Interview with Michael Collins, Director of “Almost Sunrise”

Sep. 30, 2016
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The statistic is sobering: roughly twenty veterans commit suicide each day. Clearly veterans are fighting a battle that demands more than political lip service, bumper sticker support and pharmaceutical cocktails.

Almost Sunrise,” the centerpiece film of the Milwaukee Film Festival, explores the encouraging efficacy of alternative, holistic methods of treating the intractable demons plaguing veterans. Following Milwaukee-based veterans Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, the documentary explores the moral injury sustained in warzones and empowers viewers to bring about real change.

“Almost Sunrise” makes its Milwaukee premiere Saturday, October 1, 7 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre and screens once more on Sunday, October 2, 10:30 a.m.

“Almost Sunrise” gives the impression of being an important film. 

MC: Well, we want to make an entertaining film that can stand on its own, but it was also important for us that the film be a tool to bring about change in the world. That was part of our vision from the earliest stages of research. “Almost Sunrise” is one piece of media in a larger campaign that allows viewers to engage with these issues beyond the screening and the Q&A. This way, viewers can do something in the real world. Instead of just leaving the theatre with a feeling, they can put it that feeling into action.

How does “Almost Sunrise” differ from other films about veterans’ issues?

MC: “Almost Sunrise” is about healing, hope, moving forward. There have been a lot of veterans films that shine a spotlight on things that are wrong, on how broken the system is. We wanted to tell the story of people taking action and moving forward. This story lends itself to that. We see the characters undergo transformations on screen. We didn’t just want to perpetuate stereotype of homecoming hero or broken soldier. The situation is so complex and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that veterans are humans just like us. To present them as one-sided does them a disservice. So we wanted to portray the complexity of the veteran experience while also leaving people feeling uplifted and hopeful.

How did you decide to make this film?

MC: My last film, “Give Up Tomorrow,” took me seven years to make. I remember thinking “how am I going to find another project that will mean as much to me?” But it just sort of happened.

I was taking part in a retreat in North Carolina and a Marine was sharing his story and speaking about the amazing results of something called The Power Breath Meditation Workshop. I wanted to get involved, so I began flying around the country to speak with veterans who had taken part in this workshop put on by Project Welcome Home Troops. It was my first time I got to sit down with vets from different generations and to hear their stories. It was a life-changing experience. I realized how disconnected I was from the veteran experience and what their families are going through, and had been going through for a long time. But while they were sharing their stories I felt a connection. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a film that would be both issue and character driven and would to bring about feelings of connection and responsibility.

I came across a campaign on Indiegogo that Tom [Voss] and Anthony [Anderson] had started. The campaign was to raise money for a cross-country walk. I recognized Anthony from the volunteer work I had been doing, so I gave him a call and we went from there.

The “villain” of the film is what has become known as “moral injury.” How does moral injury differ from PTSD?

MC: PTSD is a fear-based trauma. Moral Injury is categorized as a wound to the soul. It has to do with the guilt and the shame of doing or witnessing things in extreme circumstances that go against how we were brought up. For instance, most people are raised to believe that killing is wrong, but veterans find themselves in situations where they have to.

How does one treat moral injury?

MC: That’s the big question. It’s a relatively new diagnosis and isn’t yet officially recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense. However it is known within the mental health community.

As for treatment, it’s being found that pills don’t reach the depth of this pain. Pills just seem to mask it, to make people numb. It’s not curing anything, just treating the symptoms. And traditional talk therapy can actually be re-traumatizing. “Almost Sunrise” explores alternative, holistic therapies that are proving to be really effective; things like spending time in nature, yoga, meditation and breath work.

But there’s no magic bullet. Everyone has different treatment needs. We hope that the film gives health care providers a better understanding of holistic therapies so that they can be considered when veterans are looking for the right path of treatment, which might also involve meds and traditional therapy.

Tell me about the Almost Sunrise Impact Campaign.

MC: There are four different goals. First is to educate people about moral injury. We’ve been doing panels with experts and getting media coverage. The second goal is to promote wellness by giving access to these alternative therapies. Tom, one of our main characters, is becoming a meditation teacher himself. So at festivals like this one, we hold sessions during which people can come meditate with Tom and ask him questions (Monday, October 3, 6-7 p.m., location TBD). Experiencing the power of nature is another way of promoting wellness. On Sunday morning from 8:30-9:30, before the 10:30 a.m. screening, there will be a meditative walk with Tom, Anthony and Wolf Walker.

The third goal of the campaign is to connect communities. One of the most powerful factors in veterans’ healing is feeling a sense of connection to a community. People are hesitant to approach veterans and vets tend to self-isolate as a result of their training, which emphasizes taking care of oneself. On Sunday, October 2, at 12:45 p.m. in the Milwaukee Film Lounge, we’ll be having a participatory performance that draws on the real experience of veterans as well as an expert panel of the struggles of veterans.

The fourth goal is to change legislation. There are many VAs that are wonderful and are exploring these more integrative medicines, but not all of them. There’s a congressman from Ohio, Tim Ryan, who’s championing the Veteran Wellness Act. We’d love to use the film to help promote these legislative changes.

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