Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Behind the Screen: The Camouflage Closet.

Producer Heliana Ramirez
Director Michael Nedelman
Note: Moving Pictures is featuring the filmmakers from the CSWE 2014 Virtual Film Festival sharing the stories behind the making of their films. Contact us to learn how you can see the films and vote for the Virtual Ovation Award. The award consists of a $500 prize and will be presented to the top-ranked film in the Virtual Film Festival, as determined by the audience.

In this month celebrating LGBT pride, producer Heliana Ramirez describes below the making of The Camouflage Closet, the film directed by Michael Nedelman that focuses on the resilience of LGBT veterans who have experienced discrimination, PTSD, and trauma. 

The Camouflage Closet is a documentary about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) veterans with PTSD, trauma, and recovery. Directed by Stanford medical student Michael Nedelman and produced by Heliana Ramirez, LISW (a social welfare PhD student at UC Berkeley), this film incorporates the firsthand perspectives of LGBT veterans, who were provided with cameras, tools, and training to create video narratives. It also features an original score by composer and UC Berkeley PhD student Andrew V. Ly.

The production team decided to adapt the Videovoice method to create The Camouflage Closet (Wang and Burris, 1997; Wang & Pies, 2008; Catalani et. al., 2012). By providing participants with necessary equipment and instructive videomaking sessions, this production template is meant to accomplish the goals of (1) encouraging positive social change, especially for marginalized communities; (2) understanding the needs and strengths of these communities; and (3) empowering these communities through art. Videovoice has been used widely for its potential to enable participants to describe their own lived experiences, resulting in uniquely poignant and detailed information—as opposed to being defined by outside parties. This is particularly meaningful for a population rendered virtually invisible by “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) and other military policies that are anti-LGBT.

The Film Process
The production process consisted of three concurrent phases. In phase I (individual filming phase), participants learned the basics of how to use the camera and what it meant to film responsibly—from obtaining signed releases, to being aware of their own personal triggers and limits in discussing PTSD and potentially traumatic experiences. During 1-week camera loans, participants chose the content they wanted to film and which clips they wanted to share with the group.

During phase II (group discussion phase), participants met at VA Palo Alto to discuss their colleagues’ clips, offer positive feedback, and engage in creative exercises. These exercises ranged from “Incorporating Archival Material” to “Using Music to Tell a Story,” which allowed the participants time to brainstorm, learn storytelling skills, build confidence, and process emotional responses to filmed content. This enabled the project leaders, Ramirez and Nedelman, to come to understand each participant’s unique voice and vision for his or her contribution to the final product.

In phase III (collaborative phase), each participant had the opportunity to meet with the director and producer for individual filming sessions, meant to expound upon the topics they had previously identified and to tie together the loose ends of the narrative. New edits of the video, as well as Ly’s original musical compositions, were brought back to the group’s weekly meetings, allowing the team to evaluate the look, feel, and overall message of the film in keeping with the veterans’ vision. So that a range of stories and styles of storytelling could be included, the film was edited as a series of vignettes addressing topics such as military sexual trauma (MST), lives before the military, and individual recovery narratives.

Approaches to Dealing With Trauma
The challenge of creating a film that directly addresses PTSD and trauma is that film participants often were accessing traumatic memories they had not dealt with directly for several years. Additionally, many of the veterans had not shared their traumas with anyone else and were at risk of being triggered by their peers’ stories of trauma.

To support veterans in creating their own video narratives as safely as possible, all participants signed a memorandum of understanding that included agreements that the veterans had a primary mental health provider with whom they met on a regular basis; that they would notify the director and producer if PTSD symptoms, suicidal thoughts, or substance use escalated and became unmanageable; that they would learn and practice self-help skills for symptom management such as grounding exercises and tools from cognitive behavioral therapy such as thought checking; and that they would seek support from peers in the project and access the Officer of the Day in the VA mental health clinic or call a crisis line if they were in crisis. Additionally, the weekly video discussion groups incorporated strategies to support veterans and inform the director and producer how veterans were doing. These included bio-psycho-social check-ins (e.g., how is the person is eating, sleeping, and feeling emotionally; changes in illicit substance use and prescribed medications), group-discussion guidelines created by the veterans about their personal triggers (e.g., hearing gunshots or shouting; explicit discussion of rape), veterans describing the content of the clips they were about to show so others could leave the room if they wished (because of personal triggers), and individual check-ins as needed based on themes discussed by veterans and how they appeared.

Reactions of Film Participants and Others
Although the risks of participation in a film about trauma are many, the benefits also are numerous. Through the use of visual media, veterans were able to explore and describe traumatic memories in artistic ways through the use of metaphors that allowed some people to address the topic without being overwhelmed by the memory in its entirety (e.g., showing a water heater wrapped in several ropes to demonstrate “how I felt as an LGBT-XYZ ex-military woman”). Military culture is heavily influenced by the power of soldiers and veterans’ peer relationships, whether the situation is serving in battle or acclimating to civilian society after discharge. The peer-support aspect of this film project enabled participants to face the fears of their military experiences surrounded by a group of people who automatically understood their traumas (many had survived similar experiences with skills of survival and resilience from which others could learn and apply to their own recovery processes). Many of the film screenings also have included panel discussions with the veterans answering mediated questions from the audience, which has been described as beneficial by the veterans. They also have indicated pride in their ability to help educate medical and mental health professionals about the needs and strengths of LGBT veterans.

Although this project was administered as a type of veteran art project, film participants have described it as being “therapeutic,” as they have gained greater mastery over historical traumas through a process of desensitization (i.e., seeing and hearing their traumas over and over again have helped to reduce the distress they feel when thinking about the traumas), experienced reduced isolation through increased connection with peers, and developed new levels of self-acceptance in seeing large audiences who are interested in learning about their stories. These experiences have affirmed their strength and resilience after decades of compulsory silence through policies such as DADT.

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