‘Unknown Distance’ tracks veterans’ struggles with PTSD, ‘moral injury’ and life after war

By Bliss Bowen

The new documentary ‘Unknown Distance’ follows the post-military life of former Marine, Doug Brown, as he travels across the country

What happens to American soldiers when they exchange the rigors of combat for civilian life? That question is too infrequently examined, even as the U.S. heads into its 18th year of conflict in Afghanistan. In November, the question seemed poised to enter the national dialogue once again when a suicidal Marine reportedly suffering from PTSD slaughtered 12 bar patrons in Thousand Oaks; then the tragedy was crowded out by other headlines.

But “Unknown Distance,” filmmaker Gordon Clark’s new documentary about young combat veterans, responds to that question with some urgency. The film concludes a week of screenings at Monica Film Center this Thursday.

Three years in the making, “Unknown Distance” tracks Marine Sgt. Douglas Brown, who did five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq before his rifle was taken away by his superior officer. He returned home to Louisiana with a profound identity crisis. He had distinguished himself with his shooting skills from a young age — by his teens, he was already hunting to feed his family — and had earned medals as a sniper in the military. But without that rifle, and without that mission, who was he?

Uncommonly articulate, Brown shares these hard memories and occasional tears with fellow soldiers in the film and comes across as a photogenic Everyman exemplar of 21st-century veterans.

Brown was checking out a potentially therapeutic brain treatment for his PTSD when a mutual friend in Santa Monica introduced him to Clark, who had recently returned to LA from making a documentary about gangs in his native South Africa. Striving to understand the “epigenetics” of the culture that shaped Brown, Clark traveled with him to Louisiana and around the country, filming their journey en route without the help of a crew or an itinerary.

Clark captured Brown playing gently with kids, riding horses, and hunting in his hometown; surveying the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan; partying through Vegas; sitting cross-legged on the floor and dining with his Afghani translator, Mirwais Zakhilwall, whose relocation to the U.S. Brown conscientiously sponsored.

As director, Clark opted to take a personal approach that demands attention be paid to veterans’ sacrifices and the challenges they face adapting to civilian life. “Unknown Distance” is unexpectedly impressionistic for a documentary, with intense close-ups and swirling camera angles connecting viewers to veterans’ unsettling circumstances. Narrative often takes a back seat to emotional logic. Clark, who cut the film 47 times before handing it to editor Herman Forsman, acknowledges that the narrative arc sometimes lapses.

“What it’s doing is building character … We use music and a lot of close-ups; I’d cut away to something else and try and keep those moments organic, or otherwise grab the audience in an emotional way, like showing Doug in the forest hunting. At the end, when he says, ‘I just want to hunt on my own, I want to be left alone,’ that speaks volumes about the PTSD and the moral injury.”

In striving for “something real but contemporary,” Clark, who says he has “taken on a little bit of a father role” with the veterans, prioritizes emotional reality over facts, figures or preexisting footage. It’s a legitimate choice, albeit not without risk for a documentary. (Some might question him recreating moments like Brown deliberately saluting in dress blues from a canyon clifftop, for instance.)

That said, the film is undeniably gripping. In April, it won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. At a screening at Monica Film Center last Friday, viewers were visibly moved hearing Brown and other soldiers describe their harrowing experiences in combat — and how it’s even harder to survive in a society that does not value their skills or understand their trauma.

Onscreen, San Diego-based veteran Chris Tomlin poignantly confesses, “Feeling like I’m not wanted is the most depressing thing in the world,” and says he feels like a chessboard pawn or trash; he vents palpable frustration at having to wait months to see doctors who insist on overmedicating him. Fellow veteran Eric Darling laments the alarming number of veterans’ deaths due to suicide and discusses his homelessness with Brown during one emotional late-night scene by the LA River.

Brown is shown with a family that supportively sheltered him for a few months — a small-scale approach to readjustment that underscores the need for a broader range of programs to aid veterans with varying issues.

“This is the crucial, important question that a lot of people don’t understand,” Clark says. “For each individual, it’s so different, you know? A medication will help one group; yoga will help another. … It’s not the VA’s fault either. They’re all just trying to do the best they can.”

While Clark assiduously avoids politics in the film, he acknowledges that veterans’ political attitudes have been affected by their military experiences. “They’re not liberal, not Republican … they live in their own zone completely,” he says. His subjects are dealing with distressing rates of addiction, homelessness, unemployment and suicide, constituting a state of emergency in some estimations. A November report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office states that “an average of 20 veterans die by suicide per day” (a “disproportionately higher” rate than civilians), underscoring the timeliness of the film.

During a Q&A session after the screening, Brown told the audience that he is currently driving tractors for $100 bucks a day back in Cheneyville, Louisiana. Neither he nor his friends — all coping with PTSD — conveyed a sense of trust in their future.

“Doug, if you asked him, would say, ‘Why is there a war that’s still going on for 18 years?,’” Clark observes. “‘Who are we supporting? We’re coming home in boxes; what is it all about?’”

“Unknown Distance” has its final
screenings on Thursday, Dec. 20, at the Monica Film Center (1332 2nd St.,
Santa Monica). Call (310) 478-3836
or visit laemmle.com for showtimes.
Visit unknowndistancethefilm.com
for more info.