Movie of the Week: Three Soldiers

Once a week, we’ll pick out one of Fancast’s many full-length free feature films to spotlight. Sure, you’ll check out the big stuff like Benji, Joyride and Night People, but the smaller movies need shout-outs, too.

The movie of the week is Three Soldiers, a timely film considering President Obama’s recent commitment to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 more men and women into harm’s way. This documentary immerses us into the lives of a trio of men who served in the armed forces during the Iraq War, as well as the lives of the families who are left to grieve and search for answers in the wake of their untimely deaths. It’s a meditation on sorrow and remembrance, but also a call to action to honor those who have served and to recognize those who suffer and die from post-traumatic stress disorder with the same respect given to soldiers who fall in combat.

Watch the film right here, and then go in-depth behind the scenes in our Q&A with director Shailly Agnihotri below.

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Q&A with Director Shailly Agnihotri

Q. What would you say to someone sitting down to watch this film for the first time, knowing nothing about it?
Shailly Agnihotri: Telling stories about young soldiers who have died in a controversial war required some real choices about the style of the documentary. I took my direction from Joseph’s sister who asked: “Doesn’t a man who died fighting for his country deserve the same respect as a guy who wins a talent competition?” after the mayor refuses to participate in a memorial for her brother.

It’s my belief that mental health-related deaths are casualties of war and should be honored as such. The stigma that prevents a soldier from seeking mental health help is the same stigma that prevents the family from receiving respect back home. The stigma of mental health issues pervades the culture of the army, and the army reports mention repeatedly that stigma was the biggest barrier to soldiers who needed treatment. Soldiers who seek treatment fear they will be accused of not having the “right stuff.”

If mental health consequences of war were treated the same way as physical disabilities, soldiers and their families might get the respect they deserve. In fact, Last week, the New York Times had a front page article which noted that the families of soldiers who have died as a result of self inflicted wounds are not sent condolence letters. I find this heartbreaking.

Q. What inspired you to make this film?
Shailly Agnihotri: During the summer of 2003, I was reading blogs and came upon a website that told of American soldiers serving in Iraq who developed mental health problems. As I was reading, I was haunted by the plight of these young men. I then decided to go to the Department of Defense website and look up the names of each soldier whose death was listed as “non-combat-related”. Since the national media was not reporting on these deaths, I went to the hometown newspapers of these soldiers and first read of the mother of Joseph Suell and her frustration that her son’s death had been labeled a suicide. Because of this, the local townspeople refused to honor her son’s loss of life.

Q. How did you pick the soldiers to profile?
Shailly Agnihotri: I was immediately drawn to the life stories of the three soldiers profiled in the film. Joseph was a father and wrote home about the plight of the Iraqi children. As a parent, I could understand seeing war from a maternal point of view. Gil was an artist and loved to paint, but his dreams of art could not sustain him. As one who aspires to be an artist, I understood his struggles.

Col. Ted Westhusing, who died in Iraq on June 5, 2005, was the highest ranking American to die in Iraq. His suicide note is haunting. In it he writes of his disillusionment with the civil contractors he oversees. He is also disheartened by human rights abuses. “I choose death over further dishonor,” he wrote. I understood his idealism very much.

As a much needed footnote to the stories, I have also included a section about Doug Barber, a vet who returned from Iraq with PTSD. He died on January 16, 2006, after failing to get adequate mental health care. “All is not okay or right for those of us who return home alive and supposedly well,” he wrote one month before taking his life.

Q. Are there any particular scenes you like the best?
Shailly Agnihotri: My favorite scene is one that I didn’t film – it’s the memorial roll call. In Iraq, the Sergeant calls the name of the soldiers in the unit. We hear them respond. “Here, Sir!” Then he calls out Joseph Suell’s name. No response. He repeats Joseph’s name three times. And is met with silence each time. I feel Joseph’s loss each time I witness the silence. This silence echos throughout the film: the silence as we leave the gravesite, the absence of roses in the bushes, the silence of mourning.

Q. How about any scenes that were particularly challenging to shoot?
Shailly Agnihotri: Spending time with families in mourning is challenging. But I wanted to do them justice. As a viewer, I am often troubled by films that parade a grieving person before the audience, and present their tears as an invitation for us to join in. I usually respond by pulling away emotionally, and really nothing makes us feel worse than not being able to connect to the suffering of others. So this film really keeps histrionics at bay. Rather, it is my belief that honest connection to the families of the deceased and their stories will lead us to our own sense of grief and that organically brewed pain that is the most potent.

Q. How would you describe the tone of the film?
Shailly Agnihotri: My desire was to make a film that was meditative and created an introspective mood for the viewer. I would love for the audience to look within and ask questions (some of which cannot be answered) and feel empathy with the raw pain of losing a loved one. The experience I sought to create for a viewer required a lyrical rhythm and relaxed pace so that the memorials for the soldiers at the end of the film will be ones that viewers needed to embrace, not just view.

While in production, I reread the classic American play Our Town, about what the dead can teach the living. It is the wisdom of the play that the simple moments of life are the ones that we live most fully and are ultimately our legacy. This lesson was highlighted by the New York Times Portraits of Grief profiles when, by reading of a moment in a person’s life that showed their humanity, we ourselves were able to connect to the pain of the loss. Thus, knowing the graduation dates, degrees conferred, jobs held, all feel irrelevant. What emotionally connects us to another person is something entirely different. Thus, for example, Gil’s sister recounting the teasing her brother inflicted in the “I’m not touching you” memory is the fact is what we need to know about him, her and the pain of loss.

Q. What would you say is the overall message of this film?
Shailly Agnihotri: The army reports that I quote from in the film make clear that the way we managed (and mismanaged) the Iraq war has clear consequences to the mental health of our soldiers. So regardless of the cause of these deaths, the family and the memory of the soldiers should be given respect. And all that a family member wants is an acknowledgment of the sacrifice they have made for their Country. They deserve this from us. I want to refer the viewer to an interview with Mimi Rosenburg of WBAI in NYC – I love the interview because she totally gets the film. Thanks for watching.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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