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"What You Left in the Ditch" - Filmmaker Interview

The United States has been at war for over 10 years. Thousands of our military members have, and are still, returning home suffering from the aftereffects of combat, both physical and mental.

Lately, PTSD and its effects have gained media attention, unfortunately resulting from tragic events. But these events have again brought to our attention the need for improved medical care and screenings for our servicemembers after their return from combat. Thousands of soldiers face the challenges of PTSD as they try to reclaim their lives after a deployment. Along with these soldiers, their families also struggle with the challenges PTSD and its effects. While the number of documented cases is staggering, there are still many more that are undiagnosed, whether it is through fear of a perceived stigma attached to a PTSD diagnosis or from lack of proper medical care.

While the recent media attention has focused on the importance of care for our servicemembers and the difficulties associated with repeated deployments, there has in the past been a lack of media attention about the aftereffects of war, both on the wounded Soldiers as well as their families.

But a young film student at New York University is seeking to change that. Joseph Gerbino, a student filmmaker at NYU, is attempting to bring this issue to media attention by adapting to film the short story "What You Left in the Ditch" by Aimee Bender, a story about the wife of a soldier returning home from war dealing with his injuries and PTSD.

The lack of media attention concerning this difficult plight is significant as soldiers struggle to acclimate to their present circumstances and face the withdrawal of the medical rights they so desperately need. Lost in a media frenzy of gossip and tabloid fodder, the presence and impact of emotionally and physically wounded soldiers remains more important than ever.

By shedding light on both the life of these soldiers and the soldiers' families, we can create more attention for an issue that is critically vital to the country and the world; What You Left in the Ditch will be a solution for doing just that. The project will be launched as a short film that artistically depicts the post-combat life of a soldier and his family. Film and video is a platform with mass appeal that can reach vast numbers of people by informing, entertaining and educating viewers.  What You Left in the Ditch - Joe Gerbino

Gerbino's film idea was one of 12 in a highly competitive class selected by the NYU Tisch School of the Arts to go into full production. The film has also been chosen to be a part of Panavision's New Filmmaker Program, a selective grant given to low-budget independent/student projects to add with production. I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Gerbino a few questions about his film and how he hopes it will benefit the military community.

In a few words, please tell us what your film, What You Left in the Ditch, is about?  The film is about a woman named Mary, whose husband Steven has just returned from war. Steven has suffered a major facial wound and still is feeling the effects of combat. At first, Mary is naturally devastated and befriends a young man at the grocery store who reminds her of a younger Steven. But as her husband makes immense progress, Mary realizes that what she misses most is just Steven. In the end, Mary is overcome with happiness that she and Steven have the opportunity for a happy future together.

Where did the idea for your film project originate?   In 2011, I discovered this short story called “What You Left in the Ditch” and fell in love with it. I knew I had to make it a film and contacted the author on the whim she might give me permission to adapt it. Fortunately, she did. I knew to make the transfer from short story to film required a lot of research on my part, and opened my eyes to the realities of PTSD. It truly took a life of its own once I started understanding that this happens on a daily basis and the rest, as they say, is history.

What led you to want to make a film based on a military couple experiencing the after effects of war?   The original short story really served as the groundwork for the subject. That gave me the opportunity to continue to explore the effects of the war and enhance that within the story. I hope the film is rich with accurate details and truthful moments. Also, one of my grandfathers’s fought in WWII, and the other in the Korean War. My Korean War grandfather passed away in 2011, so to dedicate the film in his honor is yet another reason making this film is so important to me.

PTSD is such a sensitive topic, with so many soldiers returning home experiencing its effects. How do you hope this film will honor those who deal with this in their daily lives?    This film has given me the privilege of learning a great deal about PTSD. It’s a very complex topic, and sensitive like you said, but so undoubtedly important. I’ve seen other films try to tackle this subject, but my goal was to create a very honest portrayal of it. To do that, the wife of the soldier’s character became a major voice in the story. How does PTSD affect the whole family? That’s what really interested me. I want to bring attention to this subject and use film to honor these characters because they are real people dealing with this every day. I feel so blessed that I am able to do that.

What research did you do to ensure the accuracy and realism of portraying a soldier and spouse dealing with PTSD and war-related injuries?    I read everything I could. I read blogs, articles, books, listened to and watched interviews, everything. And I when I had done all that, I still felt something was missing so I actually spoke to military wives and that was immensely rewarding. You really learn more than you can imagine by hearing the actual voices, learning the truth from the source. That was really exciting.

What message do you hope viewers will take away from your film?   I hope viewers will understand just how strong and compelling soldiers and their wives truly are. Soldiers risk so much, and when they do get wounded, the battle continues. I’ve read so many great things about the strength of military wives and that’s what I want viewers to understand. I want the film to end and viewers to say ‘wow, these people are amazing,’ because they really are.

What have you learned in the process of making this film about military couples dealing with the devastating effects of war?     You know every couple is different, but there are universal ideas and notions that each couple goes through. There’s a natural adjustment period and of course feelings of doubt and loneliness, but that’s natural with anything. I keep coming back to this idea of strength and bravery because that’s really what these military couples demonstrate every day. They make it work and embrace change, and that’s really refreshing I think. It’s pretty amazing when you start hearing their stories.

One final question...The symbolism of the soldier returning with no lips--essentially being speechless--what does that mean to you as the filmmaker?  I think we forget about things like lips. Think how important your lips are. Have you ever imagined not having them? Likely not. It's so simple and I think that's what is brilliant about it. There is a great deal of symbolism and weight behind which of course as a director I love because it gives the viewer more to think about. I want the audience to feel something and I think they will.

As a wife of a Soldier just recently returned from combat, I've seen firsthand the lack of attention given to PTSD and the "invisible" wounds. While Soldiers are required to go through mental health checks, in our experience many times they are rushed through these checks or the Soldiers know the "right" answers to give in order to be cleared. So many of these young men and women are afraid to admit that they are having difficulty readjusting to life at home. They do not want to appear weak or are afraid their troubles will be reported to their command, therefore they hide what is truly going on. To me, these men and women are just as speechless as if they did not have lips. They do not voice their needs and they go unnoticed, not getting the care they so desperately need. Hopefully media attention, such as What You Left in the Ditch, will bring to light the need for better medical care for our returning, and deploying, Soldiers in the future.

The film, What You Left in the Ditch, is set to begin production in April 2012, with an expected completion date in summer 2012. To keep up to date on the progress of the film, as well as where it can be viewed upon completion, you can visit the film website What You Left in the Ditch.

A final note from the filmmaker:  We also would love any support, no donation is too small. Viewers can donate anything they are able to through the site www.indiegogo.com/what-you-left-in-ditch. It will be this support that gets the film made!

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