Streaming Films

To Mourn Your Own Self: A Conversation with Laurent Becue-Renard About ‘Of Men and War’

In his first film War-Wearied filmmaker Laurent Becue-Renard discovered a role for the camera in therapy, observing group sessions with survivors of war in Bosnia suffering from post-traumatic stress. In his new film Of Men and War (T/F 2015) Laurent and his team developed a similar approach, filming with traumatized American soldiers over months and years, both during and after their stay at The Pathway Home halfway house.

 

 

I recently got the chance to speak with Laurent on the phone ahead of his film’s screening at True/False 2015. He’ll be in-person at the Fest to discuss the film further, as will David Wells, one of the men from the film who just happened to be from Columbia, MO.

-Dan Steffen

 

True/False: Can we start by talking about access? How you became involved with this particular program?

Laurent Becue-Renard: Prior to filming I made extensive research, meeting a lot of veterans, their families and sometimes their therapists. During the course of my first trip ten years ago I met Fred Gusman, who at the time was working for The National Center for PTSD. When he started this new program, The Pathway Home, I had known him for three years already. He had seen my previous film shot in Bosnia, also in therapy.

I asked him first for access to the facility when his first patients came in. He granted me access without a camera. I was allowed to be here the first two months like a fly-on-the-wall. That’s what I did; the two months became three, four, five months. After five months I asked him if I could use a small camera, just to see how the camera could take part in the therapy. I did that for several weeks, after which I was granted permission to film with professional equipment, first for three months, then for six, then for nine. All this is to say that when I started filming and when the guys who are in the film arrived I had already been there for several months. They never knew the Pathway Home without the camera.

That being said, it was not compulsory whatsoever for them to be filmed in therapy. At any time they could say that they wanted us to turn off the camera and leave the room, which never happened. In my first film it was the same, I was never asked to leave the room or stop filming.

With most of them I talked about my grandfathers who fought in World War One, and I showed them the picture that’s on the end credits of the film. The two guys who were my grandfathers came back from the war at the same age that they did and built up their families. They never spoke, not to their wives or kids or grandkids. I grew up with the silence over what was experienced in the war. That was something the men could understand very quickly. Those with kids could see very much how the kids were affected by the traumas of the father.

T/F: Could you explain the camera’s place in therapy?

LBR: The camera took a role in a therapeutic process on a daily basis, both in the first film in Bosnia and in this film. It’s mostly two aspects. The first one is acknowledgement. For the patient’s perspective there is in the room a guy coming from very, very far away — not only geographically but also culturally, socially — who seems to have plenty of time. His time is extensive. And he will be there in the room until they are done talking, from the very beginning to the very end. A guy with no agenda or even questions. There are no interviews whatsoever. The only questions the filmmaker is interested in are the questions they are asking themselves. All this put together is an acknowledgement and a validation that something really has happened to them, something that has made them who they have become.

Of course, this is what a therapist is doing on a daily basis. When you go to see a therapist, the very fact that he is allocating 45 minutes of his time and is only there to listen to what you have to tell him is an acknowledgement and validation of what has happened to you and the way you feel about it. The presence of the camera is kind of amplifying that.

The second point would be the mediation, in the fact that each and every one of them lives the trauma in a huge loneliness. And it is very difficult to share with their kids, their wife, their parents, in any circle. The film is a promise that some kind of ties with the outside world will be rebuilt through the story, first of all with the family, then the community, then the community of mankind. I think that’s very helpful in the therapeutic process.

 

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image from Of Men and War

 

T/F: Is there any sort of explicit promise?

LBR: No, anything I’m saying right now is purely assumed, but it’s based on extensive experience, first with the Bosnian war and then with these guys. Something that we did for Of Men and War that we didn’t for the first film is see them with their families after therapy. We first shot nine months of therapy, then over the next four years we went back and forth to see several of the men with their families. Sometimes we would come three months after the last day in therapy, sometimes nine months, sometimes eighteen months. What was fascinating is that at the moment we would come and turn on the camera they would pick it up where they had left it in the therapy room months before, as if they very fact that the camera is back and that we were all together, even in the absence of the therapist, meant the setting of the therapy was back and they could continue with what they were on when they finished their stay at The Pathway Home.

And then also a kind of a therapy triangle appeared, the guy, the family member — be it the kid, the wife or the parent — and us. Each of them would use the camera to tell the other things that they wouldn’t tell in their daily life. It was unconscious in the way they were using the camera again in a therapeutic role. That was very, very interesting.

And again, I spent fourteen months on a daily basis in this facility and I shot for nine months. This is very long, you know. And any of them could ask us to leave the room at anytime. So every day, every hour even, it was a re-acknowledgment of their agreement.

T/F: Are you literally not saying anything to them? “Good morning? How’s it going?”

LBR: In the corridors or in the daily room or in the kitchen, of course we are talking, definitely. I’ve done sports with them, I’ve gone on a bike ride to get an espresso at the French bakery downtown. We have daily activities.

T/F: But none of them involve the camera?

LBR: They don’t involve the camera and they never mention what we have taped in the therapy room. There’s a lot of bonding. There were some other volunteers in the half-way home. Some were doing drama work, stage work. Some were doing photography. And I was kind of just another one, you know, belonging and not belonging to the place.

T/F: When I was watching the film, even though it is a very naturalistic film, I felt a certain abruptness in the pacing, and the way scenes ended. Was that something that a feeling you were trying to achieve?

LBR: As a filmmaker I’m trying to address the unconscious of the viewer. I don’t want to address their consciousness, I want them to work while they’re watching the film, without knowing that they are doing so. So when we were editing each of the sessions, we were really focusing on what is at stake in the session for the guy and for the group. Where does he come from at the beginning of the session and where does he go? Of course that means that you don’t have to respect the chronology of the session, neither inside the particular session nor among the sessions. You’re really focused on the meaning and where there’s meaning in the session.

Fred’s sessions, on average, were lasting around two hours, approximately the length of the film. The sessions in the film are on average is forty five seconds to three or four minutes in duration. Our aim while editing was that the viewer would never feel like something was missing in the session. But still they could work on it on their own and still get the feeling that they got it. That’s perhaps what you mean by abruptness.

Abrupt also comes from the fact that that’s how they interact in the sessions with Fred and the others. A session is rather chaotic, you know? Fred’s sessions with trauma related to war, or any session for anyone.

I also sometimes wanted sessions that were very far apart in time in the real chronology to bump into one another. Some of the meaning comes out of the segments bumping heads together. The work of editing is to have the sessions kind of speaking to each other and then also including scenes of the future and family life shot over the next four years.

 

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image from Of Men and War

 

T/F: A take-away from the film for me was the variety in the things that these men experienced in war and I think a variety of what they needed from therapy. That the specifics of their stories of trauma in each case were really important, know what I mean?

LBR: Right. As I said, I spent months working at the Pathway Home and I have known more than one hundred guys and filmed in therapy. And of course before filming doing my research I had met hundreds of veterans. So, I had in my mind a broad spectrum of what was war trauma for a young warrior, all the kinds of experiences they could go through and how they would react to those experiences. They won’t say everything, but everything would be said in the room at some time.

A lot of time your trauma will be expressed by your peers sitting next to you and speaking before or after. That’s one of the dynamics of group therapy. For a young man in this culture it’s very difficult to say how they’ve been deeply, deeply wounded in their soul. It’s not part of your culture. They say these things because they are all saying things together. They accept looking at their weakness because the others are also looking at their own weakness.

When they themselves or other veterans watch this they always say you have my story, it’s there in the film. It’s amazing, no matter the culture, the distance, the different types of war, it’s the same story.

T/F: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about are scenes in the film showing how our culture formally recognizes veterans, for example in a parade or at a ceremony of a football game. They aren’t presented ironically, but seeing those scenes alongside the therapy gives them a new context.

LBR: Yeah, I’ve seen how much veterans are around us. But as much as we acknowledge them in the public sphere, it’s not sure that we do really get it. Of course, veterans are touched when people come towards them at the airport and say “thank you for your service”. And of course it is honest for people who do that. But most veterans I’ve met, they say “yes, they come and say that, but they expect us to go back on track the next day. And we will never recover our lives from prior.’The rear’, those who haven’t been to war, don’t really get it.”

I guess they would rather have their PTSD acknowledged. Yes, life is going to be tough, they don’t react to things how they used to. Sometimes it goes from zero to ten just like this. It’s like missing a limb, but you don’t see it. It’s inside; the wound is within. They know that they can’t go back to the person they were before. They’d like that acknowledged. It’s very difficult to mourn your own self. It’s frightening, it’s painful and it’s an ongoing process that will last all their lives.

So I guess the scene of daily life are more talking about the misunderstanding, the profound misunderstanding between those who went to war and those who didn’t.

T/F: Is there anything else you want to include?

LBR: I want to say I have a great respect and admiration for these young men. I think it’s very, very courageous for each and everyone of them to go into therapy. By going into therapy, they kind of chose life. It’s choosing life when death is all around in their psyche. It’s courageous. It’s courageous to keep being alive, to have a family, to be a part of a community. I think it takes as much courage as being on the front line. I admire their dignity also.

I want to say too that my quest was to go after the words and the sentences my grandfathers could have told me, or could have told my grandmothers or my parents. I think that thanks to these guys I have a kind of access to the trauma that built up in my family and in all of our families in the western world that have this experience of war.

 

 

Posted March 11, 2015

Over 120 T/F Films Available to Watch for Free

Get into the T/F state of mind with over 120 films from True/False past available to stream for free on our newly revised and expanded video page. Films now feature descriptions along with links to essays and filmmaker interviews to further inform your viewing. You can use the categories function on the left of the screen to sort by the year the film played the Fest or by shorts or features. These films are gathered from a variety of sites which legally stream docs, including Vimeo, YouTube, Hulu, SnagFilms, Crackle, P.O.V. and The National Film Board of Canada’s online archive. If you are outside the US, access will vary based on the hosting site, but you should still be able to find plenty of interesting docs to explore.

 

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We’ve also collected videos of classic documentaries, other work from T/F alumnimusical performances captured at the Fest, T/F Panel discussions, Campfire Stories and more. Come take a look around and find something to watch!

Posted January 27, 2015

Two Earlier Works from ‘CITIZENFOUR’ Director Laura Poitras

This Sunday the exciting new doc CITIZENFOUR comes to the Blue Note in our special T/F event. This film reveals the behind-the-scenes story of Edward Snowden, who contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras with startling classified information about NSA surveillance, a decision with world-altering ramifications.

Before delving into this incredible tale, you may want to catch up with or revisit a couple on important precursors from the career of this important nonfiction auteur.

CITIZENFOUR can be seen as the final entry in a trilogy of films exploring foreign policy and security culture in a post-9/11 world. The first was My Country, My Country, which examined the difficulties of electoral politics in US Occupied Iraq. The second was The Oath (T/F 2010), available streaming below from Hulu. This work focuses on a pair of men with direct ties to Bin Laden, Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The former is a dominant and paradoxical screen presence, the latter a haunting felt absence.

Snowden was inspired to contact Poitras because of her New York Times Op-Doc The Program, a short constructed around an interview 32-year NSA veteran turned whistle-blower William Binney.

Posted October 15, 2014

Two Essential T/F Films Available to Watch from POV

The PBS doc series POV has established itself as a major outlet for compelling and timely documentaries. Recently they aired two essential T/F selections, both of which are available to watch online right now.

The first is Big Men (T/F 2014). Over the course of five years, filmmaker Rachel Boynton gained inconceivable access to the back rooms to tell the story of Ghana’s first oil well and its exploration by western oil companies. The 82 minute broadcast version of this work is available streaming until September 24.

 

Also available is After Tiller (T/F 2013) an empathetic look at the four doctors remaining in the US who openly perform late term abortions. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane take us inside intimate counselling sessions, carefully exploring the tough decisions facing each patient. You can watch After Tiller online until October 1.

Don’t forget to explore POV’s website for extras, filmmaker interviews, more films to watch and more.

Posted September 8, 2014

Two Captivating Video Essays from Sight & Sound

The British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound recently released it’s list of the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, the result of a new poll of critics, programmers and filmmakers. In connection with the list, they also released two captivating and provocative video essays. You’ll need to click the links below to watch them on their site, something we recommend highly.

The first is “The Art of Nonfiction” by T/F filmmaker Robert Greene. In it, Greene takes us on a whirlwind tour of 100-plus years of nonfiction cinema, presenting clips from masterworks and elucidating the inherent tensions which define the form.

Disorder, Huang Weikai, 2009, T/F 2010

 

gates of heaven

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

 

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Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog 1992

 

leviathan

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, T/F 2013

 

In the second video, “What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner”, critic Kevin B. Lee looks at three anthropological films from career of director Robert Gardner. While tracing his evolving approach, Lee presses tough questions about “documentary” and the access to reality it promises us.

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Dead Birds, Robert Gardner, 1964

 

Rivers of Sand

Rivers of Sand, Robert Gardner, 1973

 

forest of bliss

Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner, 1986

Posted September 1, 2014

Second Take: ‘Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False’ by Sarah Goodman

Sarah Goodman, director of When We Were Boys (T/F 2010), just released the new short film Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False. In it a woman from the past journeys through the Missourian landscape to the present day and finds herself swept up in a spectacle that she can’t quite understand. This film is part of our new “Second Take” series of short films created at the Fest by T/F alumni. Check it out below.

Posted June 13, 2014

‘Only the Young’ Online from P.O.V. Until June 4

Only the Young (T/F 2012), a charming and candid look at the lives of three California teenagers, is available free streaming until June 5 from the PBS doc series P.O.V.

In his “Forever Young” dispatch from True/False 2012, critic Eric Hynes noted:

Viewed in a certain light, Only the Young’s attractive cast, hip subculture, and sunny California setting, could work alongside MTV’s reality soaps. But you won’t find any typecasting here, no genre boxes, no preconceived notions of youth imposed upon the subjects—or at least none that the supremely articulate characters wouldn’t cop to on their own. For Garrison, Kevin and Skye (who, at 16, has an emotional intelligence that outdistances pretty much everyone I know), fashion is fun but not defining, religion is relevant but hardly central, and class is negotiated but not exactly transcended. Co-directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet are both in their early 20s, just a few years removed from the experiences of their subjects, this age proximity serves to repel intergenerational objectification as well as “state of the youth” sloganeering, freeing the filmmakers to make a movie out of what and how they see. They frame on-camera parries as deadpan two-shots, playfully score slow-mo skate-stunts to classic soul (because why the hell not), and never stoop to exclamation when ellipses work just fine.

Also covering the Fest, Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully boldly announced “after only one viewing, I’m ready to file Only The Young in the all-time coming-of-age canon”.  And T/F associate programmer Chris Boeckmann, collecting his thoughts on the film, declared Only the Young “one of the most exciting documentary debuts of the past decade”.

But please, don’t take their word for it. See Only the Young below.

Posted May 6, 2014

‘Slomo’ Featured in NY Times Op-Docs

Joshua Izenberg’s short Slomo (T/F 2013) introduces us to a former doctor who in middle-age decided to dedicate himself to full-time rollerblading along the San Diego beach boardwalk. This eccentric and eloquent “Slomo” explains himself, raising pressing questions about what we really want in life and the meaning of freedom and happiness.

This film is now available to watch online as part of the NY-Times Op-Docs Series.

Izenberg discussed his interest in this subject in his opinion piece accompanying the film:

I’ve long been fascinated by people who make seismic changes late in life. It goes against the mainstream narrative: Grow up, pick a career, stick it out, retire. I was also curious about Slomo’s concept of “the zone,” a realm of pure subjectivity and connectedness that he achieves through his skating. The only thing Slomo loves more than being in the zone is talking about the zone, so it wasn’t hard to persuade him to take part in a documentary film.

Be sure to check out his full article here.

Posted April 10, 2014

‘Paraíso’ and a Chat with Director Nadav Kurtz

Brothers Sergio and Jaime Polanco and their cousin Cruz Guzman are immigrants from Mexico who work cleaning windows on Chicago’s tallest buildings. In Paraíso (T/F 2012) director Nadaz Kurtz pairs stunning images of the Polancos’ dangerous and fascinating work with their reflections on life’s meaning and what lies beyond. The result is a compelling look at something extraordinary hidden in plain sight.

Paraíso has received awards at Silverdocs, Tribeca, The Chicago International Film Festival, Cine Las Americas and The Seattle International Film Festival. Now this celebrated short film is available to watch online as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series.

I recently got a chance to talk with Nadav Kurtz via phone about his film and its inspiration.
-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you tell me about the original inspiration for Paraiso?

NK: I was working as an editor in Chicago. One day I saw this guy pop up by my window, clean it and then disappear. That was the first time I thought about “Who are these guys?” and “What kind of a person does this job?”

T/F: How did you first meet the Polanco brothers?

NK: When I started working on the film, I went to different buildings all over Chicago and talked to people who did this work. When I met the Polanco brothers, I was just waiting at the bottom of these ropes where they were working, and they just came down and chatted. I was struck right away by how open they were. They were very friendly and basically invited me to their house that evening for a birthday party for one of their nieces. There was clearly something special about them.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

NK: To me the juxtaposition of the two words is about the influence that we have as filmmakers on the situations and people we make films about. Once we are in a situation we influence it. This is against the old-school idea that you could be in a situation and not influence it, that this would somehow be a “true” documentary.

I was interested in how making this doc would be illuminating for myself as well as for them. So I was very open with them about my own thoughts about their work. I asked them questions about topics that they didn’t bring up. Other people have come and done stories on them, from the Chicago Tribune and other news sources. And usually most people ask them things like “How much do you guys make?” and “Are you scared of the job?”, these pretty standard journalistic questions. I was interested in their spiritual beliefs and their relationship to the afterlife, their thoughts about the danger of their job and death. Those were things that I was curious about.

In the process of doing these interviews I think they started thinking about these things in a different way than when we first started. The falseness is that the process itself changed the reality, and even changed how their families viewed their work. Before their wives didn’t really know much about their work and didn’t really think about it. Their home lives and work lives were very separate.

T/F: This focus on the afterlife, is that something that occurred to you right away when you started making this film?

NK: Yeah, it’s something that I was personally interested in, especially around the time I was making the film. It was something that I was thinking about a lot. And then, of course, when you’re up filming on these high rises, it’s a different reality up there. You’re standing there and there’s no guard rail. You have the feeling . . . if a gust of wind came and knocked me over all the things that I think about, all the different problems and joys, can be instantaneously erased.

T/F: Can you tell me how you went about shooting the film, how you got all the amazing shots in the film?

NK: There’s a couple of really wonderful cinematographers Drew Wehde and Chris Markos. Those two did a lot of the filming with me.

Going in I had a plan of doing some of it off the cuff and some of it planned, in terms of lens choices and things like that. But the main thing was a lot of waiting. We got really lucky. I think there was one morning where we got a lot of the shots, particularly the part where they are talking about the afterlife and light is shining into the lens, bouncing off of the building. That was the fifth morning we tried to shoot there. They kept cancelling the work because the wind is too strong. So we kept coming back and eventually we got really lucky. They just happened to be on that side of the building when the angle of the sun was hitting the building in a particular way.

I’ve heard other doc people talk about this, there’s a phenomenon where you keep coming back over and over and over, and then in one hour you wind up getting 90% of what you’re going to use. There’s some weird synergy that happens. You have to put in that time and keep coming back or keep filming, then there are these weird moments where everything just kind of lines up.

T/F: It’s interesting, this sort of crazy dangerous work these guys are doing is sort of hidden in plain sight, we see this amazing work these guys are doing and don’t really even pay any attention to it . . .

NK: Yeah, it’s funny now I always get texts from friends with pictures of window washers working. It seems like once you tell people about the project or once they’ve seen it, they start to notice these people more.

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Explore more streaming films from T/F past on our new video page.

Posted January 16, 2014

Over 100 T/F Films Available to Watch Online

Announcing the new True/False video page. Give it a look and browse through over 100 films from past True/False Film Fests available to stream online for free. You can sort by the year they played the fest, or by whether they are a short or a feature. These films are gathered from a variety of sites which legally stream docs, including Vimeo, YouTube, Hulu, SnagFilms, Crackle, P.O.V. and The National Film Board of Canada’s online archive.

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We’ve also collected videos of classic docs, musical performances, interviews and much more. Come take a look around and see what catches your eye.

Posted January 6, 2014
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