Early on in Michael Collins’ documentary about two Iraq war veterans dealing with PTSD we’re informed that 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day, a number greater than those who die in combat. And the saddest thing about the statistic is that it’s not surprising. Exploring the ramifications of that tragic state of affairs while introducing a concept dubbed “Moral Injury,” Almost Sunrise makes for powerful viewing. Recently showcased at NYC’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, it should find a welcome reception on the theatrical documentary circuit before airing on PBS next year.
The film concentrates on Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who each served extensive tours of duty overseas. Upon their return home, they attempted to settle back into domestic life, only to suffer from depression, anxiety, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and — as is common with so many veterans — overdependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. Their emotional struggles are vividly described in interviews not only with them but also with concerned friends and family members.
In an effort to put their experiences behind them while simultaneously calling public attention to the plight of emotionally troubled veterans, the pair embarked on a 2,700-mile walk from Wisconsin to California, encountering many sympathetic onlookers along the way. Their travels also led to sessions with a Native American shaman who offers spiritual advice, and Father Thomas Keating, a 93-year-old Trappist monk who’s been counseling veterans since World War II.
The doc includes several scenes showing the sorts of wartime atrocities that Voss and Anderson describe, contrasting the horrific footage with home movies of the two men in earlier, happier times, including childhood days. One of the most powerful segments involves the funeral of a fallen comrades, with mourners tearfully lining up to pay their respects in front of the open casket.
Moral Injury is differentiated from PTSD in that it directly relates to the guilt and shame veterans experience as a result of committing actions that go against their moral codes. By the end of the film, we see Voss and Anderson in a much happier state of mind, having shaved off or trimmed the heavy beards that seemed to signify their spiritual malaise. Among the techniques that enabled them to find solace is a form of meditation dubbed “Power Breathing,” although the cinematic impact is undercut since filming the sessions was not permitted.
While its principal subjects are clearly in a better place at the film’s conclusion, the fact remains that thousands of other veterans are still floundering. If Almost Sunrise succeeds in helping even a handful of them find firmer ground, it will have done its noble job.
Venue: Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Production companies: Thoughtful Robot Productions, ITVS, POV
Director: Michael Collins
Screenwriters: Michael Collins, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Producer: Marty Syjuco
Executive producers: Peter Cooper, Suparna Bhasin, Chris Sheridan, Patty Kim
Director of photography: Clarissa de los Reyes
Editor: Eric Daniel Metzgar
Composer: Adam Crystal
Not rated, 98 minutes