A Discussion With Director Victoria Mills
Interview by Mila Djordjevic
Q: You are both a practicing psychoanalyst and documentary filmmaker. Can you talk a bit about how the two professions inform each other and how they differ?
A: What I find similar about documentary filmmaking and psychoanalysis is people sharing important experiences – experiences that are unique to them. I am curious about people and what motivates them, and this curiosity informs how I interview people in both. Every person on the street has a story to tell. And generally people want to be heard. If they have a good listener, they are more likely to talk openly. Both a documentary interview and a session with an analyst allow people to do this. The frame of analysis allows for memories and insights to emerge and be experienced emotionally. I totally immerse myself in a person’s experience within this specific environment. Documentary filmmaking does not take place in the controlled environment of an analyst’s office, but like analysis the subject has an opportunity to share their experiences and I am immersed in their individual story.
For me, the major difference between making a documentary film and being an analyst is that while documentaries are about exposing a person’s story, analysis is committed to holding people’s secrets. This was a big conflict for me. Even though the people interviewed in Hidden Battles wanted to have their stories told in front of a camera. I felt as though I should keep their experiences confidential; something I struggled with most while editing the film.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
A: There were many challenges but the greatest one was my concern not to re-traumatize the soldiers I was interviewing. Because I was just getting to know them I was very conscious and careful in what and how I asked them about their experiences. They afforded me a tremendous amount of trust and as the interviews progressed they became more comfortable with opening up. Most of the soldiers were surprised by the range of emotions that surfaced over the course of making film. Due to this, I wanted to maintain a relationship with them post-interview in case they felt overwhelmed.
Also I had to be aware not to absorb the soldier’s feelings. Because of the nature of the analytic session there are clear boundaries between analyst and patient. In filming these soldiers in their daily lives the boundaries are less clear and I was more prone to absorb their pain, confusion, and anxiety. Lastly it was challenging to make a film that would appeal to a general audience while maintaining the integrity of the soldiers’ experience.
Q: After all this experience in the field how did you approach the editing process? Is this the movie you started out making 6 years ago?
A: How to structure the film was a huge issue. I had four years of shooting and hundreds of hours of footage, which included interviews with soldiers, experts, lots and lots of verite, and archival material from around the world. How to put this all together to make an interesting film was very difficult. We tried many different approaches along the way, and all of them informed the material in new ways. In the end I decided to make a film that wasn’t so much about war but focused on each soldier’s individual story. Personally, I rebel against generalizations, and conclusions, I didn’t want to impose an arc or try to tie everything up neatly at the end. Ultimately, I think it was staying true to each person’s conflict that drove the editing process and organized the film. In the end when I saw the final cut I thought, “yes, this is my movie.”
Q: The soldiers in the film represent a cross-section of nationalities, class, race and gender. To what extent do they all tell a universal story? What overlaps and where to they differ?
A: There were strong overlaps, but also differences. War trauma symptoms manifest themselves in similar ways around the globe. For example, Esmeralda, who fought in the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, and Aaron who was stationed in Somalia, both react with hypersensitivity to noises, such as the sound of helicopters. In addition to the soldiers you get to know in the film, I interviewed others who had a hard time letting go of their weapons after they returned to civilian life. A big point of commonality is that killing tends to be a secret. Veterans don’t share this experience, not even with family members. For instance, Goran, a man I interviewed in Bosnia, didn’t talk to his family because he felt they had gone through too much already. A lot of people I wanted to interview refused to talk me, as if you’re supposed to keep this experience buried. Generally speaking, killing in combat is not something people want to open up about. But talking about it can do a lot of good, provided the person is ready to do so.
Q: What happened with those who were willing to share?
A: I met with many of these soldiers several times over a period of years, and they became more involved in trying to understand themselves, which made a big difference in the content of the interviews. It took four years before Esmeralda was ready to return to Nicaragua. Saar really shifted over time; at first his bravado was hard to get through but as time passed he became more reflective and began to experience himself in a different way. When I first met Zachariah he was interested in letting me know his political position on the occupation and kept asking the interpreter why I was asking him personal questions. Although I only met with him for two days, he too let his guard down and became more open about himself and how he felt. Aaron always struggled post interview. While he was committed to being in the film he always felt traumatized after he talked. Despite the struggle he found new ways to deal with what happened in Somalia.
Q: Can you talk a bit about why war-time killing and its psychological effects are so rarely addressed in the media and society?
A: If people talked about and really registered the long-term psychological effects of killing maybe we would make different choices as a society. Hidden Battles focuses on the personal perspective. For me, that is what’s most interesting. It’s a perspective in which things are not glossed over – they are talked about.
I believe that most human beings are not prone to taking lives. Despite society justifying killing in combat, soldiers tend to spend years seeking out a justification for what they have done. Esmeralda, a former Sandinista during the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua says that she cannot accept the fact that she murdered, but that in the moment if she had not killed her enemies, they would have killed her. Al, a Vietnam vet spent fifteen years having the same recurring nightmare. One morning after five continuous nights of the dream he awakes and says to himself “I’m a murderer” and never has the dream again. It’s not easy to kill, and wartime killing affects our society.
Q: What would you say is the message at the heart of your film?
A: It’s about self-acceptance. I think the more we accept ourselves the better off we will be. And that takes time, openness and a non-judgmental attitude.