Minneapolis curator and arts writer Tricia Khutoretsky interviewed Sara Nesson, the Academy-award nominated filmmaker of Poster Girl, for 10 Years + Counting:
While shooting footage for the soon-to-be-completed Iraq Paper Scissors, a documentary about veterans on a healing journey, vérité filmmaker Sara Nesson met the remarkable Robynn Murray. The emotional story of this former cheerleader turned machine gunner and Iraq war veteran battling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, became Nesson’s Academy Award Nominated documentary short, Poster Girl, airing this November on HBO. I caught up with Nesson to learn more about her experience with such difficult subject matter, her relationship with Robynn Murray, her thoughts on war and a glamorous momentary escape to the Oscars.
Robynn’s outlet for expression was through art with the Combat Paper Project, and this is where you started your filming with her. How do you see art working as a healing tool?
It wasn’t about creating things that are beautiful or pleasing for the eye. The veterans engaged in art but I don’t think they thought of it as therapy. Cutting their uniforms up required using their entire bodies. By the time they were done they were sweating. Through that process of exertion they were able to let their minds drift into anger and frustration. In a community setting, this physical action led to sharing stories. Feelings would come pouring out of them – laughter, bitching. The art allowed them to let go. Once the resentment subsided a little bit, they were able to put images and thoughts into their art, and suddenly the angry feelings turned into something beautiful. It became one long healing process. I really do think art therapy works, it helps a lot of people not just veterans.
What was it like to be there with a camera while the veterans were going through such difficult experiences? Did you ever feel like you were intruding?
It was definitely different with the guys than with Robynn and Jennifer. The women didn’t have as many walls up as the men did. I don’t know if this was because I’m a female, so the men found it harder to relate to me or let go in front of me. Underneath it all, though, I think they knew I cared about them and that I was trying to do something important. I think they just trusted that I was going to help society understand what it means to be a veteran.
Do you think by filming you provided some comfort for them as well?
I don’t want to sugarcoat it, because it wasn’t all peaches. Sometimes I would show up and, if they were having a bad day, they didn’t want the camera around. They were fine when I filmed them doing art, that was never a problem. But if I was going to honestly portray what it was like for them, I had to film them going through the hell as well. It was a big source of contention because intellectually they understood, but emotionally it was too hard for them. I hated pushing it because I didn’t want them feel that they didn’t have a choice. They always had a choice. Months would go by and if they kept saying no, I would wonder what I was doing it for. It was especially hard with the guys and became a bit of a struggle for me.
I started to realize that I had seen enough veterans cutting up uniforms and making paper, and I needed to see how it was affecting a larger community of veterans. So I invited everyone to come to Martha’s Vineyard for a week to do a combat paper and writing retreat. That’s where I met Robynn. It was so refreshing to work with someone like her. She didn’t have any walls up and she was so open to articulating what was happening to her, even on her bad days. I filmed Robynn over the course of a year, and that footage turned into Poster Girl. All of it I shot with the intention of her being part of Iraq Paper Scissors.
Working with Robynn for so long, how did your relationship develop?
From the very beginning, when I asked her if I could film her at home, we became close. I got to know her mom and other people in her life. I think it was easy for her to trust me because I had been filming her for the other film and she saw the footage of that, with all her new friends in it. But I think we had an instant friendship and trust.
Some people just connect, which might be what makes your film so powerful. What is your relationship now? I know that you sometimes travel with her to speak about Poster Girl, how often do you see each other?
We actually just had a reunion in Martha’s Vineyard. We showed Poster Girl at a film festival there, which was really exciting for us. We are also in the early stages of turning Poster Girl into a feature film, and I hope that Robynn will write it. She’s an amazing writer. She’s never written a screenplay but we’ll have help in that area.
Will it be adapted exactly from the documentary, just in a Hollywood format?
It’s not going to be Hollywood, it will be an independent film. We’re trying to keep it raw. We want it to feel real, almost like the documentary but we’ll get a chance to go more into her story. There is so much more to her story that I didn’t have the luxury of going into with a short documentary film.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge of making it into a film? Is there anything that scares you about that process?
It’s been a challenging process for the last five months, since the Oscars. I’ve been wondering– is this going in the right direction? Can I trust the people who are telling me how I should do it? Should I take it into my own hands and do it in my own way? Making independent films is scary because you have to raise all the money. It’s almost impossible to make a film these days! But Robynn is a remarkable person — we’ve had some offers. As long as Robyn is a part of it, she gets to tell her story, and we work with people we trust, I think we can do it.
Speaking of the Oscars, how did you both feel about getting nominated? That must have been surreal.
It was amazing. It was crafted for the Oscars, at least that’s what HBO told me when they picked it up to help me finish it. They said, “We’ll qualify it for an Oscar,” but they said it so nonchalantly that I thought, “that sounds like a big deal but you aren’t saying it like it is.” And sure enough, it got shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. The longest wait of my life, three months to find out if the film got nominated from the shortlist, was torture. Of course when we found out, Robynn and I felt like it was our moment to shine after going through hell together, and be like Cinderella for a day. I felt like we deserved that.
I thought it was amazing that you got recognized with such difficult subject matter, veterans and PTSD, which people seem shut off to.
That was exactly what went through my mind. By getting the Oscar nomination it seemed at that moment, that my goal was met, for people to see all of these amazing stories and just know about them. That is what I would have said, had I won. But that’s why I want to do the feature film, to reach a larger audience and keep getting these stories out there.
What is the story you want out there? Considering how much your film(s) evolved, is your message the same?
In the beginning it was about the veterans who were making incredible art and setting such a great example by taking responsibility for their own healing. I shifted from that to showing how maddening the VA process can be. When I met Robynn, my goal was to film her from filling out her claims, to getting her doctor evaluations, hopefully to getting her disability compensation, and finally getting help. I wanted to show how hard that process is. The suicide rate for veterans is 18 suicides per day because the help that is available is not working. When I took it to HBO, my editor kept asking the question, why don’t people care about PTSD? People don’t care because they don’t understand it. It became important to have people empathize. Robynn had to tell it like it is — everything from punching a hole in the wall to talking about flashbacks and being in Iraq. It is a vivid, raw experience for the person watching. I started to realize that this isn’t so much a story as it is a visceral experience.
It also seems different coming from a female perspective. I think this is incredibly rare and that resonates.
That was a bonus! I wasn’t setting out to make a film about a female warrior. But she speaks for both genders. It certainly isn’t sex specific.
A focus of the 10 Years and Counting project is to recognize the impact of a decade at war. What do you want people to know about war based on what you have experienced making these films?
I get asked a lot if I am trying to tell people not to serve in the war. I really don’t think that I can make the kind of film that will change the world. But I think the important thing is that this film educates. By enlisting, you might think you’ll get good skills for life or be a hero, but the truth is you can’t go off to war and not be affected in some way. I hope people take from this film that war will change you on many levels. It is important to know that before making a choice about enlisting. Maybe awareness will keep them from being shocked about the difficulties of coming home, if they can’t function, focus or get a job. These are the things adding to a dysfunctional cycle for war veterans.
Hopefully also from your film, society overall might realize the weight and cost of war on both lost lives and lives that come home?
Yes, they are equally damaged. Lost souls come home. A part of them almost does die there, as Robyn says in the film. The fact that we have 18 veterans a day committing suicide is an epidemic. We can’t blame Osama, Hussein or unnamed terrorists for that. We can only blame ourselves for that.