Media - Doc - Buried Above Ground
Buried Above Ground is proof that just because a film can make you feel something, that media is not necessarily good. From a filmmaking perspective, this documentary takes no risks in terms of how it tells its narrative. Based on the written dialogue cards I don't believe that the filmmakers did any real research into PTSD beyond what could be found on wikipedia.
The documentary follows three people who have lived through traumatic experiences: A Iraq War veteran, a domestic violence victim and a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. Right off the bat, the strangest thing about the film was that one of the subjects seemed to have self diagnosed her PTSD entirely, having never seen a therapist or done any work - and out of the three subjects, she seemed to be the one with the fewest symptoms or avoidance behaviors. Now, I do not know much about her story; out of all three subjects, the least time was spent on her, and it is very possible that her PTSD manifests similar to my own - out of sight from the day to day. However few things she discusses feel related to how PTSD symptoms manifest. For one thing, when she describes the traumatic event that got her to this point, she talks about how she left New Orleans before the hurricane, and only went back to help because it made her feel useful. This agency directly contradicts one of the core elements of PTSD which involves being unable to leave the traumatic situation. I don't claim to be a doctor, but I find it difficult to understand why this documentary would use, as one of its three core subjects, a woman who has never been diagnosed by a professional as having this very specific Disorder.
The second character, Erudina, has arguably the most poignant narrative in the final piece. She struggles, relapses, works on herself then relapses and struggles again. Between the moments of darkness we get to see a lively and veracious woman who can succeed so long as she maintains her mental health. I was not sure how I felt about the filmmakers choice to play a voicemail she had left someone where she explained her attempted suicide the day previous after a relapse. On the one hand, it felt exploitative to witness another human being at their lowest point, and on the other it became one of the very few moments of the documentary where we, as the viewers, see an instance of not just an emotional breakdown from trauma but a breakdown of emotion. In that moment we are actively listening to the unfeeling coldness left behind by a complete shutdown of the vegas nerve, and it serves as the only moment in the film where the audience may actually understand the manifestation of PTSD.
While I can appreciate that the documentary wanted to bring awareness and humanize the experience of PTSD, nothing about the piece was well thought out, and many of the things shown in the film are done so without consideration for a) their subjective benefit towards those with ptsd or b) allow the viewer to see very poor handling of trauma victims without giving the viewers a position to view this from.
One of the core subjects of the film is the war veteran, Luiz. Throughout the film we see him struggle at home, with little in the way of a support network apart from his service dog, Tuesday. While the film does do an ok job of exposing the benefits of working with service animals, their entire narrative is turned on its head when they reveal, at the very end, that Luiz committed suicide before the films release. Not once, during the early part of the film, do the filmmakers address the blatant faults of the VA system and it handling of mental health. We even watch a talk therapy session between Luiz and his therapist that blatantly does nothing to help ground Luiz in reality. Halfway through the film, we even see his last therapy session when his therapist decides to move away. He is left, clearly bereft, and feeling as though his only support at this point is his dog.
To take matters farther, it is here that Luiz decides to write a book detailing his experiences that traumatized him. He describes, on camera, how he relives his trauma over and over again to get the details correct, and dissassociates freely on camera with only his dog to ease his stress. He then goes on to do book readings across the country, with no mention of a new therapist in sight. It is clear, at this point, that he has actually made reliving his trauma his job, and the filmmakers see no issue with this.
When the final title card of the film comes up, it says that tragedy struck Luiz's life. I hoped it would tell me his beloved service dog had passed away, and that he had to get a new one, but by this point, I had a gut feeling that I knew it wouldn't be the case. There were too many obvious signs of poor mental health management at that point, and when the final card slid into place saying that Luiz had killed himself, I was not surprised.While this final result is not the filmmakers fault, the framing of the piece meandered listlessly and the uplifting music montage the film ended with was never earned, nor did it feel well crafted.
This film, with two major relapses from the only two subjects with confirmed PTSD should have changed its focus to the failures of the mental health system. There is a story, nestled among the thoughtless editing, about the dark illness that is PTSD, and about the struggle survivors go through, but this film did nothing to do justice to the people it represented.
On the whole, this documentary was a case study in how not to create media about PTSD. It felt exploitative in many areas, the form of the piece did not have any correlation to the experience of it with the stories of trauma told, with a beginning, middle and end, right up front. It was a failure: to the humanization of ptsd survivors, to the experience of ptsd, and to the traumatized subjects it claimed to represent.
You can watch Buried Above Ground on iTunes.