At the Human Rights Watch Festival: 'Of Men and War' examines the psychological toll on returning veterans


In his first documentary, War-Wearied (2003), Laurent Bécue-Renard chronicles the travails of three women, survivors of the Bosnian War, by filming their private therapy sessions. They had lost many family members, including their husbands, in that internecine conflict that led the United Nations and human-rights organizations to recognize rape as a weapon of war. The French filmmaker’s second documentary, Of Men and War, screens at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City on June 20. Another thoughtful consideration of war as the defining event in the lives of his subjects, it features American veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Like the women in War-Wearied, the former soldiers live in a residential treatment center, but instead of individual therapy sessions, they are participants in group therapy. Many of these survivors share behavioral traits, among them bouts of clinical depression; several admit to the psychological and physical abuse of their families. The veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and some are separated or divorced from their wives. Bécue-Renard’s interest in the effect of wars on people and their families springs from a personal experience that has long troubled him. “I grew up with two pictures of my grandfathers,” he says in a Skype interview from Paris. “They appear in the last frame of the end credits, and were taken at the end of World War I, when my grandfathers were the age of the veterans in the film.”

One grandfather had spent most of the war as a prisoner, and the other was wounded and then sent back to the front. Both survived, married and had children. “Apparently, they never spoke to their wives or their kids and grandkids,” Bécue-Renard says. “When I was born, they were already long gone. I couldn’t name it, but I grew up with the silence over the experience of these two men.” In Of Men and War, the talk is constant, but as in War-Wearied, it is the filmmaker’s penchant for holding a shot as his subjects pause, or remain unresponsive, that communicates more profoundly the horrific nature of their experiences. Each documentary is shot in classic, fly-on-the-wall style, with no narration and very little music.

Bécue-Renard was in Sarajevo working as a magazine editor when he met the gifted therapist in War-Wearied. He asked permission to observe one of her sessions, and she agreed. “I witnessed something that never happened in most families,” he explains. “The women were saying what the war did to them—not the image d’Épinal [an idiom that refers to romanticized images of war] of the glorious hero or the crying widow.” It was that experience which led Bécue-Renard to reflect on the role documentary filmmaking played in expressing the personal, as well as the historical. At the same time, he says, he discovered his method of work. “Therapy is where everyone is inventing a story that allows them to live with what happened to them,” he observes. “I am not saying that people are lying—rather, it is a creative place.”

Among the disturbing matters discussed by the veterans in Of Men and War are the sanguinary tasks of war, such as the sorting of body parts from several soldiers who were blown apart on the battlefield. At other times, the men speak of their guilt over the witnessing of horrific acts, including the mutilation of dead bodies. One veteran describes his feelings of powerlessness, and his inability to stop his fellow soldiers from their disturbing deed. It is not an easy documentary to watch. The pacing is excellent, as scenes of group therapy are mixed with home visits, but often these are disquieting as well. Like Frederick Wiseman, Bécue-Renard’s pauses for relief are brief shots of grounds-people trimming hedges, or of a cook making pancakes. Their labors, the stuff of everyday life, lie in stark contrast to those of the veterans who strive to regain even a picture of such quotidian reality.

The filmmaker describes the Herculean effort of whittling down 500 hours of footage to 142 minutes, and jokes that he exhausted three editors over the four-and-a-half years spent in post-production. “In this material which is full of death, we were seeking what is alive,” Bécue-Renard says, “the part of this man or that man where there is still a living human being.” He compares the editing process to the work of the therapist, Fred Gusman, who he says searches for that same spark of life upon which his patients can build a new life. There are no interviews. “I am not interested in interviews,” Bécue-Renard says. “I don’t want people to answer my questions. I want them to answer their own questions.”

Several of the veterans wear sunglasses during group therapy, although they are not outdoors. One of the most chilling moments in Of Men and War is when a young man explains why: He does not want anyone looking into his eyes because of what they might see there. “I heard them say that it was a habit they began in the desert because of the light,” Bécue-Renard explains, but his tone betrays skepticism. He believes the veterans are ashamed, but not in the usual sense of that word. “I call it the ‘shame of the human species,’” he observes. “These men have touched something and seen something which is shameful for all human beings, and that is what we are able to do to one another… They bear, for all of us, that shame.”

Bécue-Renard shot the majority of the scenes in the therapy room. He looked on as explosive arguments gave way to terrible memories, and sometimes to the veterans’ reminiscences of their homecoming. One admits that he was like a “bear with a sore tail,” and a second ponders his slim chance of relinquishing the rage that carried him through his year in Iraq. “I think I cost me my marriage,” he says, referring to the violent outbursts that led to his separation from his wife. The filmmaker admits it was difficult being in the therapy room and, later, having to watch these scenes again and again during post, but his personal quest kept him focused. “I had this very clear idea in my mind,” he says, “that I was seeking for my grandfather’s words.”