“Tango on the Balcony”

Why I am making a short film about Veterans & PTSD

The word “idiot” comes from ancient Greek battelfield lingo. Ancient Greek military superiority came from the phalanx formation: a line of soldiers interlocking shields. They were called ‘hoplites’ a name derived from the ‘hoplon’ shield, their main weapon. It was a huge, heavy, rounded bronze shield that when strapped to the left arm and held up, was not intended to cover yourself — but your neighbor — from nose to knees. The hoplites’ paramount purpose was to stick together and protect the neighbor to their right. Dropping the shield was anathema. It was considered poor soldiering, selfish and a betrayal of the neighboring soldier. Soldiers who dropped their shields were slandered as ‘idiotes’, ie: “self-centered” or “unskilled citizens.” This is where we derive the insulting word, “idiot.”

When I first came to the US from Cyprus my new friends in New York were fascinated by my 2 years of military service. When I talked to them about it I would get this glassy eyed look. I never really understood why. Until the Iraq War.

In Cyprus and quite a few other European countries mandatory military service is a legal requirement. In Cyprus there is a genuine need to train the tiny population in case there is another neighborly attack such as in 1974. But obviously here in the US there is a professional army, mostly made up of volunteers no less. Unless they come from a family with a military background, most American civilians are insulated from the military experience. Even during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there was little visible impact on the majority of people here (myself included) other than some financial implications, at least not the kind I would expect during wartime. This has exacerbated what is known as the civilian-military divide.

Due to this the 2 million post 9/11 veterans that are returning home are meeting a huge lack of understanding. Although the military is steeped in red tape, uniforms and theatrics, there is a deep brotherhood among military service members who have served in war zones, and fought and sacrificed for each other. In contrast, modern civilian life celebrates the individual and we rarely stick up for each other in public or at the office, let alone put our lives on the line for each other. We all drop our shields, all the time.

Add to this the effects of service-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that many of them suffer from (20–50%) and the division becomes even wider. Veterans are the second largest population in the US (after rape victims) to suffer from PTSD. Studies show there is a relationship between PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

PTSD is an injury that we know very little about. We don’t know who is susceptible and who is not. It is an injury related to memory, and causes deep anxiety and panic which can be triggered by circumstances similar to the traumatic event. It is related to our sense of time and presence. Symptoms include hyper vigilance, addiction, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression and numbness. Combined with a transition into the ‘idiotic’ civilian way of life, many veterans find themselves without purpose and end up taking their own lives. A staggering 22 Veterans commit suicide per day, a death toll that is higher than those killed in action. That is one veteran every 65 minutes. Treatment has been mostly heavy medication, which comes with a host of side-effects. Alternative treatments such as transcendental meditation and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy are only just starting to be explored. Many veterans also are misdiagnosed or deny they suffer from PTSD and end up self medicating, falling into alcoholism and drug abuse.

PTSD goes beyond veterans and affects many who may have experienced traumatic events, in varying degrees. This number is probably enormous. I believe PTSD is embedded in the human psyche, but it is not yet part of our cultural understanding of the human condition.

I started researching PTSD a few years ago and was fortunate to be part of a team of instructors in the I Was There Films filmmaking workshop, which is an initiative of the Patton Veterans Project. The workshop is empowering to veterans and promotes collaboration and expression. During these workshops I worked closely with Veterans and service members who told their stories through film. I quickly learned a lot about the challenges veterans face and the need for a narrative film was apparent.

The pre-production poster for Tango on the Balcony starring Aristotle Stamat

There have been many good documentaries that tell the story of returning US veterans. But there is a considerable lack of narrative ‘fictional’ films that really portray the symptoms and struggles of PTSD. The most recent one, “American Sniper” only scratched the surface. My short film “Tango on the Balcony”, which I am co-producing with Veteran Marine Michael Day (an alumni of the IWT Film workshop), will break through that surface and take us into the attic of the mind where PTSD lives. Narative film is the perfect medium to explore PTSD from a subjective point of view and put the audience into the mind of a character with PTSD. We hope that viewers may recognize the symptoms in themselves or their loved ones and seek help. But we also hope to break down the stereotypes that civilians have in their minds. Many civilians I have spoken to think that PTSD means that a veteran will eventually “snap” and go beserk on a violent spree, the type seen in the sensationalist media. Although that has happened, the symptoms of PTSD can be much subtler and are mostly self destructive.

As a film director I think it is my responsibility to tell the most relevant stories related to the human condition. Today, PTSD is that story. It is compelling, it is urgent. There is so much to learn.

We are crowdfunding to raise the funds for the short film “Tango on the Balcony”, which we hope will be an informative and evocative tool in the dialogue about PTSD. Read more about the film and please consider contributing here: http://rkthb.co/57550