Winning an Academy Award is a crowning achievement for filmmakers, but to even be named eligible is an incredible feat in itself. “Apache Blues: Welcome Home,” a documentary co-directed by Dustin Sweet, a former University of New Mexico-Taos adjunct professor, and Dave Merlino has made the cut as one of 167 documentary feature films eligible for an Oscar in the 96th Academy Awards.
“It’s still a little shocking. It’s not a thing that I thought we would do with this film at all,” Sweet said. “I’m really enjoying what it has done for the visibility of the film.”
The documentary explores the experiences of Vietnam veterans, the adverse mental health effects they faced upon their return home, and the healing power of talk. The film visits members of the Apache Troop, among others, which was tasked with rescuing soldiers in dire situations and was featured fighting in Vietnam in a CBS Evening News story in 1970.
The idea for the film came about when Merlino, a former U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer, was talking with his former coworker and friend, Kregg Jorgenson, about his Vietnam stories as a member of the Apache Troop. The project started to unfold in 2016, but every time Merino and Sweet thought they were close to wrapping it up, they found more story to tell.
“With documentaries, you want to be pushing the audience out the door to whatever your call to action is and for us, it’s ‘Hey, let’s talk with the veterans in our lives,’” Merino said.
To be eligible for the documentary feature film category, a film must have a seven-day theatrical release in a major metro area, win a qualifying film festival, or be its country’s official selection for the International Feature Film category. “APACHE BLUES: Welcome Home” had a one-week theatrical run in Encino, California earlier this year. The film is not currently available for the public to watch, but the trailer and updates about distribution are available on the documentary’s website.
The film is a production of Sweet and Merlino’s company, Rainbows and Unicorns Entertainment, LLC. The duo, who met while studying film in college, had always dreamt of writing movies together. They founded their Seattle-based company in 2011 and have since worked on several short films, including “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD.” “APACHE BLUES: Welcome Home” is their first feature film, which they acknowledge is ironic for two screenwriters given that it was unscripted. As their first documentary moves toward the distribution stage, the company is exploring future projects, which may include revisiting veteran stories.
“There’s a lot of different avenues we’d be happy to pursue,” Merlino said. “I still keep the flame alive for a band of brothers series about these guys.”
Sweet has worked as an adjunct professor in the Film and Digital Media department of UNM-Taos off and on for nearly a decade. Though he is not currently teaching any classes, he has taught Animation, Intro to Film and Multimedia. Sweet grew up in Taos and studied film in Seattle, Colorado and Glasgow. Returning to the town and seeing the Film and Digital Media department at UNM-Taos grow and create dual-credit opportunities for high schoolers has been exciting and living in Taos and working in film has been an ideal scenario for him.
“To be able to set a goal and overcome whatever adversities come your way to succeed in the thing you set out to do — I am living the dream and this is it,” Sweet said.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce a narrowed-down, 15-film shortlist on Dec. 21 before releasing the five official category nominees in January. The Academy Awards will be held on March 10, 2024.