“This wasn’t just the old man who limped everywhere. The more I learned about my grandfather, the more I felt distant from him,” said Mark Pedri. In his expedition-based documentary “Dear Sirs,” director Mark Pedri and his wife, producer Carrie McCarthy, embarked on a journey to discover his Italian American grandfather Silvio Pedri’s past as a soldier during World War II.
Upon coming across a sharp army knife hidden in Silvio Pedri’s old bedroom in Wyoming, the Pedri couple decided to piece together his adventures as a soldier through piles of letters, black and white photographs, forgotten artifacts and military medals, and a spontaneous bicycle journey across Europe.
Director Mark Pedri has an MFA in Producing for TV and Film from the University of Southern California and an MA in Communication and Journalism from the University of Wyoming, and his cinematography has been featured in international film festivals and national PBS. Although the director has released several other films including “A Movement of Movement” (2014) and “Morfar’s View of the Winds” (2020), this latest documentary is his most personal work yet.
A small group of people gathered at New York’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at six o’clock in the evening on Tuesday 22nd of March to watch the screening of “Dear Sirs.” So far, the documentary has been shown in Rock Springs, Wyoming; San Jose, California; Metz, France, and will shortly be screened in several towns in Germany. The documentary is also the foundation of a recent exhibition in Italy, as it was recognized as portraying one of the most complete timelines of Italian American soldiers from World War II.
This film was ironically created to allow the narration of a story which had long been left untold. Mark Pedri’s grandmother, Rena, passed away when he was 13 years old and, for the next nine years, the young boy spent countless time with his grandfather, Silvio Pedri, in Southwestern Wyoming. Together, the two family members primarily bonded over microwaved pizza, playing accordions and working on odd jobs. Silvio Pedri’s family saw him as a “tough guy” who did not talk much, did not like the spotlight and phrased “I-love-you’s” as “you better” accompanied by a fist bump.
Director Mark Pedri recalls that one of his first fights with his grandfather was over him biking too much; a disagreement that, while nonsensical, led him to disobey him even further and eventually fill the conversation voids with silence. That same silence is the very thing that Mark Pedri regrets today and what led him to create the recent “Dear Sirs” documentary.
Silvio Pedri was born in Trento, Italy, and immigrated to Rock Springs, Wyoming, with his family at a very young age. As a young man, Silvio Pedri spent his free time playing football and working menial jobs with his father until he decided to join the army one day–a common way to receive American citizenship back then.
During his military service, Silvio Pedri made many friends who, over time, became his second family and later came to be known as the “Iron Men of Metz”, an allusion to their bravery and endurance. As depicted in the film, Silvio Pedri wrote his girlfriend and wife-to-be Rena Ruffini countless letters and postcards to update her on the war, telling her stories about his whereabouts and eventually asking for her hand in marriage. The latter was a difficult promise, a promise which seemed more and more out of reach as the war progressed.
The “Dear Sirs” documentary is narrated through letters, interviews and historic memorabilia in the first half. However, feeling more distant than ever to his late grandfather, and as though he had reached a cul-de-sac in the storyline, Mark Pedri decided to travel by bike from France to Germany with his wife Carrie Pedri, seeing for himself the sites where his grandfather was stationed, where he had fought at the Battle of Metz in France and where he was captured and held prisoner in the Stalag X-B concentration camp in Standbostil, Germany.
The aim of Mark Pedri’s journey was to maximize his understanding of Silvio Pedri’s experience and to allow the viewers to come along with him on a journey into the depths of war-time memory. The director’s choice of bicycles as the primary transportation vehicle was intentional, symbolizing an inside joke between him and his grandfather. Similarly, Mark Pedri also purposefully traveled in the winter, reflecting the harsh weather conditions his grandfather withstood. “I didn’t want to make it too easy, like some touristy trip. As my grandfather used to say, ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’”
Although most of the “Iron Men of Metz” were lost in battle and declared missing, Silvio Pedri survived the war’s brutality and dire conditions of imprisonment through hope, romance and perseverance. Once he returned home to Wyoming, Silvio Pedri was reunited with his family, fulfilled his promise by marrying Rena Ruffini and was awarded a silver star medal and two purple hearts.
The creation of “Dear Sirs”’ helped bridge the silent distance between a grandson and his grandfather while simultaneously sharing the collective memory of innumerable other soldiers’ stories that remain untold to this day. As Mark Pedri says in his documentary, “If you’ve never been to war, you’ll never understand it. If you have been to war, you know it’s not meant to be understood.”