The second installment of his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s “Of Men and War” — which won the top prize at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam over the weekend — might be the most powerful Iraq war movie in years.
Using a device that recalls Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” Bécue-Renard explores the horrors of war with U.S. army veterans recounting their personal combat experiences with little else to guide the narrative.
Mostly set at the Pathway Home in Yountville, California, “Of Men and War” follows the lives of 12 war veterans who have succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder. Finding difficulties functioning back home, they seek support at the treatment center set up by Fred Gusman, a pioneer in the field, who initiated new treatment for veterans during the Vietnam War. Despite his comforting presence, the director keeps Gusman mostly off-screen, instead opting to fill the frame with tight close-ups of his main storytellers. Irrespective of the setting, the film isn’t about the facility so much as the men’s experiences before they got there.
In spite of his close proximity to his subjects, cinematographer Camille Cottagnoud never intervenes with fancy camerawork. After spending five months just observing, Cottagnoud and Bécue-Renard brought ventured into the group therapy sessions and recorded daily for five months. The results are remarkable: The ex-soldiers share their inner fears and deepest traumas in such candid ways that it’s hard to believe a camera is present. But “Of Men and War” is no regular fly-on-the-wall documentary. The camera becomes an instrument for therapy through which, with incredible courage and generosity, the veterans reveal the memories that haunt them.
Outside of the small rooms where the group therapy takes place, the filmmakers occasionally follow individual soldiers out of the center to visit their families. At times, these lead to heartfelt encounters and festive celebrations. At other times, they unveil the repercussions of the trauma that have manifested in anger mismanagement. In either case, we are suddenly thrown back into the therapy room where we are confronted with another soldier in the middle of a lucid recollection. The abrupt cuts painfully reflect the instability of the veteran’s state of mind that can never fully detach itself from the trauma.
While his first feature, 2001’s “War-Wearied,” depicted displaced women of the Bosnian War, Bécue-Renard’s follow-up focuses entirely on male characters. Although their outward appearances may seem traditionally virile, the fragility of their minds are communicated with persistent long takes that reveal the fragile terror in their expressions. As one ex-soldier stutters and twitches, his body falls in and out of the tightly composed frame. However, Bécue-Renard never abuses the frailty of these men. Rather than seeking to capture any particular event, “Of Men and War” is focused solely on reflection.
Appropriately, the film opens with a line from “All Quiet on the Western Front”: “What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account?” The stories from the men at Pathway Home similarly address the challenges of sharing wartime memories. But through that process, Bécue-Renard proposes for us to learn from their experiences. As U.S. forces are sent back to Iraq to counter the advance of the Islamic State, “Of Men and War” allow us to consider whether the past that refuses to fade is not only for the soldiers but for all of us.
“Of Men and War” had its international premier at International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), where it won the IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.