Of Men and War was one of the most powerful documentaries that played this year at Sydney Film Festival, a moving and confronting look at American war veterans suffering through PTSD who go to therapy at The Pathway Home in California. Following the Australian premiere of the film, Conor Bateman spoke to director Laurent Bécue-Renard.
So this is the second film in your “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy, and I’ve read that before becoming a filmmaker you were a journalist, you edited Sarajevo Online. Do you approach your films with a journalistic viewpoint? Of Men and War doesn’t feel didactic, it’s very observational, objective.
Well no. Several things – I never did news, I was never a news reporter, even I dislike news, I’ve always disliked news. I think the news is always preventing us from thinking and that doesn’t mean it’s not useful, it’s useful if we have something to do on one subject, otherwise it’s just noise and it’s very difficult for each and every one of us to have clear ideas on subjects; the more news we have the less we relate events to what it is to be a human being and so, you know, I was more like the editor-in-chief of a magazine, which is very different. I’m kind of puzzled by your question on objectivity because both of my films are very subjective —
I think what I mean by that isn’t necessarily that your films don’t have a distinct point of view but that it doesn’t feel like it’s forcing me to see it in some particular way – there’s no voiceover, hardly any intertitles, you let the subjects speak for themselves. Of course subjectivity comes out in the editing and how the film is structured too.
Ah, ok. That’s different. Well, you know, all of my work is based on two very specific approaches – one approach is to say that the therapeutic scene is a very very powerful dramatic scene because it’s a very creative scene, and why is that so? It’s because that’s where human beings invent a story for themselves that helps them live with what they went through. So, in my films, I represent therapy as such, as a place of creativity, of story-building. And the second approach is to say that, so if therapy is like that, then the camera and the filmmaking can play a role, because that’s what we are doing, we invent stories, the presence of the camera is legitimate from that point of view, if you see therapy as the way I mentioned it before and because, you know, I would never make a film from a journalist’s point of view, on therapy. Like, you know, to say, well “this is what a patient is saying, now this is what the therapist is saying” and go from one to the other.
Well, on that, you hardly ever show the therapist in this film. In almost all of those scenes of therapy the camera almost never turns to face the therapist asking questions, he’s always next to the camera.
Well, for me, filming therapy, in an informative way would be not only obscene but, as a viewer, you wouldn’t stand it and you wouldn’t stand it even for five minutes let alone for two hours and 22 minutes. So there is this subjectivity of seeing therapy and seeing the role of the camera in the therapy process. And those two things are very important, and the second film, this one that we’re talking about, I also went further than the first one [2000’s Living Afterwards: Words of Women] in the sense that most of the therapy scenes, I do film those myself, so I’m even more involved in the therapy process. I have one eye on the camera and one eye on the eyes of the patients, and so we all know we are building a story together. And of course, as you were saying earlier, character building comes in the editing process, which in my case lasted over the course of two and a half years over four years, which is enormous.
It’s a near two and a half hour film and the way you shot it, over time, is a very interesting filming structure; to film everything in the therapy sessions first and then go out and talk to their families, but edit it in a jumbled order, to play around with audience perception of who these people are and what therapy really is. So, if you were behind the camera in the therapy sessions, then how big was your crew?
So, we were two or three. When I was the one filming therapy we were only two, my assistant would monitor sound recording and when my DP was there, we would be three and I would do the sound checking then. In the family scenes we were only one DP and myself.
There’s an interesting contrast between the therapy scenes and the way in which the stories of the men there become the action; you can just have the camera there because what they are talking about is just so bracing and interesting. You mentioned that for some days you had your DP there, and there some shots in the film that seem very clearly stylised. There’s a long take in a hallway into a room, when one of the workers there is going into a bedroom and then to the kitchen, trying to wake the men up for waffles, and that really is a beautiful shot. There’s another shot, outside this time, which swoops up across the basketball court and it felt like you were almost trying to address, not the promise of escape, but in those shots, you aren’t cornered in a locked room, you can fly away. Did you model the cinematography off of any filmmakers in particular? The hallway shots seemed a little Wisemanesque.
You know, since my background is not cinema, I don’t have that many models, it was very free, to make my own cinema. Although, in terms of , well, cinema in general, and documentary film, I’m very very touched by Alain Cavalier, an 82 or 83 year old filmmaker, with a great career behind him both in fiction and documentary film, but his work is mostly known in France, actually. But anyway my filmmaking has nothing to do with him, but, because you were mentioning hope, our viewpoint is very similar. I’m into life, you know, and, going back to objectivity and subjectivity, the choice of representing war through therapy is a very very subjective approach. It means, you know, I’m already siding on the side of life, because these guys, even though the attraction to death is enormous and in spite of the result of the trauma, the fact that they chose to go to therapy, belonging to that minority, that very very small minority of veterans who would go to therapy, is already a choice of life. And so it’s a viewpoint. I’m interested to see how human beings can, psychologically, survive war.
So, talking of models, I mean I know I’m on the side of life and I’m very character driven and I’m fascinated by how the characters that I pick, have a very very unpredictable path and I’m curious and I love to be surprised and, uh, you mentioned Wiseman, and Wiseman to me, is too much cerebral, too much based on institutions, I mean it’s interesting, but it doesn’t touch me.
That makes sense, your film is set in an institution but isn’t really about it at all, it’s about people.
Yeah, and it’s not about therapy, as in does it work or how to do it, it’s that therapy has a creative scene, which is very very different. And I mean, also, when you see a Wiseman film, the part of your brain that is stimulated is one that has to think not on who you are but on things that are important, serious things, but that are outside of you. Both my films, I think, make viewers think but also work on what it is to be a human being.
I’d say it makes them feel, as well. You’re engaging with these people’s narratives in a stark way. It’s just so honest and rare to see people just break down and cry on camera, it’s really quite confronting.
Well, because again, the camera is part of their journey. And it’s not a reality show. You know, the way I built up the presence of the camera in both films is that my characters when starting the process of therapy, they start it with the camera, they never experience therapy without the camera.
I’ve read that you spent months beforehand —
I first sat for five months without a camera, then I started filming with a small camera, then I started filming with a professional camera and then these guys came into the building. I had been there forever when they arrived. And for many of them, it’s the first time that they are going to do such in-depth therapy work, or any therapy work and, you know, ok, there is a camera involved in that process, so it’s not like they started a process and all of a sudden there is a guy with a camera, which wouldn’t be possible, at least film-wise, and so the camera is part of this new platoon, which is a therapeutic platoon they are now joining. So that’s why we are so close to them, and again, when later on the road, when we go to their families, what happened, and which I didn’t expect in such a way, is that sometimes months had passed – three, six, nine, eighteen – since I last filmed them in therapy and they would pick it up where they had left it, they had so much assimilated the camera with their work in the therapy room that as soon as we started filming again, well for them we were back to therapy.
That’s pretty Pavlovian. Did you always have your mind set on filming American war veterans for this second film? It’s quite a specific group and a jump from your first film’s focus.
Actually, you know, when the idea first came it was immediately America for me, there was not even a thinking process – will I go there, or there, or there? I knew if I were to do that film it would be in America. So it was very intuitive. Now I can explain why afterwards. Well, first of all, in 2003, when I had the idea, the Western country that was massively at war was America, it had been at war in Iraq for nine months, and in Afghanistan for two years, and also America had worked a lot on PTSD, war-related PTSD after Vietnam. Well, Fred Gusman, who in the therapist in the film, had been a pioneer in PTSD therapy, from the early ’80s onwards. But I think that, perhaps, one of the the main reasons, as a filmmaker, and it’s an unconscious one, is that, you know, all of us, most of our representations of war and of the warriors come from Hollywood films, and, I mean, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in the Western world, you had on TV films like, all the time, films from men in the ’50s and ’60s about World War II and it went on and on, and all these films, that every one of us know, they are very epical, heroical; it’s not that Hollywood has an agenda, it’s just the way they make films.
Well it means that war becomes part of their national identity. We certainly have that over here, our ANZAC celebrations and films and television about Gallipoli – there was even another show this year – so for us that’s now a big part of our national identity, even today.
Well I wouldn’t even go that far. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are behind these films, it’s more how we’re shaped by these representations of the war and that we like or dislike those films, we still have that in mind. And even the anti-war films, namely the ones made after Vietnam, they’re very epical and heroical at he same time and all of these films, in retrospect, are deceiving us in what is a psychological reality of the war and what it is to be a warrior and so I think that, as a filmmaker the idea of going to America to take guys that look like those heroes of the Hollywood movie and show the other side of the mirror, and show that they’re completely broken inside and also show that there’s another heroism which is the act of facing trauma. I think that my characters are very courageous.
Something I didn’t expect from these veterans was that so many of them were medical staff or army doctors, and that is even more confronting, these people out there who are supposed to be saving lives and repairing people can’t ever fix themselves. It’s a problem they can solve, they can’t bandage their mind up. With what you were saying about post-Vietnam army cinema, I want to take that back to an even earlier time, because I know you’ve said you dislike John Huston’s Let There Be Light because it was staged and re-shot. Your film here is almost an inverse of that, in that you aren’t propagating.
It’s a very, very troubling film, I think. I saw it fifteen years ago for the first time and, well, as you were saying, it’s been staged, I mean things have been re-enacted and sometimes by the very person and sometimes with actors, and there’s an agenda of the military behind that which I think is ‘we can fix it’ and ‘they can be good soldiers again and good husbands and good workers in the factories again’. I mean, I’m very troubled by that, because we all know that trauma is for good. The things you can do with therapy is learn how to live with that and invent a new life which is the life of someone who went through that trauma, It’s not at all what is said in Let There Be Light, where it’s almost said that we can eras. And also, it’s not character driven, I mean people aren’t just case studies. It’s very very different, again, I mean, as viewers for documentary cinema, we need to have very strongly built up characters, and it’s not who they are in essence, it’s who they are in the film. And I don’t want to praise ourselves, my editors and my DP, but you need to work a lot. I mean,. in order for the audience to have the impression that they really know that character, like they do in fiction films, you need to have a project that is grounded for sure, but you also need to have a lot of material. Especially because, and obviously because it’s not said int he film, but the sessions are between 30 to 45 seconds to 3 to 4 minutes, and when you watch a session in the film, as a viewer, you need to have the impression that you’ve seen the overall session, and that’s only possible when you have characters that are very strongly built in the editing.
Well, how much footage did you have to edit from?
Wow. I went and saw Sherpa last night, the Australian documentary, and before the film the director said they had 400 hours of footage, and that seemed enormous. I guess having 500 hours to play with explains why your film took so long in editing. When you were editing the film do you come into it with a predetermined structure or figure it out as you went along?
I mean, I knew that, of course, the arc of the film – and there’s where subjectivity comes in – that the arc of the story would be towards life, because, again, that’s why these guys went to therapy. Not only would it not be fair to these guys to build up a story differently, even though sometimes the daily life of therapy was not going towards life, but I knew why they were here. And also, as I was saying earlier, as a filmmaker I see myself as telling the story of life, I’m not interesting in the story of death. Some filmmaking is just about death and I hate it, I just run out of the room. But, you know, the first 18 months of editing, we knew that the core of the film would of course be the therapy sessions, so we organised them and worked on them one-by-one. You know, each of these sessions, on average, run for two to two-and-a-half hours, which, by accident is the runtime of our film – or is it by accident? – no, well, so we first very very basically reduced those to 30 to 40 minutes each, keeping the structure of the sessions. Once we reached that point, we started in a new wave of editing, to focus on the meaning of each session, that allowed us to free ourselves from the structure of the session itself, free ourselves from time, from space, and really focus on what is at stake this day or that day for this guy or for the group and build up the edited session in this respect. Meaning that, perhaps in the edited session of two minutes or three minutes, the first sentence might be the last one that was said in the session, it doesn’t matter because what is at stake is the meaning not the “reality” of the session.
So we worked on the 200 sessions that we had kept, in that respect, and when we had all of those sessions, including also the kind of sessions we had with the families, then we started playing with what sessions were dialogue-ing with other sessions, and which family scene, and again – time and space didn’t matter, the meaning was the most important thing. And it was very challenging, very interesting and fascinating form an intellectual point of view, or an analytical point of view, in terms of an analyst, because, of course, if you put session A after session B or B before A or whatever, you’re not telling the same story, it is not objective, it – I mean all editing is subjective, but in this film, the way you organise dialogue between sessions is changing the outcome, And you know, it was in the editing, something that was true in the shooting, in the role that the camera was playing in the therapeutic process, was even more true in the editing, in the sense that what is Fred, the therapist, doing on a daily basis during each session? He’s seeking what is still alive in each of these guys, where there is a way to ground and root themselves into something which is still able to appreciate life. Well that is also what we are doing in the editing – where’s life? Most of this material is linked to death in a manner that, I mean, is difficult to represent to ourselves and we’re doing the same work as Fred in telling the story that we are seeking for life in each session, and again this is subjective.