Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Two Sundance films and several reminders

I had the privilege of heading to Park City, Utah for Sundance Film Festival. In addition to skiing the Utah powder, I also took in two feature length films at the festival. I saw The Dry Land and Bass Ackwards. Both films were reminders to me that film is art and film is a powerful storytelling tool.

Bass Ackwards tells the story of Linas, "when kicked off of his friend’s couch and spurned by his lover, finds a forgotten van on a llama farm outside Seattle, he begins lurching east with nothing to lose. Slowly, the road eases him out of his relentless longing and into the moment. As his encounters with enigmatic characters take on subtly transcendent qualities, his shame and discomfort at being alone gradually give way to self-acceptance and connection. The dented, off-kilter vehicle, which valiantly, amazingly endures the journey, becomes a colorful metaphor for the human condition—our tenacity and hopefulness always tinged with imperfection.” [Description provided by Sundance Film Festival]

Bass Ackwards reminded me of a couple of things. I was reminded that lessons and moments for learning are all around us. We only allow ourselves to learn at particular moments (we compartmentalize learning in our lives) rather than opening ourselves up to the people and circumstances around us. At several points in the movie, Linas finds himself in an unexpected situation with an unordinary character. Sometimes it seems that the person might 'take' from Linas rather than 'give' to him, might burden him rather than assist him, might annoy him rather than sustain him. Inevitably, the giving and taking is mutual between Linas and the people he meets. Linas ends up learning from the characters he comes across and he ends up teaching these people as well.

I was also reminded by Bass Ackwards that people are complex. So often we take in a person's appearance, mannerisms, odor, and disposition, and then make a judgement about the person. This often results in writing people off that have so much to share and to give.

The second film I saw was called The Dry Land. The Dry Land follows James as he returns from Iraq to face a new battle -- integrating into his small-town life in Texas. His wife, his mother, and his friend provide support, but they can't fully understand the pain and suffering he feels since his tour of duty ended. Lonely, James reconnects with an army buddy, who provides him with compassion and camaraderie during his battle to process his experiences in Iraq. But their reunion also exposes the different ways war affects people -- at least on the surface.
[Description provided by Sundance Film Festival].

This was really a great film, and more significantly, an important film. James suffers from PTSD and the struggles he has with integrating back into his life and relationships back home are heart-wrenching in the film. James reacts strongly, even violently, to loud noises, being awoken by his wife, and the use of firearms. James tries to sort out these problems inwardly, but is unable to cleanse himself of some of the experiences he has had and the resulting reactions. His family and friends can't understand why he is so messed up, and can't fathom how to help him. James cannot offer suggestions on how others can help him, much less even talk about his experiences.

The filmmakers and actors talked after the film about interviewing hundreds of veterans about their PTSD. They compiled many of these interviews and additional research about PTSD to create a character seen in the film who struggles with PTSD as a result of the Iraq War.

This is an important film because it normalizes PTSD. If we are going to normalize war in our society -- an unfortunate reality, but nonetheless, a reality -- then we need to normalize PTSD. It is a reality that people who experience such traumatic and jarring experiences as exist in war, will have an extremely difficult time coping with and processing those experiences, especially when they are processing those experiences with people who have no understanding or experience themselves.

Another element in the film is James' added difficulty because of his personality. James is introverted and isn't terribly vulnerable or open with his loved ones. Because of this, James has a difficult time getting things off his chest, even with someone as close to him as his wife.

The filmmakers plan to take this film around to U.S. military bases (they have already gotten the approval of the armed services to do this) to open up a conversation about PTSD. They realized in some of the screenings they did with soldiers, that this film provided an avenue for people to tell their stories and get support for their PTSD.

I hope this film helps PTSD sufferers to talk about their difficulties. I also hope it helps to show people how awful war can be, for those involved and those related to those involved. Sometimes people call war a 'necessary evil'. But it seems we focus on the 'necessary' part and not on the 'evil' part. It's an experience that takes a great toll and takes a great number of lives, it also takes a great toll on the survivors.

If politicians and decision-makers send young men and women off to war, there better damn-well be support for them when they return. There needs to be a recognition of the effects of war on surviving soldiers.

Here's to helping those who suffer from war, both here and abroad. Here's to ending war, both here and abroad.

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