So where the heckins have I been? Well apart from busying myself with everything-in-the-world-ever, I have found time to cover a couple of documentary screenings for the Frontline Club Forum blog. These posts were quite newsy so I thought I’d share a few personal thoughts on these two beautiful and challenging films too: 900 Days and The Invisible War.
900 Days contains a collection of rare and extremely moving interviews with survivors of the siege of Leningrad (present day St Petersburg), by the Nazis. During the siege, which took place between 1941 and 1944, approximately 1 million people died of starvation and sub zero temperatures. This was roughly a third of Leningrad’s population and many of those interviewed had lost their entire families.
Shortly after the blockade ended Stalin banned anyone from speaking about it and destroyed the museum. Since then a state lead narrative of triumphalism has become the norm. Today, colourful Victory Day parades are held in celebration of the former Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazi aggressors. In stark contrast, the experiences of many survivors were ones of victimhood, not victory. Denialism, favoritism and lack of preparation on the part of the Russian authorities at the time actually led to many needless deaths.
For many survivors, the state sponsored public narrative gives a kind of psychological stability and hope, but it was evident from this film that this isn’t enough. The pain and trauma caused by these events is still so near for many of the people involved.
One thing I loved about this film was that Director Jessica Gorter hasn’t directly presented a critical stance on the failures of Stalin’s governance during the blockade (bit of a strange thing to like I know). Instead, she has provided a platform for these stories to be told. Stories that have desperately needed to be told for a very long time. Commenting after the screening, Gorter told us: “[the film] leaves room for the people themselves”. She explained that, during the four years of tentatively built relationships and many cups of tea it took to gather these accounts, some of the people she met could never bring themselves to talk about what they went through, but others were bursting to share their experiences.
At the premiere in St Petersburg many young people attended and were shocked at these things they never new their grandparents had gone through. Now new conversations are happening and this film is a precious gift to people of St Petersburg themselves. It is a tool they can use to re-understand their history, present day assumptions and think about what the future should look like.
The Invisible War addresses the ‘epidemic’ that is sexual assault within the US military. A wapping 20 percent of female veterans have experienced sexual assault during their time in the military, and these are just those who have spoken out. Some of the women in this film had experienced multiple rape, the only way out being to either appeal to a commander who might actually have been involved, or to go AWOL. A shockingly small number of attackers are punished or even removed from their posts. On the rare occasions when someone is convicted, sentences are often too small to warrant the attacker being put on the sex offenders register when they return to civilian life.
This documentary serves to amplify voices that have so often hit a wall of disbelief. One woman was even denied military health insurance to cover the injuries she got from being attacked. For those interviewed it was clearly not only the experience of sexual assault but also this subsequent treatment that had had such a destructive effect. The Producer Amy Ziering admitted at the screening that she had never seen trauma like this before. “It’s a struggle every day” said one interviewee, and the husband of another described how he has had to call the police in one hand while restraining his wife from killing herself with the other, before breaking down on screen.
I found this film totally heart breaking. It can be tempting to feel that in a western institution there would be systems in place to deal with this kind of thing seriously. Tragically, as this film shows, it is important to have a closer look.
Thankfully, this film is now proving to be an effective advocacy tool. Through targeted screenings, four out of the five Joint Chiefs of the US Military have seen it and it is now being used as a training tool in the Army and Air Force. The makers are still pushing for external (non military) oversight and accountability because the ‘commander issue’, as Ziering called it, is a pivotal one. If you want to host a screening of your own click here.
Anyway, these are two amazing documentaries which both amplify voices that have been stifled and challenge received wisdom about the issues they involve. The first on a grass roots level, giving communities a more complete version of their history, the second reaching authority figures who can make the changes needed.
Both give the space for those interviewed to say what they have been gasping to say to those who need to hear it.