Among the candidates vying for an Oscar on Sunday night is a powerful film that highlights the persistent and troubling trend of lives devastated by war – to the point of suicide.
No, not American Sniper, the box-office smash based on a true story about a Navy SEAL who piled up record kills while developing emotional trauma.
This movie is a 40-minute documentary filmed in an austere, cubicle-setting on the campus of a Department of Veterans Affairs center in Canandaigua, N.Y.
It is the VA suicide hotline center (800-273-8255), where staffers take 1,000 calls a day from veterans or servicemembers on the brink of self-destruction or family members terrified a suicide might occur .
The HBO-produced film, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, is an Oscar nominee for best short documentary. It has been picked as a potential winner by critics that include The New Yorker magazine.
“Whether we win or not, I just think it’s so great that it’s getting all this attention and that it’s going to help people call in,” says Julianne Mullane, acting director of the hotline operations. She says she’s putting on extra staff for the Oscars in case more calls are generated Sunday night.
Filmed over nine months, the documentary’s cameras simply bear witness to the desperation that plays out on one side of a telephone conversation.
There’s VA responder Darlene hunched over a notebook on her desk talking through her headset to a former Marine who fought in Afghanistan and can’t get images of dead bodies out of his head. “You have five children and you have a wife and you have a lot to live for,” she tells him.
Barbara speaks with an Iraq war vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Maureen talks to a veteran of Lebanon in 1983 – when the Marine barracks were bombed – after he had just finished off a bottle of vodka.
When situations turn critical, the camera cuts to emergency coordinators nearby who feverishly call police and emergency personnel to get them to the veteran’s home before it’s too late.
Between phone calls, Maureen concedes the frustrations of the work. “You can find reasons for living, reasons for not doing it. But ultimately the decision (to live or die) is theirs,” she says.
The VA reported last year that suicides among young veterans are increasing, a spillover of a persistent trend among active duty troops. Pentagon data from January show suicides by servicemembers have remained at record levels for five straight years, including 288 last year.
The call-in line, online chat rooms and texting at the crisis office are available to veterans, active-duty troops, members of the National Guard and reserve and their families.
Documentary producer Ellen Goosenberg Kent says she wasn’t sure what creative material her team would find when they approached the VA in 2012 about doing the film. But after satisfying VA concerns about protecting veteran identities, the filmmakers set up their cameras.
“It was hard work doing this documentary” because of privacy concerns, says suicide hotline founder Jan Kemp, now an associate director of the VA Center for Suicide Prevention. “There were many times when we felt like maybe we wanted to drop out.” But they made it work.
Kent says the filmmakers were surprised by the humanity displayed by VA employees in the center, many of them veterans or married to former servicemembers.
“What they were doing was giving people a reason to live,” she says. “They were just brilliant at realizing that there is shred of hope in this person, and we can build on that, we can keep them alive.”