PTSD may not be an audience-friendly issue, but this documentary filmmaker found a compelling way in.
What would you do if the worst thing that ever happened to you felt like it kept happening? That's the tagline for Ben Selkow's Buried Above Ground—and the reality for its three subjects, all of whom suffer from PTSD.
Luis Carlos Montalván (an Iraq War veteran), Erundina López (a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence), and Ashley Boudreaux (whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina) relive the most horrific moments of their lives every single day. Perhaps because it afflicts such a wide range of people and results from varying experiences, PTSD is largely misunderstood. Selkow's documentary chronicles six years in the lives of his subjects; in doing so, the film demystifies the disorder, training a compassionate and curious eye on the process of recovery.
No Film School sat down with Selkow to discuss his "labor of love," which he mostly self-financed in order to inspire empathy for sufferers of PTSD.
No Film School: What is compelling about the subject of PTSD for you?
Ben Selkow: I got interested in PTSD in '08 when I was traveling with my other film on bipolar disorder called A Summer in the Cage, which was on Sundance Channel. When I was moving through mental health circles with the film, PTSD became a topic in the public lexicon but [the public was] still really struggling with it. The VA, other institutions, and then us, culturally, we're not sure what to do with it, and there's already this divide between soldiers and civilians. It creates this dynamic of marginalized folks. I gravitate toward the silenced.
As I was doing research on PTSD and soldiers, I read a book called Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. It had a feminist bent on trauma and really widened my understanding of it, in terms of understanding that PTSD affects folks in this private theater of war, that being people's homes in the sense of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, physical assault, intimate partner violence, and community violence. Often those are women and children who are met with great skepticism when they try to share their story, or their believability is always questioned first.
"There's a vast preponderance of different incidents that can create PTSD."
Natural disasters and man-made disasters also can catalyze trauma in the form of PTSD. But most people do not get it. The symptoms that happen in the wake of a trauma are very normal; they're part of your body's fight or flight reflex. It's the persistence of it that interrupts your life in terms of relationships, the ability to work or focus, and the ultimate withdrawal as a result of depression and anxiety.
NFS: Was the prevalence of PTSD outside the realm of war surprising to you?
Selkow: I just didn't have a language for understanding PTSD outside of war. I knew the soldiers had it. It was something that came out of guns, and tanks, and helicopters, and explosions. The idea that women in a domestic violence situation could create this kind of persistent conditionalism was very surprising to me, and then it, of course, it manifests in your children. Then, of course, you widen the scope and understand that [it also happens to] first responders, people in car accidents—there's a vast preponderance of different incidents that can create PTSD.
"I violated the first rule of producing, which is, of course, that you don't use your own money. I definitely had to."
It had so many different faces and complexities. I ended up trying to interweave the paths to recovery of three characters, from three very different backgrounds, from three very different traumatic events to see where there was overlap, what they could learn from each other, what they share, and as a general effort trying to create inclusion and compassion. I've had the privilege to enter all of my subjects' lives and see it face-to-face while they were really in the struggle as well as fighting for recovery. It was shocking what that revealed to me. Everyone's got a story. There's a context for everyone's behavior and/or seat in life, and it's worth finding out what that narrative is.
NFS: How did you meet your subjects, and how did you earn their trust over time?
Selkow: I met my subjects having done another film on a mental health issue, which took me seven years to make. I think gave me a lot of credibility. I met one therapist, and I mentioned that I was interested in doing something on trauma, and that happened to be her specialty, so she made an introduction.
Then, Luis, who was the veteran in the film....I just sent random emails to various veteran support groups and a therapist connected me to him, thinking that he was in a place where he was ready to talk and begin some level of advocacy. He wanted to share his story and also wanted to do something about how veterans are being treated. Then, Ashley, who I met from New Orleans, I met through a mutual friend from college, who they had worked together and I knew him from college, so he connected us. Originally, she was going to be a guide to New Orleans for me, but as we got to talking and I realized how profound her experience was during Katrina.
NFS: You followed them over the course of six years. What was the day-to-day process like?
Selkow: It would be in spurts. I did a master interview with everyone in the fall (end of summer '08), which created a narrative. I wanted to do a six-year longitudinal study—you know, people talking in the present tense about recovery. We had no idea where anyone was going to end up in terms of their health, whether suicide was going to be a risk or regression with substance abuse. We didn't know their future, and there was a risk in that, but at the same time, it makes what unfolded in the film so visceral. There's no promise of recovery. You have to go on the ride with them to find out.
My process was to get those master interviews and then visit each one of [the subjects] and spend some time both shooting verite getting updates with interviews. And, of course, with PTSD, trust is the first thing you need. And the point of documentary filmmaking is getting access and trust, so I had a compounded hurdle in getting access, but I was very privileged in what they gave me. But maintaining that over time [was difficult] because I didn't live in the same place as many of the subjects, so I'd go and I'd leave and that creates a dynamic of stress for them, of being abandoned, or of not being consistent. It's something I had to learn to manage; sometimes I did well and sometimes I did not do well.
"There's kind of blood, sweat, and tears equity going on, trading big jobs for gratis work."
I collected hundreds of hours of footage over the six years and then started editing in pieces when I had little bits of money to assemble scenes and interweave three stories and figure out the best approach, cutting each story individually and then intercutting all three. It was thanks to my editors who helped me grapple with that task. The editorial in any doc is a bear, and three stories compound that, three stories over six years....There were plenty of good challenges there creatively, intellectually, and artistically. But it was a total bear.
NFS: Another bear was probably fundraising. How did it all come together?
Selkow: In a way, you can look at social issues and tie that to funding documentaries. So if there is public consciousness and initiative to take action on a social issue, there's usually some level of funding. With mental health, it was very challenging. I'm a mid-career filmmaker. I don't have Oscars to leverage. The subject matter made it difficult for folks, even though I had great access and super compelling characters.
"Everyone's got a story. There's a context for everyone's behavior in life, and it's worth finding out what that narrative is."
I self-financed or labor-of-loved it with a lot of great filmmakers who helped me make it for free. I produce another thing for television, and I'm able to hire them as paid gigs, so there's kind of blood, sweat, and tears equity going on, trading big jobs for gratis work. And then, of course, the Carter Center. They have an amazing mental health program, the mental health journalism fellowship, that I got in 2010-2011, and that came with a stipend that really helped me fundraise further.
Part of why it took so long to make was that I would have to save up and chip in to pay for edit weeks. I violated the first rule of producing, which is, of course, that you don't use your own money. I definitely had to. Then, last summer, a bunch of friends helped me organize a fundraiser outside the realm of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and we raised quite a bit of money for that to do the final editorial push. My producer, Mark Smolowitz, also put in some equity into the film and helped fundraise inside his network. So it was a huge quilt—very challenging—but I'm gratified that the day is here where it's going to be broadcast on public television and hopefully do a lot of good.