On its face, Almost Sunrise, which is showing Saturday, June 10 at 2:30 p.m. at the Vogue Theater as part of SF DocFest, is a film about two veterans who trek from Milwaukee to Los Angeles to raise awareness about trauma in vets. But everyone stands to learn something from this film.
Make no mistake, the documentary by director Michael Collins and Producer Marty Syjuco, who both live in the Mission, is difficult to stomach, and not just because of the stark images captured from armed conflict in Iraq. It’s a story close to anyone’s heart who has loved someone with trauma in their past, and also a reminder of how dismally American society has failed those it sends to war.
Like any good documentary, however, it turns what must have been a tedious trek into an engaging story. The viewer becomes invested in the lives of these two guys – happily, it ends well. The messages are clear but not on the nose, delivered in the words of the protagonists. And they are very articulate.
“I felt like I was just breaking down. But when I feel that way, I don’t want people around me. So I make it intolerable to be around me. My wife, my family, they’re so supportive of me…and then I repay them by being just a tremendous dick,” says Iraq veteran Anthony Anderson. “How do I make up for that?”
The conversations with the veterans’ families, and the scenes in which they hear from advisors and healers, crystallize into the concept of a “moral injury,” a central topic of the film. The term is defined at the beginning of the film as “a wound to the soul, caused by participation in events that violate one’s deeply held sense of right and wrong.” Following the veterans on their literal and emotional journey makes the viewer feel the gravity of a moral injury. At one point, one of the protagonists encounters a firefighter at a war memorial.
“The problem that I see is that every one of these things is a collection of combat loss. There’s a lot more that happens when people come home,” Anderson says. “There’s a lot of people that come who, the stuff never ends for them.”
A firefighter visiting the memorial with Anderson responds: “Police suicides far exceed line of duty deaths…we’re facing the same problem. You’re asking people to go into the worst possible human situation that they can be dealt with.”
With this documentary, that conversation has started advancing. Of course the veterans, now active in various organizations that help veterans heal from their moral injuries, are a key part of this, but the film makes their efforts accessible and relatable to anyone. And for some, it may even offer an inkling of hope.