“He was a fucker in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says a now-retired army veteran, not with the cold stare we have come to expect when lines like that are delivered in films, but with watery eyes focused on anything but the people around him. His anger still comes out in the phrase, but his face betrays the intended sentiment. In therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, the group of men featured in Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War are now-distant echoes of who they once were, haunted by the scars of battle and, perhaps surprisingly the most potent emotional hook, the sense of embarrassment they feel at having a mental problem. It’s a heartbreaking film in that vein, seeing a group of men unable to grapple with their own trauma because they’ve been trained and taught to repress these feelings, their greatest fear is being called “crazy”.
Bécue-Renard intends Of Men and War to be the middle installment in his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy, and it follows on from 2001’s Living Afterwards: Words of Women, which focused on a halfway house for displaced families following the Bosnian war. Of Men and War also focuses on a house – the Pathway Home, a California-based treatment center for veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI), run by Vietnam veteran Fred Gusman – our first sight of which sees the early morning raising of a flag and the sounds of a bugler playing. Even in that set-up, Bécue-Renard shows the Pathway Home not as a means through which to forget wartime experiences, but to engage with the memory of them. The thirteen-year gap between the two films, and with that the presumed delay until the trilogy’s close, makes the very title of the trilogy not only a literalist depiction of the toll of war on family, but also temporal proof of the cyclical and relentless nature of conflict, the wars of the present no more informed by the errors and pain of the past – war shall grow not old, age shall not weary it.
Since most of the film consists of therapy sessions, the editing of the film becomes key to its emotional potency and the editing group of Isidore Bethel, Sophie Brunet, Charlotte Boigeol have done an impressive job in structuring the film to be a series of gradual reveals about character. Much like Maysles et al’s recent In Transit, the introduction to veterans is done in a naturalistic way, seemingly focused on only one person in the room in the opening scenes, only to eventually circle back and explore the lives of many of the men in the home. Bécue-Renard and his team also make the interesting decision to sparingly show intimacy or outrage throughout the film; there’s one veteran who is often referred to in sessions as having had big outbursts yet we never see thaton screen, the focus clearly on these men confessing their fears and memories. This restraint also places a focus on the power of words, as tools for self-definition (one veteran says that in having PTSD “you feel defective”), self-acceptance (another screams out “I have PTSD!” following a frustrating phone call), as well as chilling accounts of violence. Most of the men we follow were medics in wartime, so stories of dismembered corpses and body bags feature heavily. Surprisingly, what is especially compelling is that, for many men, the apex of their trauma isn’t necessarily what you would expect; one medic is haunted by his guilt in not doing his utmost to save the life of an Iraqi woman as subconscious retaliation for seeing an American soldier’s burned corpse, another is chilled by the words of a young Iraqi girl whose brother was collateral damage in a raid.
The matter-of-fact recollections of the men also highlights how being in wartime conflict is a recipe for alienation, not just through violence but rather the removal of any sense of structured society. Whilst the army training and divisions creates an illusion of order, the lack of any sense of justice in conflict means that social rules no longer apply. As one of the men says regarding the death of an Iraqi citizen, “it doesn’t matter if it was an accident.” The perverse sense of freedom – being trained to run over young pedestrians in the way just in case it’s a trap, no punishment or recourse for accidentally killing a child after kicking in a home’s door – had warped the psyche of these men, desensitised to death to the extent that suicide seemed a logical solution. “Fragging out” was one soldier’s solution in the event that he lost an arm or a leg, another calmly describes jumping off of a roof and being disappointed that he woke up in a hospital.
The approach to documentary form is likewise interesting; in scenes of group therapy the camera itself becomes witness moreso than therapist, in spite of the fact that Bécue-Renard and cinematographer Camille Cottagnoud almost never cut to Fred Gusman in these sessions. It’s not observational in the strict Wiseman sense (though there’s a great use of diegetic music a la High School), as peppered throughout are these wonderful swooping shots of the Pathway Home exterior, as if Cottagnoud’s camera wants to tease out the promise of recovery in the outside world and, at one point, a wonderful long take that follows an employee at the home trying to get the veterans up for pancakes, moving from hallway to room to kitchen in this stunning fluid movement. It’s not straight verite either, the film was made over a period of five years and isn’t told entirely in chronological order, going off on affecting asides about the home life of some of the veterans in treatment, the rippling impact of PTSD on the lives of their loved ones.
For a film that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Of Men and War is a thoroughly sobering and immersive look at mental anguish, though as it nears its end it feels less immersive than unfocused, rushing the notion of actualised recovery. Its relatively abrupt ending makes structural sense – the scattered narrative strands were never going to culminate in a neat finale – yet is still something of a small disappointment, considering just how profoundly moving so much of the film’s first half is.1 It is in that profundity that Bécue-Renard shines a light on an oft-underreported aspect of war, the dismantling of the military and personal psyche through PTSD and the perceived stigma surrounding it, in a wholly effective and immediate way.