To celebrate Memorial Day, I’ve asked indie filmmaker Nina Gilberti to share her experiences in filming her forthcoming documentary, When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless.
It’s an honor to have Nina with us today. Nina just finished working in her sixth season as a film editor on the popular CBS crime drama Criminal Minds and is returning to the show in July for season seven. Nina received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Single Camera Editing for the ABC documentary Positive: A Journey Into AIDS. In 2012, she’ll release her first feature length film as producer & director.
When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless is a provocative documentary about the many issues our veterans have always faced upon returning ‘home’ from every war.
When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless
Produced & Directed by Nina Gilberti
All images are still frames taken from actual footage shot.
©2011 Jam On Toast Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.
Ron Kovic, Vietnam Veteran, Peace Activist, and author of Born on the Fourth of July has endorsed the film, saying, ‘When Jane & Johnny Come Marching Homeless is one of the most important documentaries being made at this time.’
Nina, would you please tell us about your film.
Terri, thank you so much for asking me to participate in Blog Tour de Troops. It’s a great project and a wonderful gift to honor our service women and men. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this blog and also to share with your followers a little bit about my film, When Jane & Johnny Come Marching Homeless.
The taglines for this film say it all: The wounds of war are not all on the outside. War doesn’t end when a soldier returns home, for many it’s just the beginning.
This documentary focuses the viewer’s attention on the myriad issues veterans and their families face upon returning home from war. Some of the most pressing and insidious include: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), also known as ‘shell shock & battle fatigue’ – an anxiety disorder; TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)- which often goes undiagnosed only to show up later with greater consequences; military sexual trauma (abuse) among both women and men; drug & alcohol addiction; war flashbacks- intrusive memories- nightmares, paranoia, emotional numbing; hyper vigilance – being on guard all the time, scanning for signs of danger, having an exaggerated startle response, and unpredictable behavior.
The US military has largely allowed these problems to go untreated in many veterans, resulting in significant rates of joblessness, divorce, spousal abuse and homicide, death from prescription drug cocktails, homelessness, and suicide.
That’s horrifying. Why does this happen?
There is no transition in place within the military training system to help soldiers return to civilian life. In addition, there is the added stigma attached to being diagnosed with PTSD within the ranks that compounds the problem of being properly helped. These are the HIDDEN WOUNDS veterans have always faced when they return homeLESS: a shell of the person they once were. The word ‘homeless’ in the title is more of a metaphor for the journey home.
Tell us about making the film. When did you start? How far along are you?
I began shooting this documentary when the writers went on strike out here in Hollywood, back in November 2007. After I completed my last episode on Criminal Minds at the end of October in 2007, I had a choice to either sit the strike out in Los Angeles, not knowing when it would end, or go into debt and purchase an HD camera, sound equipment, and fly back to my home town of Philadelphia and begin shooting the documentary I have always wanted to create. I chose the latter without hesitation. I made a lot of calls to friends back home- to see who knew who in this world of veterans and non-profits (the experts) who help them- and I began my amazing journey into learning more.
To date 150 hours of footage has been shot in locations of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and suburbs, New Jersey, San Francisco, Belchertown, MA, and Louisville, KY. All funding thus far has been out of my own pocket. I am applying for grants and other funding in order to finish the film. I have about 75 more hours to shoot around the country, and then the editing process begins.
What inspired you to film a documentary about veterans?
When I look back, I realize this project began, at least subconsciously, in the summer of 1972. As a first year student at Penn State University, University, Park campus, I was exposed for the first time to Vietnam War protests and found myself drawn into the quagmire of emotions that surrounded that war. I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television- news footage of jungle warfare, helicopters, and planes dropping napalm, and flagged draped coffins being unloaded on the tarmac. The massive protests and demonstrations across the nation, the murdering of students at Kent State, only two years prior in May of 1970, and the civil unrest of that entire decade haunted me.
Hate the war. Love the warrior.
‘Hate the war, love the warrior’ was a mantra I adopted along with others. Unfortunately, many Americans managed to forget the second part of that important and meaningful slogan. Vietnam Veterans returning from war were treated with great disrespect by both their compatriots and their government. Most returning soldiers were drafted into that war against their will. They served their 12-month tour and came home fundamentally changed forever.
For a multiplicity of reasons, the Veterans Administration and the military machine did very little to help these men and women cope with the many issues-ranging from combat stress and PTSD to drug abuse- that they carried with them along with their duffle sacks as they landed on US soil. As a nation, we turned our backs on these veterans of war, and as a result, many landed on the streets of America, homeless, dealing with the hidden wounds of battle.
In 1997, I found myself on the VA website, and was horrified to read ‘one-third of those living on the streets across America served during the Vietnam War.’ This fact angered me, and ultimately propelled me to create this documentary.
Is it hard for veterans to talk about these issues? If so, how do you get them to open up?
This film has very much been a personal journey ~ taking one baby step at a time into a world that held many unknowns. One great learning experience for me happened with Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran, and author of the book Born on the Fourth of July. I had managed to find Ron online and we began emailing about the documentary. He and I ventured into an amazing dialogue over the next few weeks about Vietnam, his hometown, the sixties, his movie with Tom Cruise, and of course, his own return home.
During this time, we had set up a tentative date to film an interview with him for the doc. Friendlier, yet terribly profound conversations by phone continued for another couple weeks until it was time to finalize the interview date and time. That’s when I received an email from him saying that he wouldn’t be able to do the interview after all. Needless to say, I was extremely confused and disappointed. I lost sleep over it. I gave it a few days before I wrote him back an email explaining my confusion, but also how valuable his voice would be to this film. How so many young, returning vets could learn from his experience- given the current two wars, and how the same issues have continued since Vietnam.
After a day or so, I received an email from Ron explaining why. Simply- it was his PTSD. He said that he rarely does interviews anymore, because frankly, the interviewer gets the story-they get what they need from him and then they pack up and go home – leaving him alone to put all those pieces of himself back together again that he unraveled for the interview – reliving that horrible past.
I got it. It was a shocking truth– which I never thought about, but was very real. It was one of those great learning experiences, and to see first hand that kind of covert episode of PTSD before my own eyes.
I told Ron that I understood, and proposed that he not speak about his experiences in Vietnam but about HOPE. To give these young men and women returning home a different and positive way of looking at their world, despite the fact that they are forever changed, forever different. And I promised him that my assistant, Glenn, and I would not just leave him after the interview, that we would be more than honored to take him out to dinner and share some laughter. We did, and it was one of the most profound moments I had making this film.
Would you be willing to share a story or two?
During the first months of shooting, I experienced a moment of documentary filmmaking magic that continues to compel me to make this film. While visiting his mother at a nursing facility, my boom operator, Mike Molettiere, mentioned to the staff that he was working onÂ Jane and Johnny. A woman overheard him and said that her brother had been homeless for over seven years, but she did not know if he was still alive. She thought he might be somewhere in the Philadelphia area. Mike told me about her story, and I contacted the local VA, but no one had heard of him.
While I had hopes of reuniting this family, I knew finding the lost brother was a pipe dream. About six weeks passed, and one of my contacts in Philadelphia connected me with a local homeless vet who was willing to speak on camera. Introduced to me as Robert, he bore the telltale signs of years on the street. After the interview, I asked him to sign a release form. His hands were crippled by frostbite, so I offered to print his name on the form. As he spelled his last name, I realized we had found the missing brother. I shouted to Mike, Robert started to cry, I turned the camera back on-and we were witnesses to a Miracle.
That night I interviewed Robert’s two sisters and got the back-story on their family and the pain they had all suffered over the years since Robert’s military service. The following morning, we re-united Robert and his two sisters at his ‘spot’ in downtown Philadelphia – three days before Christmas.
Robert’s story is just one of many profoundly moving experiences related in When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless.
What do you hope to achieve? What do you hope viewers take from this film?
This documentary seeks to educate and raise awareness about these issues by framing them within the expressions of human faces speaking words of truth. The film gives veterans and their families a chance to speak directly to America. Giving veterans and their families a voice on camera is not only incredibly powerful and moving to witness, but it is also deeply empowering to the interview subject. For the first time, they find validation of their feelings and experiences through the act of telling their stories on camera. Those veterans and family members I have interviewed on camera have expressed great appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity to experience a personal catharsis, which is at the very least a relief for them, and sometimes a start towards healing.
This film also provides veterans and their families a glimmer of hope evident in the testimonies and experiences of many veterans who have made it through to the other side of their pain and suffering. By providing witness to stories like Ron Kovic’s, this film will send a message of hope to veterans struggling with the ravages of war.
The interviews in Jane & Johnny provide the viewer with moments of raw candor and emotion – depicting the rollercoaster ride of the human journey and the broken spirit we all have experienced in life. It is because of the experiences that come out of the ‘dark places,’ as Ron Kovic puts it, that we find ourselves challenged to find the light of hope and beauty.
Why a documentary? What drew you to this particular form?
I believe in the tremendous power of documentary film. Embedded within that power is the ability to change a collective viewpoint, influence cultural moir, and educate the ignorant. My purpose in creating Jane & Johnny is simple but necessary – to wake up a nation from its apathy and move people to take on the mantle of national responsibility to help those who have sacrificed so much for all of us.
Psychiatrist Judith Herman writes in her book, Trauma and Recovery, ‘The interpretation of what seems to be a cathartic experience for the participant can also be seen as a means to initiate a collective working through trauma within the audience. Since we have gone through the act of listening, we too can function as a witness.’
And if we bear witness together, we can heal together.
What frustrations have you faced?
I guess my biggest frustration is not being able to work on this film full-time and to film around the country- getting more of the stories that need to be told. Juggling a full-time job on Criminal Minds, located in Los Angeles, while trying to work on the documentary on weekends and during hiatus has been difficult. But the flip side is my full-time job affords me the opportunity, financially, to make this film possible, so and I am truly grateful for both.
You plan to release the film in 2012. When and where can we see it?
My hope is to complete the film by December 2012, that is, if all the funding is secured in order to make that deadline. I would like to see the film have a life first at film festivals, to have it be screened in small art theaters across the country, take a shot at the Oscars, and eventually shown to a wider audience on television then be available on DVD.
What can we do to help?
There are several things…
Most documentary filmmakers apply for funding before they start shooting- I did it backwards, in part due to how I suddenly found myself with time on my hands thanks to the WGA strike. This month, the film has been accepted for fiscal sponsorship through The Center for Independent Documentary in Sharon, MA. The CID is a non-profit, 501(c) 3 organization, which takes donations on behalf of a film, and the donor receives a receipt for a tax-deduction. This donation can be done by check or by credit card through PayPal. Everyone who donates will have their name appear in the film at the end credits as a personal thank you for your support. Link for contributions.
If you know a veteran who may be interested or may benefit from the information, please share the link to the website. We’ll be filming through 2012. If you’re a veteran, family member or friend of a veteran and you’d like to share your story, please contact me. All information will remain confidential.
Join the film’s Facebook page and stay updated.
But most important of all ~ thank a veteran for their service and tell them you appreciate the sacrifices they made for your freedom. Say hello to a homeless person, look them in the eye and ask them how they’re doing- treat them like a human being, offer them a sandwich or a bottle of water- you never know, they just might be a veteran.
- Homecoming Vets: Series: A Veteran’s Point of View on PTSD or OSI. Part 4
- Forward Walking: Defeating PTSD: What Is It, Anyway?
- Colorlines: Female Veterans Are Fastest Growing Segment of Homeless Population