Review: Of Men and War (Bécue-Renard, 2014) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

The words “post-traumatic stress disorder” get batted around a good deal when the subject of veterans comes up, so much so that it has almost become a cliché. But most of us rarely get the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the condition and the people who suffer from it. Of Men and War, French documentarian Laurent Bécue-Renard‘s second film, provides a rare intimate portrait of a group of men recovering from PTSD.

Embedding himself at The Pathway Home, a first-of-its-kind treatment center for post-combat mental health challenges located in California’s Napa Valley, Bécue-Renard takes viewers inside what are typically off-limits spaces. In some of the film’s most harrowing scenes, we listen in on group therapy sessions, oftentimes led by Pathway Home founder and Vietnam vet Fred Gusman, as patients take turns describing the traumas that haunt them. Stories haven’t been sanitized for news reports, dressed up as fiction. Emotions are unbearably raw. Some of the men struggle to give up their secret terrors, the worst of their war, or, many times, what they see as the worst of themselves. At certain moments I felt almost indecently voyeuristic, feeding on the sensational, at other times as though listening was the least I could do.

Filmed over six years, Of Men and War also follows its veterans on visits to family and, eventually, as they reintegrate into their former lives. We see the veterans interacting with–and oftentimes not interacting with–elderly parents, young children, and patient, anxious wives. The transition is far from smooth. As anyone who has ever experienced trauma knows, the path to recovery is Sisyphean and–for some–impossible.

Though the work of The Pathway Home is indeed inspiring, Of Men and War is not a feel-good, nor even a hopeful, documentary about overcoming. It takes a piercing (and long–the festival cut runs to nearly 2 1/2 hours) look at a whole spectrum of emotions, including isolation, rage, despair, and (transiently) even humor. If the film at times feels a little incohesive, it is because the process of coping with PTSD lacks cohesion.

Of Men and War is Bécue-Renard’s second installment in his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy. The first, Living Afterwards: Words of Women, explores the mental damage wrought on Bosnian war widows. With less than seven percent of Americans serving or having served in the military, these unflinching stories about the lasting psychological impacts of war are important for us to see.