Addressing depth of trauma another kind of heroism, says Of Men and War director Laurent Becue-Renard

Laurent Becue-Renard, photo: Alice Films

Among the most important guests at this year’s Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival was Laurent Becue-Renard, who shared his expertise with local documentarians at an Ex Oriente Film workshop. Becue-Renard’s first film War-Wearied, about Bosnian women coping with the aftermath of conflict, was screened before the masterclass. But when we met, I wanted to discuss his most recent work, Of Men and War.

Laurent Becue-Renard, photo: Alice Films
The award-winning documentary focuses on a therapy group for deeply scarred US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I asked the French director, is there anything specific about soldiers’ experience of those two conflicts?

“Of course they’ve come back from Afghanistan and Iraq. But they could have come from the Normandy beaches in June ’44. Or they could have come back from the trenches in Verdun after WW1.

“I would say in terms of trauma there’s nothing specific to any war. Because trauma happens in a place where the psyche cannot deal with any more with death.

“Death violent, massive, repetitive, death that is all around you all the time, be it the death of the others or the death that you can receive at any moment. Or the death that you can provoke because you have a weapon.

“And there’s one stage where your psyche cannot deal with this and there’s trauma.

“So these young men that I followed over five years have all the symptoms of what is called now post-traumatic stress disorder. Let’s just call it war trauma. And for them it’s never over. It’s always the present.”

But is there nothing specific about those wars? For example, after WWII I presume most people who came home were treated as heroes because it was very clear they were fighting evil?

“Yes, but you’re talking about others right now, how others treat them. Of course there are specificities.

“But I’m answering at the level which is the one I’m interested in: trauma.

“If you’re on Omaha Beach on D-Day. You’re a young American. All your friends are blown up around you. You may be the next one. You’re stuck on that beach for hours and hours because there’s no way you can climb.

“Then the fact that you’re freeing Europe from Nazism – does it change anything vis-à-vis your trauma? Not at all. Your psyche doesn’t care about this.

“Now the cultural way it’s going to be treated, by others or by yourself, that is different, to some extent.

“And the trauma is going to be expressed in the same ways in terms of symptoms, meaning you will remain stuck on the front-line most of your life.

“It’s there in your nightmares. It’s there in your daydreaming in the sense that there are a lot of flashbacks in your life.

“It’s there in your shame. It’s there in your anger. It’s there in the feeling of betrayal. You name it.

“It’s the same for everyone. Most of them are sleepless. Most of them are depressed. Most of them are in a state of anxiety.

“They’re hyper-vigilant. Everywhere they are they’re just afraid of the war. The fear is there.

“It’s funny. I’ve been showing this film all around my own country, France, and we have a lot of veterans coming. The oldest ones are from the colonial war in Algeria. And then there are veterans from all generations.

“And they say, This is my story. Even though it’s America. Even though it’s in English. Even though it’s different wars. They say, This is exactly what happened to me, in terms of trauma.”

Today we understand post-traumatic stress disorder much more than in the past. But does understanding it help in any way? Is there any benefit in us naming it?

“What I’m trying to do in my work – I’m not an academic, I don’t work on post-traumatic stress disorder – I’m trying to have the audiences see inside themselves.

'Of Men and War', photo: Alice Films
“We all grew up in the second half of the 20th century. Whatever our age is, we were born after the war.

“And in one way or another we are all kids of the war. Unconsciously. Against our will. But it’s part of our legacy.

“The war is within. It’s been transmitted. And as long as we don’t address it for ourselves, saying, This is where my mother, grandmother, my father, grandfather, is coming from… and that is how the cultural experience of the family has been built up and the psychological experience of the family has been built up.

“As long as we don’t understand that, we won’t be at peace. We can say many things about peace and wanting peace in the world and everything. But the first step is really to get rid of the war within ourselves.

“When I was growing up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s I thought my country was very angry. I couldn’t name it, because it was just natural for me. It was just what I saw.

“When I was a grown-up person I could realise that this was a pattern. The country I was growing up in was angry.

“That was one of the main aspects of the legacy. As a collective being, the people who were living in my country were angry. And I think it’s true for most Europeans and Westerners.

“You’re asking the question of PTSD from a scientific point of view. That’s different. We learn how to treat people with trauma much better than before perhaps. But, you know, there’s no cure to trauma.”

Given everything you’re saying, was there anything you learned from the making of Of Men and War? Or anything that surprised you from their stories?

'Of Men and War', photo: Alice Films
“Both my grandfathers, who fought in WWI, were long gone when I was born. And what remained was the silence.

“They came home from WWI and started their families. They married and had kids and had grandkids. But never spoke. Never said anything.

“And we know that their war experience was traumatic. One was made prisoner in the early days of the war in 1914 and stayed prisoner for five years – the only survivor of his unit.

“The other one was wounded. Sent back to the rear, sent back to the front. Trauma.

“I think I was missing what my grandfathers could have said. Because I felt it was transmitted in other ways. Just by behaviour. And imprinted like an impression, like in photography, from one generation to the other.

“So when I went first to America, seeing these young men who were exactly the same age as my grandfathers when they came back from WWI, that was my quest.

“These young American men were going to tell me what my grandfathers could have told me, if they had been in a position to.

“That’s what I learned. And I think in many respects I’m less angry a person after having done not only this film but also the one before about the women.”

I’d like to ask you, how do you view feature films about war?

“Well, both my films and perhaps all my work is also a reaction to a lot of other types of images.

“First the news. I belong to the first generation that in my own country – and it’s true for most Western countries – grew up with the news every evening on television.

'Of Men and War', photo: Alice Films
“When I was a kid the news was the war in Vietnam. There were also conflicts in Africa and later down the road other conflicts in the Middle East.

“And one day I felt that I didn’t want to watch those images any more. I’m not blaming the journalists – they’re doing their job.

“But the problem is the news. The news is there to tell us why, where, how, when. But the news is not there to tell us what the human experience is.

“And watching images of war on television, in the news, we get desensitised. We don’t see how it’s part of us. So all my work is against these kind of images, first.

“Then of course I decided to go and shoot in America I think for one good reason, for me, which was that, growing up, most of the representations I had of warriors were coming from Hollywood movies.

“When I was growing up it was WWII movies mostly. And later in the ‘70s we had Vietnam war movies.

“But being films glorifying war or films against war, the representation of the warrior was always kind of the same: very heroic, very epic.

“And I thought by going to America and choosing guys that look like the heroes of fiction movies, in showing the other side of the mirror, was very powerful.

“Showing that deep down they’re completely broken. They’re in pieces. And that there is another heroism – which is to address how much you’re wounded.

“In this respect my films are showing something different. Which is less deceiving.

“Because, again, our legacy, what we have received, is what has been felt by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Not heroic representations.”