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In first feature, director explores scars of war

Before the film festival awards poured in, and before she landed A-list actors to star in her film, Gabrielle Savage Dockterman faced the uphill battles first-time directors know well. In 2000 she came across an intriguing story she wanted to film, but it would be five years until it came to life as her debut feature, ''Missing in America." Danny Glover stars as Jake, a Vietnam veteran initially reluctant to raise the daughter of his ailing ex-Army buddy, played by David Strathairn. Gradually, the girl and the gruff veteran develop a warm relationship.

In an interview from her home in Carlisle, Dockterman says that despite its compelling narrative, a movie about Vietnam vets was a tough sell.

''It was a negative when I would pitch it to people, but I thought the relationship story was enough to carry it," she says. ''Everything that's happened since then has made it more timely."

''Missing in America," which came out on DVD Jan. 10, is based on a story by Ken Miller, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam. Dockterman reworked the story with Miller and Nancy Babine. The film explores the physical and emotional scars of a war still taking a toll on those who fought it. Strathairn's character, Henry, is dying from lung cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Glover's Jake feels guilty about the men who died while serving under his command and has isolated himself in a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest.

Dockterman says she now realizes there was another reason she was drawn to this story. The director last saw her father when she was 17. When he died alone in a motel in Montana, no one in his family had heard from him in four years.

''My dad was one of these people. He wasn't a Vietnam vet, but he decided to disappear," Dockterman says. ''In the back of my mind I guess I hoped [the film] would bring him out maybe. Hopefully it will help some other people."

Dockterman has had a long career making educational films and interactive media projects. ''Missing in America" is the third feature project she's worked on. The first two didn't get off the ground, and she knew that a poignant story alone wouldn't help the latest one avoid the same fate. She needed to have stars onboard as well.

The director was able to land Glover, Strathairn (before his critically acclaimed turn in ''Good Night, and Good Luck,") Linda Hamilton, and Ron Perlman. Dockterman says she was also fortunate to find newcomer Zoe Weizenbaum, a 14-year-old Amherst resident who went on to play Young Pumpkin in ''Memoirs of a Geisha."

With the help of casting director Adrienne Stern, Dockterman signed up Glover first. The director says the ''Lethal Weapon" star had always been on her list, but she tried not to pin her hopes on any one actor.

''I really didn't expect our first choice would say yes," she says. ''We didn't know this until we met with him, but he said he'd read [the script] twice and there was no question in his mind he'd do it."

For Glover, the subject was important personally as well as professionally. Glover's brother served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. When he returned home, he developed lung problems attributed to Agent Orange.

''It's the kind of work I try to do beyond the big films that I'm noted for," Glover says by phone. ''I thought that the film itself, the project itself allowed me as an actor to use all of my abilities."

''Missing in America" was also a reunion of sorts for Glover and Strathairn, who worked together on the 1984 film ''Iceman." Strathairn was excited to work on a project that raised issues similar to those of ''Beyond the Call," a 1996 TV movie in which he plays a troubled Vietnam vet opposite Sissy Spacek. Strathairn says that Vietnam remains a potent ongoing issue and, like his castmates, praises how Dockterman handled herself.

''As ambitious a project as this was, she was pretty on top of it. It didn't feel like she was a first-time director," he says. ''It's a brave film to make."

Casting Strathairn and Glover were easy decisions, but Dockterman auditioned hundreds of girls before choosing Weizenbaum to play Lenny. The actress, then 12, had acted in local stage productions but hadn't done any film work. Four days before rehearsals began, the role still wasn't cast. When Weizenbaum came to the Vancouver set to audition, the director decided to take a chance on the inexperienced young actress. ''She ended up being brilliant," Dockterman says.

Weizenbaum, for her part, says that Dockterman's gentle, down-to-earth style helped her nail a key scene in the film.

''One thing that comes to mind is this one scene where I was crying," Weizenbaum recalls. ''She said, 'You don't have to make tears come, just go for it.' "

''Missing in America" has won awards at festivals in Woods Hole, Northampton, and St. Louis and took top honors at the Monaco International Film Festival. Dockterman hopes to take advantage of new local tax incentives for filmmakers and shoot a project in Massachusetts. She's also looking for other stories that can be adapted into films.

''I'm very particular, and I really have to love something to spend a large amount of time on it," she says. ''I guess it's sort of in my blood to do stories that enlighten people."

Rhonda Stewart can be reached at rstewart@globe.com.

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