“Addressing Their Wounds is a Revolution”: Laurent Bécue-Renard on Of Men and War
Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War is an immersive look at group therapy conducted at a California residential facility for young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their stories are, predictably, horrific — a man trying to catch a fellow soldier’s brain as it fell out is typical — and it’s extremely difficult for others to understand what they’re experienced. Veterans talk amongst themselves in often grueling sessions, storming out for a smoke when it becomes too much. One man says he only gets three questions from civilians: did you kill someone, why did you kill them, and if there was any way not to kill them, would you in retrospect not have done it? Facing rote interrogations like that, it’s nigh-impossible to come to terms with what’s been experienced, so this kind of therapy is essential.
Of Men and War is powerful, but not in a smarmy way designed to congratulate audiences on their presumable bravery for sitting through it — no reaction shots of a sympathetic interlocutor gravely nodding or heavy musical cues to signal pathos, instead diving into the sessions and never blinking. The camerawork (by Bécue-Renard and Camille Cottagnoud) is remarkably confident, literally taking a seat at the table and panning smoothly and slowly between the speakers and their hearers to actively follow the thread of discussion. In Wiseman-esque fashion, Of Men and War accrues meaning through editorial juxtaposition as well the immediate content, building on itself as it goes along and finding resonances between scenes of therapy and life in the outside world. For example, there’s a moment that, on its own, might be innocuous, in which a veteran goes out to eat with his grandparents. The husband remarks that they’ve been married 62 years, and “it didn’t hurt me none.” It’s an innocent bit of banter, but in this context one that echoes and refracts scenes of soldiers with spouses who also have to deal with their trauma; it might, in fact, hurt them some.
After premiering at Cannes last year, Of Men and War hit the festival circuit and is currently playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I sat down with Bécue-Renard at True/False in Columbia, Missouri to learn more about why the film took nearly a decade to complete. As you’ll read, the film has been thought through on every conceptual level, from the camera’s role as an active part of the therapeutic process to the use of effectively subliminal musical fragments. I started by asking about the name the director’s given to what is now intended to be a trilogy.
Filmmaker: Where does the phrase “genealogy of wrath” come from and what is the overall idea behind it?
Bécue-Renard: I did the first film [2001’s Living Afterwards: Words of Women] after having spent a year in Bosnia during the war. In 1995, the pre-historic time of the Internet, I was the editor in chief of a magazine called Sarajevo Online, a website in English made out of Sarajevo during the last year of the war. After that, I encountered a therapist working with widows in therapy over there, and decided to make the first film. While I was touring with this film internationally and in my own country, I felt the need to do a male counterpart, which eventually would become Of Men and War. When the project became clear to me, I knew it was going to be the second part of something, and this term “genealogy of wrath” immediately came to me.
But if I want to explain it to you: I was born in the ’60s in a country that, like America, had been through two World Wars and with people in the family never addressing the emotions linked to what was lived through the war and felt. Both my grandfathers were in World War I. My parents, as adults, were living in wartorn cities in Normandy. Neither my grandfather nor my parents addressed what they went through psychologically. I thought that the core of the legacy was the anger I could feel in the society I grew up in — not only in the family, but everyone around. It became obvious that I was doing a work based on this genealogy, how the wrath is passed on from one generation to the other.
Filmmaker: Will the third part be children?
Bécue-Renard: It is, but not in the sense that you may expect. My conviction is that each and every one of us who grew up in the second half of the 20th century, are — most often against our will and unconsciously — children of the war, because that legacy was in the families we grew up in. It’s like the psyche of the family has been cast in war, and it’s passed on from one generation to another. So yes, the third part will be on children, but the grown-up children that we are.
Filmmaker: Do you know where the third part will be done?
Bécue-Renard: I don’t know yet. It might be in France, and it might be fiction as well.
Filmmaker: Do you have a journalistic background? Is that how you got involved with Sarajevo Online?
Bécue-Renard: As a young professional, I worked on an international press project, the World Media Network. It was a syndication of major daily newspapers worldwide. I left them to go be an academic. I was at Columbia University doing a Ph.D in political science when my former boss asked me to go to Sarajevo. I found the project he was asking me to do fascinating. I left New York thinking I was going to resume one day, but that was 20 years ago. The war over there changed my life and also brought me to filmmaking. One film led to the other, and now I’m a filmmaker.
My creative experience before the war was in writing. I was more into literature. When I was the editor in chief of the magazine in Sarajevo, I would also publish creative short stories I was writing in there. When I met that therapist in Bosnia immediately after the war, I was intrigued and asked if I could sit in on one of her sessions. She said, “Yes, come over,” so I went with my interpreter and spent an afternoon with a group of women who were starting to address what they had been through during the war and how it had affected them. While I was listening and watching, I thought, “This is it. This is exactly what I want to address. Instead of literature, it has to be a film because I want the words to be embodied.” In Of Men and War, there’s what they say with words, but there are plenty of things that are said through their bodies.
Filmmaker: Prior to taking up filmmaking, were you cinephilic in any way?
Bécue-Renard: I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, so my cinephilia was pretty chaotic. I would grab what I could get. We had a cine-club on TV when I was a kid, so it was mostly Hollywood movies from the ’30s and ’40s. I was always seeing a lot of images, but there’s a lot of gaps in my cinephilia. It’s true that growing up, I saw a few first-person type of documentaries that were attractive to me, but I never thought of making a film one day. It really came after the war and on the spot. There was something about the dramaturgy of therapy that I thought was very cinematic, and that if there was a way to introduce a camera in the therapeutic process, that would be very powerful. This had never been done before. Even the film made by John Huston in 1946 [Let There Be Light] was a fake. He asked people to replay things and it was propaganda. It was designed by the army to say, “Well, we can fix it.”
Filmmaker: Even though they ultimately withheld it.
Bécue-Renard: Yeah, because even this they thought was too much, which is very funny. They took it away for almost 50 years. It was shot on film, not video, so they did it pretty quickly, whereas my ambition was to set the camera within the process, thinking that the camera could be a tool in the therapeutic process. We all know that there’s no therapy if there’s no set. Therapy is a set itself, and something is happening in therapy because there is a set. The patient and therapist agree on a set that makes it work. Well, we also need a set in filmmaking, and I thought the set from therapy could well be a set for film. The plot comes from the creative setting itself.
All my work is based on, what is the journey of the character? How this person is dealing with the war, how this person is addressing it, how this person is finding the words, their analytical journey. That means you’re not doing a chronicle of what’s going on in therapy — you’re rebuilding it when you’re in editing. You focus on the meaning of each session you’ve been filming, and you build up the storytelling based on the meaning more than the chronology. You could say in terms of Of Men and War, that plenty of films have been done about PTSD, but they’re mostly films with interviews. They go and see veterans and ask questions. The veteran isn’t asking questions, the person who is filming is asking. Whereas here, it’s completely the other way around: they’re answering the questions they’re asking themselves, not the questions I’m asking.
Filmmaker: How did you actually go about making the first film — discovering your visual language and getting the financial infrastructure to make it?
Bécue-Renard: It’s good to have the idea, thinking “Wow, that’s exactly what I want to say,” but it took me two and a half years of preparation to ground myself in the idea that this would only make sense if the camera is playing an active role in the therapeutic process. I don’t want a camera that is just witnessing, like a news program or even an educational program, saying “This is what the patient says, this is what the therapist says.” The patient should be talking to both the therapist and the camera at the same time, and feel that there is a need for this to be filmed. It works like this in both films.
That meant the camera should be there before the patient would arrive. In the first film, the patients were chosen by the therapist. They would go to the countryside to find people who needed therapy, and the camera would be there. This is not in the film, but it was always there, so they met the therapist the same day they met the camera. Bear in mind that for most people — for both the women and men — war or no war, they never went to therapy, so it’s kind of a revolution in their lives. Especially if you think of the men being men: addressing their wounds is a revolution, not something they’re prepared for. The fact that it’s being filmed is also a revolution, but not more so than the therapy itself.
On Of Men and War, I’d been there for five months already when they arrived and had already started filming. The camera is playing a role in acknowledgment. The major part in therapy is acknowledgment. On an everyday basis, you are acknowledging that something really happened to that person, which is so important that this stranger has come from so far away and he’s spending so much time there with no agenda for interviews, and he’s here from the very beginning with a promise to stay until the very end of everything that could be said. The 45 minutes the therapist is giving you is an acknowledgment that what you’re going to say is very important. Well, the filmmaking is emphasizing that every day. Every day, they could have thrown us out. That was part of the deal, that at any time they could tell us to stop filming or leave. So, it’s not a very technical preparation. It’s more about being grounded in the idea that there is a legitimacy for your presence in this place. You have a good reason to be there.
Beyond the acknowledgment and validation of the trauma, the film is a promise that a story would be told that could help rebuild ties with everyone around them. They live the trauma in a very lonely way. They can’t share it with their kids, wives, parents. For most of the film, I was shooting the sessions myself, and I could feel how much they grabbed the camera. Not because they’re playing, but because they really want to do it, and it should be filmed and passed on. It’s a survival thing that this should be shared.
Filmmaker: Practically speaking, who do you go to in the military to get permission to film this? What’s the chain of command?
Bécue-Renard: The first film was pretty successful in its way. It was awarded at the Berlinale and played around the world in festivals. That helped when producing the second film. When I had the idea, I knew exactly what I was looking for in America. I wanted a facility that was doing residential therapy for men who were coming back from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, young veterans. Residential therapy means that these guys would be extracted from the world and spend weeks or months in therapy just focusing on trauma. I wanted this facility to be civilian and non-profit. I didn’t want to have to deal at all with the military or VA.
When I first arrived in the States for this project in 2004, there was no such thing anywhere. By a kind of accident, I met Fred, a Vietnam vet and the therapist in the film, who had been working in the VA for 25 years building up programs, mostly for Vietnam vets. When I first met him, he was already complaining that there were no new programs for the young starting to come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. Three years later, he was offered [funding] from a philanthropist in Silicon Valley to build a non-profit program for young veterans. I immediately asked him if he would allow me to be there — first with no camera, then with a camera. For three years of research I’d been meeting him from time to time and building up knowledge of what trauma is for young veterans and the language they use, so I could build up my legitimacy in the room — one day. There was no place I could imagine filming, but I was still preparing as if I was going to film. I was even about to drop the case when he started this program. He immediately accepted: he had seen my first film and knew how I was working and accepted me as a witness, with my booklet and my pen. That lasted five months.
We never signed a release until the very end. That’s the way I do work. I did it for the first film too. I want people to be very confident, because they’ve seen me working with them, they’ve seen me on a daily basis, and they know exactly what I taped. So they know to whom they are signing a release. It’s very important, because this is such sensitive material for them. You wouldn’t want them to sign in advance. In the therapeutic process, it would give them a kind of feeling of “Oh my god, I did agree.” One guy who signed, after a few months, called me and said “I’ve been thinking, I don’t want to be in the film.” I said, “That’s OK.” And we’re still in very good contact: he spent a week at my studio in Paris over the summer. It’s really about trust-building on a daily basis. I think that’s very important for all films, but specifically for this one.
The span of the time spent filming in the center is very long: nine months. Not one week every month: we were there every day, including the weekends sometimes. Even with no camera, we would come back during the weekend, do some things with them. The institution itself was very confident about us. We could come when no executives were there, only the nurses in charge of the program over the weekend. The guys looked at us as kind of peers, as people who were involved in their daily life.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your editorial process. Did you leave someone else to sort through all the footage first?
Bécue-Renard: I think there are two key things about this film. The first is the one I addressed before: this film is only possible if the camera is accepted as a legitimate part of therapy by everybody. Because of that, you can build up a story afterwards. As a viewer, you wouldn’t accept the film if you were just watching an informative program on therapy. You couldn’t stand your own position as a viewer: “What am I doing in this room?” 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, and that’s one anchor.
It’s a lot of material: 500 hours, a nightmare on paper. We didn’t start editing before therapy was over. Therapy was 14 months, including nine months of shooting, and then for the next four years we did some back and forth to see the guys with their families, while editing at the same time. So the editing lasted over those four years, and full time perhaps two and a half years, the last nine months with two editors at the same time because it’s so much material. Isidore [Bethel, also an associate producer on the film] joined us a year and a half before the end of editing, and became the main editor over the last period of editing.
There are almost 200 sessions that were filmed. I filmed 50 characters all the way through their therapy. Now we have 12 or 14 if you include those that don’t speak but are in the film. When you start editing, you have some idea what’s going to come out of the material, but at the same time it’s very subjective. I’m seeking something which echoes the legacy of war I was talking about. Each and every one of the 14 in the room are saying something that’s echoing inside myself. That’s what I’m looking for. What seems natural to me? What is ringing a bell? That doesn’t mean that the others aren’t interesting, but that I don’t necessarily understand where the arc of their therapeutic process is leading us. So out of these sessions, quite a few go away, because they’re not characters I think I can tell a story with.
With the others, we start by reducing those sessions. It’s funny, because Fred’s sessions on average are two, two and a half hours, which ended up being the duration of the film in the end, but we didn’t know that. We had no plan: we could do whatever we wanted, but when the film was finished, we realized it was the length of one session. Anyway, we take all the sessions we have kept and reduce them, keeping the structure of the session. Once those were sized down to 30 minutes out of two hours, then we completely free ourselves from time and place, and we work only on the meaning. What is at stake for this character? Where is the session going? We knew that in the end, each session in the film would be from 45 seconds to two, three, sometimes four minutes, although there’s one session that’s much longer. We want the viewer not to think this is just part of the session but to accept this as a complete session. We reduced the sessions to the point where we think it will collapse; we stop reducing when we’ve reached that point.
Technically, that means that each session in the film can start with something said at the end of the real session. We just want to be as close as we think we are to the truth of each character and what this session led him to. This work is very, very long and took a lot of time. Once we had all of these small sessions, we started discussing how, by putting together two sessions that are months apart, do you create more meaning? If you have a scene that is taking place in the family three years after and you put it here, even not with the same characters, it gives meaning to what’s on both sides of the scene. We played around with all these scenes in building up the arc: the global story of the soldiers, but also each individual story. The arc of each character has nothing to do with the chronology — except for the last three scenes, which are the last ones we shot. The rest of it is an interpretation of what we have been witnessing. That’s why it takes so much time. You could edit this film much quicker if you wanted to, but then you would strictly be in the chronology of the events or the sessions themselves.
Some viewers, I think, feel more comfortable interpreting the film chronologically. It’s OK with me: if they think it’s chronological, I don’t need to tell them that it’s not. By and large, in the first half of the film, the therapy is present time, and family time is a projection of the future. In the second half of the film, the present time is scenes in the family, and whatever therapy is there is a flashback. There’s a moment where the future becomes the present and therapy becomes the past. We’re playing on the unconscious of the viewer, and we do it on so many levels.
The composer [Kudsi Ergüner] is a great composer who has created a lot of music. Except for the three cues you hear, there’s music everywhere in the film, but you don’t consciously hear it. I told him even before I started shooting, “These guys, in their head, the war and the place where the war took place, is never the past. It’s always the present. They’re at the mall, it’s still there.” The music and sounds of everything over there are always in their head, but mixed up with the sounds and music of here. He’s a Turkish composer who does very traditional Turkish music, so he composed music with sonorities from over there played with instruments from here. From each and every piece of music, we took sometimes only bites distilled here and there. We wanted for the viewer unconsciously to feel there was some noise linked to the war zone, but it’s never obvious. It’s just pieces of sound mixed really low down.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where a couple who have been married for 62 years go to a restaurant, which works because it puts into relief the burden on the spouse of dealing with their partner’s trauma. So that’s part of the editorial process, right? Finding that echo.
Bécue-Renard: We knew we wanted to shoot their daily life back home. We named it “the rear.” The front line is in the therapy room, where everything that is happening is a revelation of war trauma, and then the rear is the family or American society. When we went to film that couple, something happened that we had not planned, which is another validation of the role played by the camera in therapy. 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. That’s also why everything is echoing the trauma and their work in the therapy room.
I always had the feeling when I was following them that, in their mind, there was the reality they lived in the therapy room, linked to the front line, and whatever was happening outside — in the family or wherever — was kind of a fiction for them. They never really related: they were there, but they were not really there. So with the cinematographer, we thought, how do we give the viewer this feeling? That’s how we came up with the idea of filming that with 35mm lenses, so unconsciously all these scenes give the impression that it’s not really reality. That’s also another way to play with the unconscious, while the therapy sessions were just filmed with HD lenses.
Of Men and War screens tonight and tomorrow at the San Francisco International Film Festival. For more information, click here.