Farmer/Veteran was made by a trio of talented young filmmakers: Alix Blair documented the lives of women in southwestern Uganda for her Master’s work at Duke University; Jeremy Lange has been a photographer and cinematographer whose past film and video work includes the Peabody Award-winning television show A Chef’s Life and the documentary film Private Violence; and co-director D.L. Anderson‘s past work includes Mr. Percy’s Run, a profile of moonshine kingpin and avid fox hunter Percy Flowers, and Cook School, a behind-the-bars look at the only culinary program for prisoners in North Carolina. Each brings their unique background and cinematic eyes to the table for this very human portrait of a veteran coping with PTSD after three combat tours of duty in Iraq. Farmer/Veteran premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, May 22 [check local listings].
“Alex’s story is important for civilians because it shows that there are men and women who served our country but aren’t being taken care of when they return. This film is beautiful, and terrifying… The film has strengthened my resolve to help our veterans build a life for themselves and their families.” — Chris Burch, Former US Army Special Forces, Co-founder Team Vetscape
The filmmakers talked to us about making this “unflinching and occasionally unsettling” film (Jon Kieran, New Orleans Film Festival), how they got Alex and Jessica to trust them enough to capture the intimate details of their up-and-down lives, and why combat veteran Alex seems to not be getting the care that he needs. (Answers are collectively from the filmmaking team except where noted.)
What led you to want to make a film about veterans, and Alex Sutton’s story in particular?
We started looking into the stories of returning active duty military and veterans after realizing that we had no direct connection to the wars being fought in the name of our country. We felt a real disconnect with those serving in combat. We felt it was our responsibility as citizens to gain a better understanding of what it takes to fight in a war and what the long term consequences are on individuals from those battles. Veterans are a minority population in our country, making up less than 1% of our population.
We originally set out to explore the therapeutic potential of agriculture for wounded combat veterans, specifically stories of healing and the experience of reintegrating into civilian culture after years in combat. We met Alex Sutton and he was in love—with beginning his farm and with his girlfriend, Jessica. That love was contagious and we were excited to tell a story of new purpose.
However, as time passed, we realized we were inside a very different story. It was one that had a lot more to do with the insidious constancy of trauma and offered us a much rawer understanding of what the burden of war looks like on an individual level. We suddenly saw up close the faces of a family we knew must be like so many other families who were unseen in their own complex, everyday struggles.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
We hope that this film’s greatest impact will be for military caregivers, of which there are an estimated 5.5 million in the United States, mostly living in rural communities where support services are not easily accessible. Of 22 veterans a day committing suicide, 14 are reportedly outside the VA system. We hope to reduce the effects of this legacy of trauma by creating more opportunities for rural veterans and their caregivers to connect into support services.
In service of that goal, we hope this film helps broaden the nation’s understanding of PTSD, the shame associated with it and how those living in close proximity can be adversely affected by it for years. This film also explores questions of how antipsychotic medications may limit meaningful recovery and makes the case for a more holistic, habilitative recovery plan for veterans that focuses on the therapeutic value of nature and self-sufficiency. Addressing these issues allows veterans and their loved ones to feel less alone in their experience and it creates a platform for connection out of isolation.
We hope that watching Jessie and Alex persevering and adopting new practices will strengthen families striving toward their own resilience.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Farmer/Veteran? And what aspects of the story did you want to focus on the most?
One of the biggest challenges came when we realized that the story Alex was sharing about his life did not line up with official accounts. This realization forced us to completely re-evaluate the film we were making. It also required us to compassionately confront Alex about the inconsistencies we had found and try and understand why his version of the facts is different.
All of this moved us into a place of deep investigation about the nature of trauma—how it manifests, the variety of ways people cope with it, how it affects one’s identity, and how stories we tell can become realities in their own right. For people who have experienced psychologically disruptive trauma every story they tell about themselves is equally important. We reached out to Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a world-renowned researcher on PTSD. She told us, “Mental health treatment is trying to figure out what your narrative is. No one expects you to come in and offer the accurate story right away.”
Many of our deepest insights into Alex came through in moments where there was dissonance between what he said and what was objective fact. Dr. Yehuda explained, “And you have to remember the things he talks about, his identity, that is a kind of reality. It is absolutely a certain kind of reality.”
As we learned more about the circumstances surrounding Alex’s medical evacuation from Iraq, we were challenged to face the difficult questions of who gets to decide what is trauma and what constitutes being a “hero.” Each edit of the film became less about presenting answers and more about raising questions as we traveled deeper into these conversations that we need to be having as a society.
Another great challenge—one that most documentary makers face—is the challenge of time: how you coordinate being as available for the story as possible along with your “other life,” your family, your work commitments, and so on. The nature of making a documentary, that is, bearing witness to someone else’s life, means that you have to set your own aside whenever the film demands. That can be a great challenge.
How did you gain the trust of Alex and Jessica and their family to make this film so intimately?
We were lucky in that Alex and Jessica are incredibly emotional open, loving people. They invited us into their home and their life immediately. They were, in one way, the subjects that you hope for in making a film, willing to talk and willing to let you hang out all day filming whatever they’re up to. Right from the start they expressed a genuine hope that sharing their story could make things better for other veterans with PTSD. Even when the story changed, they were still committed to that, and it’s the reason they’re willing to share the harder parts—they sincerely want their experience to help other veterans and veterans’ families.
Of course, as we evolved in understanding what our story would be, we communicated with them constantly. We’ve shared drafts of the film with them and had frequent conversations about how they feel about it. We openly talked about the balance between being part of their life, and our friendship that has inevitably come from spending multiple years with them, and our accountability to the other facts that are part of the story.
Simply put, we gained their trust by being respectful and honest, continually communicating with them.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Alix Blair: One winter’s night Alex butchered a hog. He tied it up between two trees and use a single spotlight to illuminate his work. Steam rose off the pig’s body and Alex worked with deep focus into the late hours of the night. There was ice on the ground. It was a quiet, night scene of Alex being the farmer he wants to be, working with an animal he raised, and trying to figure things out that were new to him, moving with a mix of insecurity and confidence. It got so cold that the camera eventually stopped working but not before Alex set his tools down and went to sleep.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
Favorite: One of our favorite scenes is Alex dancing for Jessie at his wedding. In an otherwise predictable wedding mix of oldies hits and country music, Flo Rida’s club song “Low (Apple Bottom Jeans)” comes over the stereo, and as Jessie stands beside Alex on the dance floor, he breaks into a loosely choreographed dance, consciously making fun of himself but beamingly happy to do so. Even though we’ve seen the scene over a 100 times now, we smile and laugh every single time. It’s a rare moment to see Alex so happy and comfortable with being silly, letting his guard down enough to make a fool of himself for the benefit of others.
Alex at his wedding
Most impact: The scene we call the “flock swap” made a huge impact on us. Jeremy was filming by himself that day, while Alex and Jessie brought animals to an informal market for farmers to buy and sell livestock. Jeremy is filming Alex as something behind the camera catches Alex’s attention and makes him go for his gun. It’s an incredibly rare moment in which Alex’s PTSD is triggered on camera. It is a powerful window for civilians to look into the world of what it’s like to live daily with the trauma of war constantly around you.
Why do you think Alex doesn’t seem to be getting the care that he really needs?
Veteran mental health, en masse, experiences many difficult obstacles between the person and the treatment. The most effective treatments are long term and labor intensive, both for the healthcare system and the individual. Shorter term, symptom-based treatments often involve relying on heavy medication, which can be exacerbated by the number of different doctors involved with an individual.
Additionally, there are real complications as veterans transition from Department of Defense (DOD), which provides them care while they are active soldiers, to care from Veterans’ Affairs (VA), and the focus of the treatment changes. Veterans often have both a stigma and a distrust built in from their previous care before reaching the VA, making the task even more difficult for a system with stretched resources. Unfortunately, Alex’s inability to find the right support is fairly common amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, despite the tremendous dedication and hard work from the VA’s staff.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Alix Blair: Cameraperson (doc), The Girl in the River (doc), The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (doc), Tell Spring Not to Come this Year (Doc).
D.L. Anderson: These three films had a great influence on my understanding of film: Burden of Dreams (Les Blank’s doc), Salesman (1969, Maysles brother doc), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Bros. feature)
Do you have any updates on how the Suttons are doing?
Many people ask this and the answer is: they’re doing the same. Alex is still struggling to figure out the medication combination that works for him, they still trying to make the farm a sustainable lifestyle for their family. Their children are growing. Some days are better than others, and that’s the reality of life for veterans facing invisible wounds. As Jessie says, “It might get better. But it might not.”