with Buckrail. “You can’t search this stuff on Google, so we tried image searching and chat rooms for World War II, asking people, ‘Hey do you know what this is?’ It became a truly dead end, and we realized we would have to visit the archives in these towns and talk to historians there to fill in the gaps.”
So that’s what they did. Over the course of six weeks in winter 2019, Carrie and Mark rode 500 miles through France and Germany on their bikes, stopping in each of the places that Silvio would have stopped and experiencing similar snowy conditions.
“Our goal wasn’t to go fast, it was to connect with a person in those places across the span of 75 years,” Mark said. The film weaves a delicate story between Silvio’s path in the war—fighting amputation, being locked in a railcar for weeks, getting sent to a work camp, seeing his fellow soldiers starve to death—and Mark and Carrie’s bike journey. Visuals switch between scenes of the couple riding through blowing snow on their bikes weighed down with 80 pounds of equipment, shots from the European towns as they are now, clever animation of Silvio’s devastating experiences, and archival footage of the war.
“In Metz, he was a solider. In Heppenheim, he was a patient. In Limburg, he was a worker. But in Sandbostel, he was forsaken.” With lines like this throughout the 90-minute film, Mark narrates the story with a mix of straightforward prose and succinct poetry. In addition, the original film score by James Craft sets a powerful emotional backdrop for the viewer to follow along on each aspect of the journey.
“One of the big themes in the film was captivity versus freedom,” Mark said. “Really we were creating juxtaposition. We had the total freedom, and any time we could have just ended the bike trip. It became an adventure for us, where we would come home and talk about it. [Silvio] was really faced with the exact opposite. He spent the rest of his life never talking about it and never wanting to relive the experience.”
Mark describes making the film as “emotionally crippling” because he was so entangled with the film as its creator and one of its subjects. As the film’s producer and his wife, Carrie provided the necessary perspective to help him see the big picture.
“He shot the film, he wrote the film, he edited the film,” Carrie said. “That makes it mentally and emotionally complicated. We had to figure out how to communicate the story so it resonates outside of this one story here, so audiences see themselves in it.”
“At the end of the day, there’s this thought of why should anyone care about this one story among millions, especially because World War II is a story-generating machine of unfathomable things. As difficult as my grandfather’s story was, it wasn’t the worst,” Mark said. However, the goal of getting people, especially men, to talk to each other about the horrors of war, was Mark’s guiding light. The film aims to disrupt the culture of silence around these things that are hard to talk about.
Since the film premiered in September 2021, there have been screenings across the U.S., France and Germany. Everywhere they go, Mark and Carrie meet veterans who share their personal experiences and what Silvio might have been thinking at the time. The screenings have helped them continue to connect with Silvio.
“At all of these screenings, we have a group of people in this room going through this experience together. It’s incredibly impactful to have patriotic veterans, conscientious objectors, and peace and healing advocates having the same conversation in a way that makes us all connected in this human experience.”
Hosted in partnership with Wyoming PBS and Wyoming Humanities, the Jackson screening will take place on Wednesday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Center for the Arts. It’s free and open to the public. Joe Rice, a local veteran and businessman, will give the opening remarks, and a Q&A with filmmakers Mark and Carrie will follow the screening.