Friday, November 28, 2008

interview with Penny Allen

Penny Allen is an independent filmmaker, actress, writer, and expatriate living in France. Her resume is both impressive and mercurial and a quick IMDB search notes she’s had cameos in a few of my favorite films.

A friend of mine turned me onto her newest film project, the documentary The Soldier’s Tale. It’s an amalgamation of candid footage taken by soldiers in Iraq with narration and interviews of a man identified as Sergeant R. I’ve seen over a dozen documentaries by both Americans and Iraqis about the war and this is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Before I watched it, Penny and I decided an email interview would work well on the blog. This is what transpired:

JS: Throughout history, the de-glorification of war has been left to journalists and artists. As mainstream news outlets continue to fail in that task, what new ways are artists and writers filling that role?
.PA: Plenty of soldiers, whether they’re in a war zone or perhaps more when they’re back home, do de-glorify war as much as journalists and artists. There are library shelves of soldiers’ journals that tell unglorious tales of war. Historically, former soldiers have frequently shaped their bitterness into piercing statements – the one that comes to mind just now is Army General Eisenhower warning against the military industrial complex. That was no glorification. Currently, we have artists and writers drawing from or adding to the torrent on the internet, perhaps engaging in more collaborations with soldiers than in the past, at least in what I am seeing.

JS: One of the strengths of this film is that we see you empathizing with Sergeant R. but we also see your frustration when trying to understand his motivations for returning to the war zone. In the limited time you had, how did you choose what not to ask him? And what do you regret not asking?

PA: In the motel interview with Sergeant R., I pushed him right up to the limit of his ability to speak about his experiences. The questions I chose not to ask him were more details, or personal questions, which I felt he would hesitate to talk about in front of camera. I thought the conversation was just about right, starting out awkward, building toward the difficult issues.
.JS: Sergeant R. doesn’t seem to be very intellectually curious about politics or the motivations for going to war. Do you think this added to his inability to deal with his emotional traumas?

PA: I think the wide range of soldiers -- from intellectually curious to those avoiding knowing too much or anything at all, from those who are engaged morally in what they are doing to those who are indifferent, just surviving, just getting by, from those who are analytical or ideological or emotional or practical….and so on…I think there is just as wide a range of reactions to emotional war traumas. Professionals who deal with sufferers of PTSD say that all kinds of individuals are unable to deal with their emotional traumas, including those who are intellectually curious about politics.

There are things about Sergeant R, who is not at all an intellectual, that make him able to deal with his war traumas – his supportive military family, his out-reaching personality, his down-to-earthness, his directness, his faith. It would seem that what set off Sergeant R’s trauma was the initial shock of returning to a mate who rejected him as “sick” when he wanted to show her some of the very material that is in the film, and then the loneliness of having people around him have no idea what it meant to be in a war zone, and then anger at his work situation which seemed silly to him – it would seem these things triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder which was lying coiled like a snake in his mind. The soldier’s specific experiences and situation upon his return and his inability to get his bearings didn’t, however, seem to have much to do with his lack of interest in politics. His motivations for going back to Iraq are gradually revealed in the film, and he’s certainly interested in those. They are personal and not ideological.

.JS: Sergeant R. desperately needs to talk about what he experienced, but he is inarticulate and hesitant. For obvious reasons, the Bush administration has been diligent with its suppression of soldier’s war documentation; they’ve shut down blogs and banned cameras. What kind of psychological effect do you think this has on the individual soldiers who are threatened with court-martial for expressing themselves?

PA: Frustration and anger and cynicism are three responses I can think of.

JS: One disturbing aspect of soldiers wanting to return to the battle field is that they are fighting for the very peace that they cannot readjust to. These men are trained for survival in a constant state of war and, once they are stateside, our government fails to reintroduce them back to civilian life. They lose they’re jobs, their families are destroyed, and the entire society suffers. What do you think American civilians can do to help these soldiers?

PA: Sergeant R did not say in the film nor would he ever say that he was fighting for peace. That is not among the motivations that he touches upon. People Stateside can push for increased treatment and programs for veterans. They can also individually make the effort to communicate with returning soldiers. They can open themselves up to experiences that introduce them to this complicated subject – experiences like looking at The Soldier’s Tale.
JS: Have you heard from Sergeant R. after his redeployment?

PA: Sergeant R and I continue to be in contact about once a month. It is late 2008, and he is back in Iraq.*

Purchase The Soldier’s Tale

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