From Shock to Awe is an intimate, feature-length documentary that profiles the lives of several U.S. and Canadian veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service in the armed forces and chronicles their transformative healing journeys with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and medical marijuana.
In Operation Homecoming/Crash Landing, Luc Côté’s groundbreaking film about Canadian soldiers living with PTSD, we were left with a feeling of hopelessness. It seemed nothing could be done to help these men and women recover from their psychic wounds, and that government institutions were leaving them by the wayside. Now, in From Shock to Awe, we have a beacon of hope: psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Guided by this beacon, we’ve documented the stories of these veterans—in their own words—of what it was like to be in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, of the events and circumstances that contributed to their PTSD, and of coming home to a world that doesn’t have a clue as to what they went through. We’ve documented how in this “normal world” they miss the camaraderie, the clear purpose and mission of battle, the intensity of focus, and the respect that comes from being a warrior.
We’ve documented how they struggle to let their guard down, to rediscover intimacy and trust with their loved ones, even to sleep. We’ve documented their stories of endless nightmares, of looking for work, of how hard it is to get out of bed or leave the house, and of not trusting themselves—of their hair-trigger reactions to everything and everyone around them.
We’ve been with them as they’ve contemplated entering psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, including confronting their own religious, cultural, and moral beliefs regarding what the medicines might do to their minds and to their souls. Then, most intimately, we’ve been with them as they’ve gone through their sessions with ayahuasca or MDMA—whether in therapists’ offices, in living rooms, or on ceremonial grounds—as they are unfolding.
We’ve also accompanied them as they’ve engaged in activism around making medical marijuana legal and available for veterans, and as they’ve used the medicinal herb to augment their own healing journeys. We’ve been present for both their personal and interpersonal breakthrough moments. In short, we’ve borne witness to both their pain and their healing.
Timeline: We started filming on Oct. 17, 2015, in Santa Monica, Calif., at the kickoff of the second annual Cannaball Run, a cross-country tour designed to educate veterans on the benefits of cannabis for the treatment of trauma, in particular PTSD. The brainchild of the veterans group Weed for Warriors Project, that year’s tour began with a 5K run in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park.
After it wrapped, we caravanned with the tour to Las Vegas, where we made a brief stop, then to Colorado, where we filmed the vets meeting with U.S. Marine Veteran Dannion Brinkley, co-founder and chairman of the veteran hospice program Twilight Brigade.
In Philadelphia, we filmed the city’s first-ever Veterans Day parade. And after it was over, we documented the “mock die-in” that saw 22 veterans lay on the ground as their fellow vets threw empty prescription bottles on them—a scene meant to represent the failure of the VA’s approach to treating veterans’ PTSD.
It was staged by Mike Whiter, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of Operation Overmed, which started as a photography project featuring veterans rejecting pharmaceuticals in favor of alternative healing methods such as medical marijuana and is increasingly becoming a vehicle for Whiter’s medical marijuana activism. Whiter was barred from staging his group’s scene during the parade itself, and was warned by numerous vets there that they “wouldn’t let him ruin their day.” But he soldiered on, and the parade dissipated to the indignant yet hopeful sound of his voice over a megaphone.
We ended the tour in D.C. on Nov. 11th, filming the vets as they marched from McPherson Park to the steps of the Veterans Affairs Building, where they gathered and smoked medical marijuana in protest of the laws that deny them access to it. The group then moved on to the White House, where Weed for Warriors Founder Kevin Richardson delivered an impassioned speech about the struggle of veterans and the healing that medical marijuana can bring them.
In April of 2016, we joined veterans Michael Cooley, Matt Kahl, and Ryan LeCompte, whose organization Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy facilitates the participation of veterans with PTSD in ayahuasca ceremonies, in Colorado. We filmed both they and their families ahead of Cooley and Kahl’s first-ever ayahuasca ceremonies, which were held that weekend at Soul Quest Ayahuasca Mother Church in Florida.
We captured both the hopes and fears they had about taking the medicine, including how it would impact their wives and children. And once in Florida, we filmed the healing ceremonies themselves, showing up close the transformational effects it had on these long-suffering vets.
In June of 2016, we headed north to film Fabian Henry, co-founder of Marijuana for Trauma, which provides medical marijuana to Canadian veterans. MFT, whose headquarters are located outside of Fredericton, N.B., helps qualified veterans and first responders receive free medical marijuana from the Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs (read more about Marijuana for Trauma’s program here).
We filmed onsite, meeting a seemingly endless array of veterans who were all too happy to share their stories of healing. And we filmed Henry at home with his family as he reflected on the progress of MFT to date and its expansion plans for the rest of Canada: at the time, the group had eight clinics across the country; it now has 15.
We expect to release From Shock to Awe in the fall of 2017.
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