The wounds of the mind linger long after deployment.
Interview with Writer/Director Minos Papas
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
About 4 years ago I was at a restaurant with some friends. One of them was a military veteran. The restaurant was loud and bustling with people and we were sitting right in the middle of it. I noticed our veteran friend becoming agitated with the noise and commotion. Only when we he was four or five beers deep did he start to relax. Little did I know at the time that I was watching hyper vigilance and social anxiety - symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) - and then self medication, unfold before my eyes.
I felt a need to explore further, and found out the dire epidemic of untreated PTSD and moral injury that exists among post-9/11 veterans. Not only were the veteran suicide figures staggering, but at the time there was very little awareness about this issue among civilians. I wanted to explore this aspect of the human condition and it became the subject of my film TANGO ON THE BALCONY.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
PTSD and trauma reside mainly in the memory. When triggered, trauma returns to us as a sensory memory, a vision or a dream. I felt that film was the perfect medium to portray traumatic memories and the inner world of a veteran challenged by PTSD and moral injuries. This is the aspect that TANGO ON THE BALCONY focuses on: The subjective portrayal of the symptoms of PTSD and moral injury that place the audience member inside the mind of the central character, veteran John Wexler.
When we set out to make TANGO ON THE BALCONY, veteran Marine Michael Day and I wanted to avoid the conventions of recent mainstream war films such as “Brothers” and “The Lucky One” where PTSD and moral injury are portrayed but ultimately overcome in a very stereotypical way where a love interest saves the day. Films with a happy ending and closure do a disservice to the struggle of those battling with trauma. Veterans don’t need “saving” and PTSD can be overcome. But like a deep scar, PTSD never fully goes away. Surviving PTSD means living and coping with it on a daily basis which is what many veterans have to do, and that’s what we try to present in our film.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I served in the military in Cyprus, where it is mandatory for all men to do so. After your service, everyone knows what’s going on. Everyone has shared a similar experience and for years afterwards telling army stories is part of the every day dialogue in Cypriot society. I couldn't fathom that this vast contingent of service members in the US were being misunderstood - and worse, judged - by people who had not shared their experiences, or had a view that was informed by stereotypes.
The themes the film touches upon are many, including the manifold symptoms of PTSD: Isolation, headaches, hyper vigilance, social anxiety, insomnia. The film also presents the psychological problems of reintegration to civilian life, relations with other characters who look middle-eastern and trigger memories, the relationship the main character Johnny has with footage he has shot in combat which he watches repeatedly, and most importantly the relationship he has with the young boy he thinks he may have killed in combat… Was he a civilian or a combatant? Was Johnny justified in shooting him in the line of service?
In many ways TANGO ON THE BALCONY is made for civilian audiences to see another aspect of post war life - hopefully a more authentic one, closer to the experience many veterans have.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
Four years of research and close work with veterans all led to the creation of this script. I was proud to be an instructor in the I Was There Films Workshop created by Ben Patton, grandson of General George S. Patton, in which veterans make films about trauma and stress and where I was able to meet hundreds of veterans and listen to their experiences. I had invaluable advice from my co-producer Michael Day, a veteran Marine and filmmaker. We held script readings with the cast, in front of a veteran and civilian audience to get feedback and discuss what felt ‘true’ for them. In general, we strove for authenticity. Veterans’ experiences are so varied that it was a challenge to find a story that lots of veterans could relate to, but judging from the reactions to the film, we came very very close to achieving that.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Both veterans and civilians have given us positive feedback on the film. Veterans identify with Johnny’s struggle - recognizing the symptoms of PTSD in a visceral way… “I was just like that when I came back!” is something we hear a lot. Similarly, many civilians recognize their loved ones in the film. Recently the son of a veteran approached me after a festival screening and, clearly moved, he told me how the film was the best representation of PTSD he had seen, and recognized his father’s challenges in every scene.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
The feedback to our film has reinforced my belief that we as a society need more stories like TANGO ON THE BALCONY for this conversation to continue. Independent films can dare to explore “difficult” themes that mainstream movies cannot. I would love to see more films like TANGO ON THE BALCONY continue the conversation about PTSD, veterans stories and moral injury issues in ways that only the medium of Film can.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
I would love to reach more lovers of indie film and have TANGO ON THE BALCONY reach as many audiences as possible, so exposure such as this is welcomed and much appreciated!
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
TANGO ON THE BALCONY is currently being considered by distributors and sales agents for the worldwide short film market and educational distribution. I welcome any opportunity to have the film released on platforms that can offer it to audiences all over the world. I strongly believe that it can have an impact in the educational market where those studying the psychological aspects of reintegration, PTSD and traumatic moral injury can access it and use it in the research.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
What we have been seeing is ideal. The film has been accepted to 2 short film markets (Cannes and Palm Springs), 9 film festivals where it won 4 awards including the Best Director award at the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus, and the Best Screenplay award at the 5th Delhi Shorts Festival. It is also being invited for private screenings with partner organizations and veterans centers. We want to reach veterans and their families to encourage positive dialogue about these difficult issues.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
I still see and hear many stereotypical portrayals of Veterans - that they are damaged, they are ready to snap and are a danger to those around them. This is inaccurate. These are only a handful of cases. I would encourage people to watch TANGO ON THE BALCONY in an effort to understand the invisible wounds that many veterans battle with. The debate about veterans needs to be conducted with a full understanding of what veterans go through, and I hope that TANGO ON THE BALCONY can help shed some light there.
Would you like to add anything else?
TANGO ON THE BALCONY was made with crew of veterans and civilians. I can’t express enough gratitude to this crew. The veterans were impeccable on the set, filling roles in the background to working tirelessly behind the camera. My 1st AD was a veteran and he went above and beyond to help this film get made. My crew of veterans understood team mentality and the importance of every job, no matter how small. They understand that every detail mattered. I am looking forward to hiring veterans again for future projects.
Interview: November 2016
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Tango on the Balcony
The wounds of the mind linger long after deployment.
Director: Minos Papas
Producer: Michael Day, Minos Papas, Liz Sargent
Writer: Minos Papas
About the writer, director and producer:
Minos Papas is an award winning director and member of the Director’s Guild of Cyprus. More info on the team at www.tangoonthebalcony.com.
Key cast: Aristotle Stamat, Giuseppe Bausilio, Hakan Tolga Polat.
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): sales agents, buyers, distributors.
Funders: Crowd funding Campaign - almost 500 funders, including (EPs).
Made in association with: A Cyprian Films, New York production made in association with Attic Studios / Vault.
Where can I see it in the next month?
San Francisco Veterans FF (Saturday, November 12th)
Erie International Film Festival (December 2016)