An award-winning filmmaker and lecturer from the University Of Essex has created a new documentary to raise awareness about the devastating mental health impact PTSD has on veterans.
Nic Blower, who teaches Film Studies at the University, spent years making documentaries for the BBC, but he said this project, called Lifted, is different to anything he has produced before.
“I loved working at the BBC on highly rated programmes, such as Transplant, which involved following the emotional journeys of the organ donation story from both sides. This was also a first for UK television, so I was very proud to be involved with that one.
“Plus, my work took me all over the world, covering other incredible and challenging subjects, such as neurosurgery, in the film Brain Hospital. This film was also extraordinary because we showed the skills of the neurosurgeons when they bravely operated on people to save their lives in hospitals.
“But making this documentary Lifted, with my small team, which included Elena Dirstaru, who started the new Essex DocFest recently, gave me the freedom to experiment with new ideas that I’d never tried before.”
He said it was liberating being free from the normal pressures of rushing to meet a TV deadline and shaping it to ft with a specific show format.
“So we could give the filming the time it needed to breathe and draw the full story out of our interviewees in the most natural way. I could go more with the flow and also give the soldiers enough space to fully express their emotions and experiences of how PTSD affected them and their families.”
The idea for the documentary was first born when Nic started work with his friend Mark Wheeler a few years ago, who was in the process of studying a PHD in Psychology at the University of Essex. His work focussed on trialling a new type of green therapy to alleviate the pain of soldiers suffering with PTSD.
Between them, they decided to make a film about the impact of the therapy on 10 soldiers and their families, to help educate more people about what can be done to support veterans suffering from this condition.
“We talked about it for three years before making the film, which only cost £15,000 in the end. But again, we wanted to give it the time it needed and not rush anything. The film initially follows the soldiers talking about their tragic experiences during war, which has left many of them dealing with severe trauma.
“But it was the story about the partners and the families, who we also interviewed, that took us by surprise. Their experiences actually became bigger than we anticipated. This is because they felt their side of the story had been neglected too much in the past. You often hear about how bad PTSD is for soldiers, but not so much about how it traumatises the families. So it was therapeutic and cathartic for them too.”
Following the interviews with the family members, Nic and his team filmed the soldiers as they embarked on a trip via mini-bus to a rural location in France, where they camped and fished together for seven days.
It was during this excursion when the new green therapy was applied to the soldiers, with the help of Dr Mark Wheeler. He provided psychological support to help them while they were fishing, in case anything occurred, to bring out their demons from within.
The idea behind this unique therapy is to assist the soldiers with coming to terms with their experiences and start the healing process. The natural environment, plus the support of their peers and a professional psychologist played a crucial role in this.
This break has already had a long-lasting positive effect on the relationship the soldiers now have with their families. It has even helped to save the life of at least one veteran.
Nic hopes the documentary will be used to help other health professionals in the UK and around the world to recognise how important a therapy like this can have on the lives of veterans.
So far, the film has received praise from around the world, having won an award at the Docs Without Borders Film Festival, as well as being selected for Official Selection at the Cape Cod International Film Festival in New Orleans, the Virtual Reel Recovery Festival in New York and the Amsterdam World International Film Festival.
Nic and Mark have also taken the film to 14 screenings around the country, including prisons, army barracks and NHS mental health organisations, to spread awareness about the impact of PTSD and how it can be treated.
“I’m enjoying the process of taking the film out into the community and talking about it with Mark, as well as the veterans, to explain the positive benefits of this therapy. It makes the veterans feel ownership of the film and have an ongoing relationship with it too, to change things.
“This experience again is different to when I used to work at the BBC. In those days, I used to walk down the street, peer through people’s windows and take joy in watching my film on their TV. That was nice, but I never really received any direct feedback from the audience. But the feedback from this film has been immediate because I can talk to people after the screening, which has been an amazing experience.”
The film is set to be showcased at more festivals next year, and the BBC is considering the possibility of screening it in the future. The Dutch government has also requested to see it, so they can consider prescribing this kind of work in their country too.
But for now, Nic is happy enough to keep taking it on tour to educate health professionals around the country about how they can improve long-term care for these soldiers.
Find out more about Dr. Mark Wheeler’s green therapy project for veterans with PTSD: