By Alexia Evripidou
The harrowing experiences of war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are the subject of a new film from New York-based Greek Cypriot film director and cinematographer Minos Papas.
Son of internationally acclaimed film director Michael Papas, Minos was determined to carve his own successful path in the industry from an early age. At age 16, Minos Papas received his first international award with the short film Whispers (1993) at the Make-A-Video youth competition in Helsinki, Finland. He’s since worked as a writer, director and producer on his own productions as well as turning his hand to director of photography on short and feature films, music videos, documentaries and commercials.
Now, as an established independent filmmaker in New York for the past ten years, his vision in his short narrative film Tango on the Balcony is to make an honest, daring and consciously non-political film, ‘aimed at telling a more authentic story’ of the veterans who suffer with PTSD.
This debilitating anxiety disorder can be experienced by anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event, such as witnessing or inflicting injury or death. Its symptoms include re-experiencing the event, hyper-arousal, and diminished responsiveness to or avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma.
War veterans are of course particularly prone. The US Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 7-8 per cent of the (American) population will have PTSD at some point in their lives and about eight million adults have PTSD during a given year. But this figure pales beside those who seen active service in the military.
“Today, as many as 20-50 per cent of all war veterans suffer with PTSD and have problems transitioning to civilian life. Many find themselves without purpose and end up taking their own lives. A staggering 22 veterans commit suicide per day, a death toll that is higher than those killed in action. That is one veteran every 65 minutes,” said Papas. More than two million US service personnel have been deployed in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. As the survivors returned home and tried to reintegrate into civilian life, some were diagnosed with PSTD. Others have suffered in silence.
The National Centre for PTSD statistics shows 11-20 out of every 100 veterans who served in the operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. It is estimated that about 30 per cent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
“I first met a US veteran in 2011; he’d great difficulty being in a public place. We were in a busy but not particularly crowded bar. He was uncomfortable and anxious among lots of people and abrupt noises. To me it was obvious, but everyone else in the bar was oblivious to his struggle,” Papas recalled.
He spoke to many veterans, researched books and articles on PSTD and worked with veterans at a Filmmaking Workshop called “I Was There Films.” The workshops were run by Benjamin Patton (grandson of General George Patton), where participants made films about their own experiences.
Inspired by these very real and often painful life stories, Minos decided to write Tango on the Balcony this year. It’s a story about Johnny, a US veteran returning home and facing the challenges of PTSD whilst living in New York. He’s haunted by a single event that occurred on a balcony.
“As civilians, we have a responsibility to learn and understand how PTSD works, what it is and how it marks people in society. It’s not just a problem that governments need to solve with medication or benefits. The more we understand PTSD, the more we can understand the human condition,” said Papas.
Although help exists from the US Department of Veterans Affairs who process veterans’ cases, administer therapies and address issues of transition to civilian life, “about 50 per cent of combat veterans are on a waiting list, many with serious PTSD, and that is a huge reason that there are so many veteran suicides.”
Tango is a fictional narrative film inspired by such real events. It is not a documentary. Papas believes there are many documentaries that follow veterans and document their problems, but there’s a considerable lack of narrative films that authentically portray veterans and PTSD.
“The importance of making a narrative is that a lot more veterans can identify with a fictional character. Also, a lot more civilians can experience subjectively what it’s like to suffer from PTSD.
“US veterans have been politicised in many ways. There is the mantra ‘Support the Troops’ that silences any dissent to the wars. There is a lot of flag waving and patriotism associated with the military, all for political posturing. I am interested in the human story about PTSD, the human condition and the implications of trauma and how it affects memory and our perception of time.”
As a filmmaker living in New York, and being part of the fabric of its society, Papas feels a responsibility to help tell the story of these veterans, who carry both the visible and invisible wounds of war.
One such veteran is Minos’ co-producer Michael Day. Day was discharged from the US marine corps as a combat veteran, having served in Iraq in 2003. Seven years later he began to dabble in prose and photography as a means of finding therapeutic outlets to combat his symptoms of PTSD.
Day talks about his experiences in his blog. He discusses how for a combat veteran, PTSD is an illness that strikes mercilessly at the core of social integration. How it can affect everything from employment, interpersonal relationships, and propel sufferers towards substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide.
“I have firsthand experience with the ugly side of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. In 2003, I sat on the border between Kuwait and Iraq with the United States marine corps awaiting the order to invade. My unit crossed the line, and we saw things no human being should,” says Day.
“Minos told me of his desire to create a short film, one that would bridge the gap between audiences occasionally hearing the word PTSD onscreen and their experiencing it through the eyes of a conflicted soldier. I embraced the idea. The narrative will connect veteran and civilian communities alike. The film is vital, unique in its exploration of the subject material, and has the potential to be a game-changer.”
No stranger to army life himself, Minos served in the national guard in Cyprus. Although born in London, he grew up in Cyprus.
“Cypriots can possibly identify because we have been through trauma collectively as a nation. I have childhood memories of unexpected fireworks going off and people stepping outside onto their verandas, looking skyward, just to make sure those were actually fireworks and not another invading army. Those are symptoms of PTSD.”
The crowd funding project in RocketHub, created to raise funds for the film is open until 15/07/15. To find out more, go to: Http://rkthb.co/57550
Michael Day’s Blog: https://medium.com/the-outtake/ptsd-through-a-different-lens-88fef98620c7