Our Very Own Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

in 25th Message to Man Saint Petersburg

by Cüneyt Cebenoyan

The Other SideAs expected, the films in Saint Petersburg’s international documentary film festival Message to Man reflected the concerns of our times. Immigrants, homeless people, drug addicts, massacres, deportations and sexual identity issues were the subjects of the films in competition. In three films we saw people who were suffering in various degrees from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD as a clinical diagnosis has evolved in large part from Vietnam veterans. Since the US never stops fighting in foreign countries, war veterans with disorders keep appearing in films. Of course, it is not only the US which is involved in wars. Israel is also in a constant state of war, and nobody knows how and when the war in Syria will end.

The FIPRESCI prize winner Above and Below is the debut feature-length documentary film of Swiss director Nicolas Steiner. Though the director is from Switzerland, the film takes place in the US and the “protagonists” of the film are also Americans. Though the film is not about people with PTSD per se, two of the main characters in the film have been part of the war in Iraq and clearly their choices afterwards carry the imprint of the traumas they suffered there.

One of them, an ex-medic, lives in the middle of a desert where there is no-one else in sight. He had his share of marital troubles and these seem to be an important reason for his hermit-like lifestyle. But at one point, he asks the director a question which reveals a lot: “Do you know what an M16 bullet can do to a person’s body?” He must have seen these type of bullet wounds when he was a medic in the army. This kind and gentle man obviously could not handle it all.

Another war veteran in the film has also chosen a strange kind of life. Having lost hope in this world, she prepares herself with a couple of friends for a life on Mars. She was in the army too and couldn’t handle what war did to her. She has been through streets of Iraq filled with rotting bodies of Iraqis killed by her comrades and eventually started to see Arabs as sub-humans. To have a racist view of Arabs was the only way for her to survive through what she was ordered to do to the Iraqis.

The veterans of the Iraq war in Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side (the recipient of the Student Jury Prize) are in a totally different mood. Instead of living a life of solitude, they prepare for a war with the government. Obviously, they couldn’t leave the war behind and try to reenact their experiences within a totally different geography.

Censored Voices (Siakh lokhamim: ha’slilim ha’gnouzim) was one of the more conventional documentaries in the competition. Directed by Mor Loushy, it was also political in a much more direct way than the rest of the competition films. One week after the end of the “Six-Day War” in 1967, when Israel invaded Jerusalem, Gaza, Sinai and the West Bank, novelist Amoz Oz and editor Avraham Shapira recorded conversations with soldiers returning from the battlefield.  The country was proud of these soldiers; they were the conquerors! But most of them didn’t really feel like they had done anything good. They were ordered to kill as many Arabs as they could. And they had done it. Again the same way of thinking took over: If we can kill them, they must be sub-humans! Probably the act of killing of others comes first and then the racist logic comes into self-defense afterwards. Since we cannot be the bad guys, since we cannot kill someone as good as us, the ones we killed must be bad, must be sub-human. The same racist logic Nazis had against Jews was now used by Jews against Arabs.

Maybe we all suffer from PTSD to some degree. Maybe we do not need to be part of a war personally. There is always a war that our countries went through and we all live in the aftermath of those wars. We are part of a collective consciousness that produces others who are inferior to us in our minds. Others that our ancestors treated badly in the past.

Edited by Carmen Gray