Make It Real: Of Cameras and Compassion
Of Men and War
At this point in time, some 125 years after the birth of cinema, and more than half a century since Allen Funt ushered in the reality TV era, it’s no secret that the camera can be manipulative and parasitic of those it captures. Ethical, barbaric dubiousness is even embedded in that most common word for the camera’s activity: captures. Some, like filmmaker (and friend) Robert Greene, go so far as to say that such aggression is inherent to the process of creating nonfiction. “Documentaries are exploitative,” he told Fandor’s Sam Fragoso. “I’m going to take your real life and I’m going to edit it into a movie, which is a process by which you will become less a human being than a film character.” You could call such thinking cynical, but I think it’s accurate, honest, and intellectually productive. It shifts the conversation away from fruitless debates over what is or isn’t exploitative, and into the wide open, fertile terrain of how, why, and to what end?
Greene’s rhetoric may be more decisive than most, yet what’s most decisive about it is Greene’s abandonment of a defense. Again, most of us harbor suspicions of the camera and those wielding it—we just like (or need) to think that our own films, or the ones we’re moved by, are less suspect than others. The “It’s not me, it’s him” formulation puts nonfiction filmmakers in a defensive pose, ever negotiating a minefield of their own decisions and manipulations. And it puts audiences in a synchronously judgmental pose, ever having to discern what is or isn’t acceptable or ethical—the nonfiction pass/fail test. It can feel like a wading through a permanent postmodern fog: all is manufactured, all is questionable, nothing is true… except for everyone’s exceptional film that does it right.
Preoccupied with this necessary but limited lens of skepticism, we’re apt not to recognize when it warps and obscures what we’re seeing. You could dwell on the question of whether and how American military veterans have been exploited in Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, which opened last weekend in New York before making its way around the country in the coming months. You could question how these deeply traumatized men came to reveal so much of themselves for the camera, and challenge why the camera was allowed in the room for a series of disturbing, often gruesome monologues. You could feel like a voyeur, or call Bécue-Renard the same. Then you could read up on the filmmaker’s methods, which are as scrupulous, rigorous, committed, and humane as can be—he started the project 11 years ago, long before the therapy program featured in the film even existed, spent 9 months shooting on a near-daily basis, and didn’t ask for release forms from his subjects until shooting was completed—and feel your ethical hackles softening down, your “not problematic” box duly checked. And meanwhile you’ve missed the film entirely.
Of Men and War
Despite how we’ve been trained—generally for the better—to interrogate the filmmaking apparatus, in Of Men and War the camera isn’t voyeuristic. It’s an invited participant in a group process, essential to what’s transpiring in the room. Since we’re new to this room, to this community of men living in the Pathway Home in California, struggling to readjust to home life after the trauma of war, we can’t be expected to grasp the circumstances from the outset. But before long it’s evident, if you let it be, that if any of these men didn’t want a camera, or a kindly Frenchman, watching them break down or confess unfathomably awful thoughts and deeds, they could make it stop at any damn moment. No, this isn’t voyeurism, this isn’t exploitation. We’ve been invited to witness this, and, in effect, share in this process. And it’s a privilege.
It’s crucial that these men be seen and heard. For their traumatic experiences to be brought to the surface rather than buried beneath it, where it threatens to erupt at any moment. And it’s crucial that we see and hear them. For us to reckon with their trauma, rather than hide away from it and set us up for another cycle of trauma, another generation without repair or reckoning. And so the camera bears witness. Yet it also catalyses connection—among the veterans, and between them and the camera/Bécue-Renard/us.
“[T]his film is only possible if the camera is accepted as a legitimate part of therapy by everybody,” Bécue-Renard told Filmmaker magazine’s Vadim Rizov back in March, a sentiment he echoed recently at the Wind-Up Fest during a discussion with director/cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. “Because the camera is part of the process, it gives legitimacy to the viewer, who is already included when you shoot: the guy in therapy knows, unconsciously, that someone, one day, will be seated in Columbia, Missouri, or wherever, and listen to this story. It’s helping him in the way he’s treating his own trauma to know that it will make sense to someone else. He’s building up meaning,” he said.
Of Men and War
Of Men and War is split between extended group therapy sessions and scenes of the soldiers struggling to adapt to home life (which were recorded months after they left Pathway Home). In the former, the camera rarely moves, and there are scant cuts within each sequence. Similar to how Frederick Wiseman represents duration, crafts these sequences to preserve the integrity of what’s transpiring before the camera, letting the men finish their thoughts and stories before cutting away from them, never cutting to the therapist who’s frequently encouraging and enabling discussion, and scarcely cutting to another participant for a reaction shot. In appearance, the shots are undistinguished—occasionally they’re even a bit off, framing wise. But they offer a very strong sense of presence, of being offered access to thoughts and feelings that are rarely spoken, and extremely rarely witnessed by a camera. And in that respect, cinematic significance dovetails with the societal.
This isn’t a film about men struggling with post-war trauma. It’s a film of men struggling with post-war trauma—a struggle made nakedly, painfully, and cathartically visible. There are no interviews in the film, no consultations with experts, no filmic flashbacks to the battlefield. Even the sequences shot with the men in their home environments—sequences that more closely resemble standard observational footage, and that were shot using more “cinematic” 35mm lenses—have a uniquely collaborative feel. It’s almost as if the camera connotes a therapeutic session, with issues of adaptation and conflict coming to the fore, deliberately, or at least willingly so. In one scene, a man sits next to his wife at the beach as they discuss their difficulties. She says, as their child scampers nearby, that sometimes it’s as if he’s another child for her to take care of. Yet it doesn’t come across as confrontational or as a dramatic reveal—in fact it appears as if he’s drawing these feelings out of her, simultaneously functioning as interviewer, therapist, and source of her pain. The benefits of communication, of self-expression, are here made manifest. The film is not only capturing all this, but also fostering it, participating in it, activating it.
Bécue-Renard, again from his conversation with Rizov: “As soon as we arrived and started filming—maybe three, six, nine, 18 months after we had last seen them—they would pick it up exactly where they had left it. They had so much associated us with therapy work that even in the absence of the therapist, just the fact that we were there again with the camera, they would pick it up where they had left it.” There’s so much in the quote to explore, from the particular role and power of the camera in this context, to its usefulness as a tool of recovery and psychological therapy, to the ways our brains process emotion and association and memory. Of Men and War is the second in a planned trilogy of films addressing war’s legacy of trauma (the first, Living Afterwards: Words of Women, was made in 2001), and it’s already sent Bécue-Renard deep into territory largely uncharted—cinematically, psychologically, and culturally. He’s constantly interrogating the function of the camera without letting that interrogation, or its implications for the audience, the point of what we’re watching. It’s never passive, and neither are we.
That may sound strange, considering how static and seemingly untouched are the therapy sessions. But Of Men and War shows how watching and listening, how simply being there, can be overwhelmingly active, subtly radical, and for the men and their loved ones forever disrupted by experiences of war—in other words, a large percentage of us, spread between nations and over generations—potentially transformative.