By Paul Lane
NORTH TONAWANDA —
When Mark and Christine Bonn went West to chase their dreams nearly a quarter-century ago, they had no idea that their pursuit of the perfect story would return them to Western New York.
Yet when Mark, a North Tonawanda native, and Christine, who grew up in Grand Island, screen the latest documentary in their World War II film series during the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, they will go full circle in their quest to honor The Greatest Generation.
The couple’s third completed documentary, “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story,” will screen at 9 p.m. April 23 at the Riviera Theatre during a block of films being shown throughout the day. “Wings” is the latest documentary short the couple has made profiling World War II veterans and is a project the couple considers to be a hidden gem among war stories.
A South Dakota native, the 91-year-old Cowden — who in the documentary appears as spry as women half her age — recounted her experiences with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a program that trained women to perform many of the domestic military flight duties that couldn’t be fulfilled by men because the men were on the front. She had learned on her own how to fly — paying for lessons on a teacher’s salary of $110 a month and riding her bike six miles each way to the lessons — and immediately enlisted once she heard of the group.
Cowden and 1,073 of her peers completed the training program and began performing various duties. Cowden’s orders included numerous visits to Western New York, as she was charged with flying King Cobra aircraft from the Bell Aerospace plant in Wheatfield to a base in Montana. The group was decommissioned upon the war’s conclusion, and many of the women who took part never flew again.
The Bonns discovered Cowden while filming another veteran’s story near the Bonns’ Los Angeles home. They had already filmed the stories of several veterans by that point, but neither of them had ever hears of the W.A.S.P. group and felt the tale needed to be told.
“She is just an amazing story,” Christine Bonn said. “They weren’t formally recognized, received no military benefits — many Americans don’t even know that they exist — and yet today, women’s place in this country might be very different if (they) hadn’t been willing to do the job they did.”
There was no follow-up job, however. Women weren’t allowed to work as commercial pilots in the 1940s, so Cowden was forced to instead work in ceramics until she got married.
“She does mention some of the prejudice they were under with this, but at the same time it was like, ‘Well, this is what it is, and we still have to go do it,’ ” Christine Bonn said.
“She was not a ‘back to the kitchen’ type of person,” Mark Bonn said.
Telling Cowden’s story is the latest chapter in a project that’s proven to be a labor of love for the Bonns. Mark Bonn, who graduated from North Tonawanda High School, met Christine while the two worked at WNED filming documentaries — he shot them, and she was an assistant. But soon after, she moved to Austria for three years to pursue acting while he moved to California to find more lucrative film opportunities. They crossed paths again in 1989 during a reunion, and she decided to marry him and move to California.
While he worked as an editor for Fox, Mark and Christine continued to make films, even forming their own production company, My Monkey House, in 2002. While rifling through family heirlooms relating to the war, they decided to make a documentary, “Letters of Defiance,” relating to the letters that were sent from the front to Defiance, Ohio, where Christine’s family lives.
“We got amazing response to the documentary,” Christine Bonn said. “I thought, ‘Well, my family will like this film.’ But it was amazing. Kids and teenagers would come up to us and say, ‘I wish we could watch this in school.’ This is a great way to learn about history.”
So the fuel for the fire that is the film project was added. The Bonns have since gotten footage of 14 World War II veterans, including four from the Buffalo area (among them is local realty guru Morton Stovroff).
“We get to sit down with these people, and they tell you their lives,” said Mark Bonn, who noted that the films are cut so that they focus solely on the subject and not the filmmakers. “We sit them down, and they tell us a story.”
“Most of these stories you will never see in the history books,” said Christine Bonn, who said that while veterans are happy to talk, they tend to deflect praise. “They’re so humble about it. When we started mentioning (being a hero) to them, they got angry. They say the heroes are the ones who never came back. In that generation, they never boasted.”
Although 11 films’ worth of footage is done, those movies have had to wait while “Wings” has made the film festival circuit. Including the Buffalo Niagara festival, “Wings” is entered in nine festivals nationwide.
“We pretty much have had the film in a festival every month,” Mark Bonn said.
With Christine working on the documentaries, Mark’s Fox salary is the couple’s main source of income. But that hasn’t stopped the Bonns from dreaming big.
“We ask ourselves that quite often,” he responded when asked why they work on these films. “Capturing these stories is really quite important. The real dream would be to have people in every state go out and get these stories ... and send the stories back to us.”
“We realized that we couldn’t wait to get funding,” Christine Bonn said. “We just needed to jump on it.”
But while there might not yet be much profit to the project, the Bonns’ finished product is captivating on many levels, according to Bill Cowell, founder of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.
“They made a great film,” he said. “We’re very specific about picking the projects. And they just keep coming in, and they keep getting bigger and better.”
The Bonns plan to attend the local screening of “Wings,” which Mark said is special because of the place the Riv holds in his heart. The first movie he ever saw was at the Riv, he said, and as a child he held a charity benefit there.
“What a neat theater to be coming back to,” he said.
Contact Paul Lane at 693-1000, ext. 116.
FILM FEST SCHEDULE
Film festival events will take place at the following venues:
• Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, 617 Main St., Buffalo (845-6197)
• Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda (692-2113)
• Tonawanda Castle, 69 Delaware St., City of Tonawanda (743-8544)
For more information, including complete lists of every film to be shown, visit buffaloniagarafilmfestival.com.