Interview: Laurent Bécue-Renard
Politicians may debate about ending this or that war, but for the veterans grappling with PTSD in Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, no such finality exists. These men live in the long shadow of traumas endured during wartime in Afghanistan and Iraq, struggling to build lives worth living in the face of enduring anger, fear, and pain. Bécue-Renard’s documentary, which premiered at Cannes and screens June 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, presents a moving record of a side of war that is rarely rendered and a series of character portraits grounded in minute gestures as well as words.
The bulk of Of Men and War was shot during the nine months Laurent Bécue-Renard spent filming group therapy sessions at the Pathway Home, one of surprisingly few residential treatment centers available for veterans with PTSD. Their recollections play like testimonies, gut-wrenching but incapable of bringing any degree of justice or reason to the veterans’ often paralyzing suffering. Much of the drama comes not from what they say but how they deflect or struggle to keep their cool. As the camera films steadily, the men talk, fight, cry, vomit, and storm out of the room to suck on cigarettes.
Bécue-Renard’s interest in trauma extends beyond the walls of the therapy room, as he observes veterans tuck their children into bed or argue with their parents. Bécue-Renard continues to probe subjects typically discarded in films about war, including the spouses, children, and parents who care for their shattered loved ones. Of Men and War is the second installment in the 49-year-old filmmaker’s “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy, following War-Wearied (01), about women traumatized by the Bosnian War. Throughout, with a level of detail not possible in the glut of war docs, he shows how trauma occurs at a personal level but echoes through the national psyche.
Like a spider web of thin cracks forming on a smashed windshield, Bécue-Renard’s camera traces trauma as it radiates outward through interpersonal relationships to affect those not present for the initial impact. FILM COMMENT spoke with Bécue-Renard the week before his film’s New York premiere.
You’ve described Of Men and War as a male counterpart to War-Wearied, which follows women widowed by the Bosnian War. Did you see discernable differences between therapy with men as opposed to women, given the nature of the military?
My work is not on therapy per se—it’s not documenting therapy. It’s taking part, in many respects, in the process of therapy. But what I find in common in both of the experiences is that in each case the therapist has a very humble approach to his or her work, which is not offering a cure for PTSD, because there is no cure. These women in Bosnia and our guys here in Of Men and War will have to lead their entire lives with the trauma. The therapists are trying to help them find what is still alive inside themselves and how they can ground themselves in something alive in order to lead not only a life but a new life, a life that is with the trauma.
In the case of Of Men and War, while I was staying for a very long period of time at the Pathway Home, I organized a screening of War-Wearied for those who wanted to see it. Most of the guys in the film saw it, and most of those who shared their comments with me said that they could find, in the words of the women, things that they feel themselves as far as war trauma. You wouldn’t expect that. Their experience is very different, of course, because the women were civilians, they had no weapons, they were never in the capacity of killing anyone, but the way society has been affected by the trauma is very similar.
You spend so much time filming the veterans at home, like when Brooks’s wife expresses her frustration that her husband at least receives sympathy, if not understanding, from other people—but that she is seen as choosing her own predicament. What does it mean to you to engage with the perspectives of the women surrounding the men?
That aspect is very linked to the name of the trilogy, “Genealogy of Wrath,” in the sense that I’m dedicating the film to both my grandfathers who fought in World War I. My approach to war trauma is that it is passed on from one generation to another. It’s not just something that is happening on the front lines and that’s it, but it’s something that is an ongoing process which reaches from the veteran to all his loved ones. Of course, the wives are on the front lines of that, at home—it is the new territory of the war. Everybody is very much exposed. That’s how the genealogy starts, and we can see with the kids how much they are plugged into the trauma, or the effect on their mother. It might take them a life of psychoanalysis later on to understand why they have this or that difficulty in life, which in many respects will come from growing up in the vicinity of such a father and with a mother who is living next to such a father. From the very beginning of the shooting, I knew that I would spend time with the veterans after therapy, when they are with their family.
In one scene, a veteran speaks in therapy about how his daughter started slapping kids at school because she had been spanked. Have you found other examples of that kind of learned violence or anger? Were any of the veterans that were featured in this film the children of veterans themselves?
That’s a good question. I would say that for a good half of the guys in the film, their father was a veteran or their grandfather. I think it’s more like two thirds if you include grandfathers. That is true not only for people whose parents and grandparents were American but also for those whose parents and grandfathers were not American. As far as the kids are concerned, I know that there are issues with their kids linked to some level of violence. I cannot say it’s directly linked to the experience of war and that if your father was violent, you will be violent as well. You can’t say that—it would be terrible. One of the guys says that. How much is linked to his own experience, I mean, we don’t know. And he doesn’t know. But it’s true that surrounding kids with a father who is very unstable, who has a lot of anger and wrath that is, of course, primarily against himself, definitely affects the balance of mood for the kids. It goes without saying.
We spend a lot of the film as if we’re in therapy with the soldiers, listening to them relive their worst memories, which it seems for them are always present or always happening. How does your ideal viewer engage with these memories? Do you think it is enough to validate and witness them? Was there a particular methodology you used when you were editing the film to get a certain response from viewers?
My overall approach in the kind of films I’m making—with these two films across almost 20 years—started by me being a witness to a group of women in therapy in Bosnia. That was prior to me filming or even me starting to do the first film. I was a civilian and the editor of a magazine in Bosnia during the last year of the war. I met the therapist [in the film] who was working with groups of women and asked her if I could sit for an afternoon with her patients in one session. I was stunned and riveted. I realized on the spot that this was the way I wanted to address the question of the legacy of the war. I wanted to do it in film because I wanted the words to be embodied. Because what I was witnessing was completely contrary to the silence most families worldwide live with around the experience of war. There, a group of women in the immediate aftermath of the war were addressing, were naming, were verbalizing what war did to them and how they have changed from the war.
The other thing that stunned me was realizing how much the scene of therapy is a very, very creative scene. I realized that therapy is about telling oneself a story. A story that helps one live with what happened to oneself. There is phenomenal potential since it’s a very dramatic scene. But in the sense of building a story, we are the only living species that can tell itself stories. The fact that they help people live with the fact of what happened to them is amazing. I thought, if I do make this kind of film, that introduces the camera in the therapy process, it is because of that. Because then, there is a good reason, a legitimate one, for a camera to be there. Because the camera would then be part of this story building which therapy is. It’s very important. I’m not documenting therapy. My camera is part of the ongoing process for each patient to write their story.
Then of course, when we are out of the room and later down the road we edit, we first shoot a work of therapy from that perspective, on our own, but it’s also like a therapist would do by the end of the session, when the therapist is wrapping up and reformulating what was said during the session. During years of editing, we are reformulating, we are wrapping up, and we’re building up the stories based on the material these guys, or these women in the case of War-Wearied, have started to elaborate.
Given that there are so many different narratives in this film—because of course each soldier has their own narrative that they are seeking to understand about what happened to them—how do you think that that fits into the grander narrative we have about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan? What civilians who do not experience trauma, who just read about Iraq and Afghanistan in the paper, think about the war?
It is linked to what I said earlier about the legacy, and how this film for me is a way to try to have access to what my grandfathers could have said if they had been in the capacity to sit in a therapy session and say anything about their experience of war. They never spoke to their wives that they met after the war nor to any of their kids or grandkids. This is a very common experience, especially in the Western world. All of us who grew up in the second half of the 20th century, we are in one way or another, against our will and unconsciously most of the time, kids of the war. Because our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went to war and it has shaped them, it has shaped their psyche and it has shaped consequently the psyche of the family. When the current war is going on, whether Iraq or Afghanistan or America or another country, it’s not only a current war, it’s replaying something we all have inside ourselves. And it’s very important that we have access to that. And that’s what I’m trying to trigger within the audience.
It is not only something that is happening in a faraway land, with a group of men that you don’t really relate to, it is something that already happened. And even if the way in which it happened might have been different because of course circumstances are never the same, psychically it is the same. The human brain and human psyche doesn’t change that much. It happens because there is at one point in the experience of war proximity with death that is very violent, that is repetitive, that is massive. That’s why trauma happens. This is the bottom line. That’s the real cost.
In democracies it may happen that we go to war. It is always a failure for a democracy to go to war. It means that our ideals didn’t prevail in another manner. Diplomatically, politically, economically, culturally, socially, you name it. We missed that. We failed. If three million young Americans went to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and 5,000 died there or a bit more than that, the rest—it’s 2,995,000—they came back and will have to live with that war for the rest of their lives. And their families, their wives, their kids, their parents… we’re talking about millions of people. It’s bringing the war to the society. It’s true for America, it’s true for France, it’s true for Australia, it’s true for every one of us.
How does the human legacy of the war fit with a legacy of silence? Do you think talking about the trauma would help to lessen it?
What we’ve learned in one century of psychoanalysis is that when we don’t address something that is shaping the psyche within someone or within a family that’s driving it, it drives the person or the family anyway. So if we’re trying to avoid it, it’s always going to be worse. It doesn’t mean that because we’re addressing and naming and wording that it’s going to go away. As I was saying about the humble approach of the therapist, in many respects there is no cure, but at least we can face it.
The stories you hear in the therapy room, they don’t have to be accurate in the sense of “reality.” The reality is what someone feels about it. It’s not the reality that you would try to find in a court, for instance. This is not what is at stake. It is people telling themselves a story that helps them live with what happened. And that is moving forward. This is not eliminating. It’s very, very different when somebody was everyday telling themself the same story. What is fascinating in the case of group therapy, which happened in both my films, is that the story-building also comes from the input of the others. So part of your story will be told by your peers in therapy. Not everyone will say anything, but by the end of the day everything will be said.
There’s a scene in which Brooks is considering leaving and another soldier says he doesn’t feel safe sharing his memories if he knows that Brooks might leave and won’t share in return. When you were in group therapy, did you ever share yourself with them in order to make them more comfortable?
That’s a very good question. With the kind of films I’m doing, they need you as a filmmaker to be very, very grounded in the project. So in the case of Bosnia, although I never had to say it, they knew, and they could feel, perhaps mostly unconsciously, that I had spent that year in the war in Sarajevo. I didn’t experience the same effect of the war because I didn’t lose my wife or my sisters, which was the case of these women who lost up to 50 men in their family. But they knew I had something in common in the experience of the war in their country. I felt that they felt it, although I never had to name it. The men in Of Men and War, I think they felt that as well. They could feel that I had already been sitting with people traumatized by war, meaning the women in Bosnia. And most of them, as I said, watched the first film at one stage or another.
They never asked me to share. I think my role was to be this complete third party in the room. I am not only a witness but also I am the one who is telling the story, and I’m coming from very, very far away. Not only geographically but also culturally, socially, even in the language. They’re not afraid of my judgment because they don’t see me as somebody who is there to judge them. I think that aspect was the most important to my presence in the room, more than what I could share with them. The fact that I had a kind of moral contract with them, even without being said—that I will be there, in the room, from the very first word they would speak until the final one. And when Justin [another soldier] says to Brooks, “I don’t feel confident if you [leave]…” it’s very important because there is something about sharing the experience, from the beginning to the end, together. If I were somebody who would just come for a week and then go, I think they wouldn’t feel confident.
Now, most of what you see in terms of therapy is what they call the trauma therapy. The rest of the days they had other sessions. More psycho-educational, about what trauma is and how to deal with it and how to talk about it with other people. Before I started shooting, I stayed five months on a daily basis going to all the sessions with the guys. Many times the therapist would ask me: “So, Laurent, what do you feel about this?” I was not the only one sitting who was not a therapist or a patient. Some other volunteers would be sharing their own experience.
I felt like it was already so difficult for the soldiers to share such personal details that I wondered: “How are they sharing in front of a camera?”
It’s not only that they accepted to be filmed—the camera became a very important part of the process. In the therapy room, for most of the footage I’m behind the camera. My DP shoots most of what is outside and with the families. I could physically feel how much they were grabbing the camera, how much it was important for them at one stage that this story would be shared. Not only with their loved ones, be it their wives, their parents or later down the road their kids. Not only the community they belong to but the community of mankind as well. Because they feel so lonely with trauma that they need bonding and telling a story is a way to bond with the rest of mankind. That is to say that the audience in the world, nowadays, was already included in the therapy when we were filming. You were already there when I was shooting. I mean the idea of you was there and it was very important.
I would imagine that could be a sort of therapy, knowing that other people will see your story when you feel very alone.
Because it is also acknowledging and validating what happened to you. The presence of a third party with this camera and including the audience of the future is acknowledging that something really happened to you and it really did that to you. It is very important for a traumatized person. And they know, also, that most veterans will never go to therapy. Or never went to therapy. They are doing it for the rest of the “platoon.” I think they have that in mind, that they are the ones who have the courage to address it. I admire their bravery.
Do you have any idea where you’re going to make your next film?
I have some ideas. The third part of the trilogy is on what it is to be a child of the war, not in the war but of the war. So it is about all of us who are sitting in the cinema watching this film, the previous one, and how we are shaped in one way or another, psychologically, by the experiences of the past vis-à-vis the war. There’s a good chance that I’ll be shooting it in France. Funnily enough, to be the closest to home might be the most difficult.
It might be fictional. You understood how much I felt the aspect of inventing a story is important for me in terms of therapy. That means that there is something fictional in what happened in the therapy room. It is important that it is somewhat fictional. Because it is this fiction that helped them live with what happened. Don’t get me wrong—they’re not lying whatsoever, they’re telling the truth, but the truth is somewhat fictional. So for me, if I’m making the third part fictional it isn’t that different, just somewhat different.