In 2006, PTSD was not a house hold name and yet it was front and center in my mind as we were sending hundreds and thousands of young men and women off to war with no plan for their care after their return. Fast forward to 2012 and 18 veterans are committing suicide every single day. How is it that everyone supports our troops but not our veterans when they come home?
This film is a response to the cultural disconnect between veterans and civilians. I wanted to bridge that gap by showing the struggle and healing journey of one person. In this case, I was lucky to find Robynn Murray, whose voice is so powerful; I knew she could be a voice for the thousands of veterans struggling alone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What impressed me about the veterans in both my films, POSTER GIRL and IRAQ PAPER SCISSORS, is that they didn't depend on the Department of Veterans Affairs to save them, they took responsibility for their own healing. The art and writings they created through the Combat Paper Project and Warrior Writers enabled them to process their experiences at war. Sharing their work with compassionate audiences, they were accepted and empowered. I truly believe their efforts to express themselves in positive and creative ways has saved them.
It is my hope that as we develop a deeper understanding of the issues our veterans are facing, young men and women will make a more informed decision when joining the military and we can begin to heal together as a country.
The Back Story
My film career began auspiciously when I learned to crawl under my dad’s Steenbeck as he hovered above, splicing film. As a young adult, our father/daughter duo teamed up to walk, hike, bushwhack, dodge bears and navigate raging rivers while making socio-environmental films. It was backwoods mentoring one could say. We traveled together across Eastern Europe, Japan and Siberia. Such rugged experiences laid the groundwork to explore my passion to engage in life through filmmaking.
I began collaborating with Drew Cameron, director of the Combat Paper Project in the fall of 2007, as a response to my father's frustration with the war and my generation's general apathy towards it. While hiking in the mountains in Vermont, my dad quoted Huey Newton "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." This reality check got me to use my filmmaking skills to help veterans share their stories,
met Drew when I stepped into the Green Door Studio in Burlington, VT in 2007.
Inside the old paper mill, a group of young vets were transforming their
military uniforms into hand-made paper, books, and unique works of art. The
vets were literally cutting, beating and shredding the fibers of their old
“rags” into pulp from which they made paper. This was the beginning of a very
important journey to process their emotional trauma and reconcile their
experiences with war.
What first moved me was how raw and expressive these particular vets were; they defied the widely held stereotype that veterans did not “talk about it.” These young men and women were struggling with PTSD and all of them were trying to make sense of their lives as mostly hidden members of society.
It wasn't until the summer of 2008 I met Robynn. I organized a week long healing, writing and art making retreat for Veterans on Martha's Vineyard where I had previously lived for seven years. 30 Vets were invited from all over the country. A friend gave us land to stay on and the island residents supported us by bringing us sheets and blankets, food and provisions, and every days folks would come by to offer massages and lead meditation. At the end of the week we had a big show to present thier art and spoken word. There was not a dry eye in the house.
When I met Robynn I knew I had to include her in my film. At this point I was still making IRAQ PAPER SCISSORS and the film followed many subjects and focused mostly on the Combat Paper Project. But Robynn's story took my film to another level. Not only was Robynn captivating but she was a particular stage in her return to civilian life I wanted to capture - navigating the VA. I wanted to show what it was like for vets to return home and have to face a bureaucratic system that lacked the resources and the will to truly help them. Ultimately, what made Robynn's story special, was that she gave me access to her most unguarded and intimate moments of pain and despair. This was essential to helping the audience relate and truly empathize with veterans suffering from PTSD. This would not have happened without Robynn's trust in me, and more importantly her courage. Robynn fully understood what I was trying to do with the film and she was aware how powerful her voice was, and that she could be the voice for others suffering alone. Eventually, Robynn emerged as the soul character in her own film and HBO got involved to help me finish.
Both Robynn and I never anticipated we would make it to the Oscars nor did the thought enter our minds. We were simply trying to do something important that needed to be said. But getting the film to that level meant we could reach a broader audience and hopefully make a deeper impact on veterans issues.