Peering deep into the toll taken by post-traumatic stress disorder, Of Men and War offers an intense, heartbreaking and healing experience.
The film, screened Sunday during the True/False Film Festival, follows a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as they undergo group therapy for PTSD. Though it takes place primarily in the hospital-like halls and rooms of The Pathway Home, a rehabilitation facility in Yountville, Calif., this film is far from sanitized in effect. Filmmaker Laurent Bécue-Renard seats the audience in a chair next to the veterans as they process messy emotions and confront gruesome memories.
This approach produces a truly organic experience of the harrowing stories these men have to tell and the obstacles of guilt and anger they seek to overcome. Close camera angles, no-holds-barred dialogue and the absence of music enhance this naturalistic quality. But the film’s chronology is also jarring, mirroring what it might be like to live with this disorder. The viewer is relentlessly yanked from encouraging scenes of the veterans’ lives after they’ve left The Pathway Home – a wedding or a family trip to the beach – into ones of tragedy, such as one veteran’s wrenching confession of accidentally killing a friend.
Undoubtedly the most harsh and telling scenes take place in the therapy sessions. In a focus group setting, the veterans share their war-related experiences in excruciating detail and discuss their resulting fears and guilt. This approach is a variation of exposure therapy, which entails repeated recollection of traumatic events in hopes of reducing the stress associated with them. It has been shown to benefit some individuals with PTSD, but others have had less positive experiences.
Fred Gusman, Pathway Home founder and the main therapist featured in the film, explains that the goal of his tweaked, group-based exposure therapy is to bear witness to each veteran as he struggles to accept his actions, forgive himself and leave the battlefield in the past. Some of the veterans have visible injuries – facial scars or a rigid limp – but it’s clear they all share the mental trauma that comes from witnessing the atrocity of war. Discussing these common experiences opens scabbed wounds so they can truly heal.
An estimated 11 to 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD. For Vietnam veterans, the prevalence is around 30 percent. But in a brief introduction before Sunday’s screening, the director was quick to point out that his film is not strictly an American story. Instead, it’s a story about young men trying to come back from war – not just physically but mentally.
Of Men and War is also not just a story about war. It reveals the vulnerability and resilience of the human psyche. Some of the veterans featured in the film are able to shed the hard, detached nature of a soldier and assume the role of husband, father and friend, albeit hesitantly. But for others, the journey of healing is just beginning, said David Wells, one of the veterans and a Columbia, Mo. native, during a Q&A after the screening. Wells, who acknowledges that The Pathway Home helped him to be a person again, hopes the film will inspire others suffering from PTSD to speak out and seek help.