Sat Mar 5, 2022 – 2:30 pm | Downtown Beloit Association
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If You Can Ever Get Back
IF YOU CAN EVER GET BACK tells the story of three US army combat medics who served in Iraq’s “triangle of death.” Ten years later, they struggle to find their place in the civilian world and to lay to rest their wartime ghosts. By interweaving the everyday and the extreme, the present and the past, the film offers an open-ended reflection on the moral, emotional, and existential consequences of war for those soldiers who carry the burden of each life they were unable to save.
The initial seeds of this film are more than a decade old. In 2007 we were on assignment for GQ Magazine in Iraq, embedded with 101st Airborne Division in the “Triangle of Death.” We stayed in touch with some of those soldiers over the following years, as we all grew up, left the Middle East, and tried to figure out what it meant to come home when we were no longer the same people we had been.
Their reflections often slipped into a complicated nostalgia for Iraq, a longing muddled with anger and loss. Combat was hard, but in some ways, homecoming was harder. PTSD and physical traumas were the obvious difficulties, but there was also the challenge of readjusting to a civilian life that would always seem mundane and directionless compared to the razor-sharp singularity of life in a war zone. As one of the officers put it, “Odysseus is okay as long as he never sets foot in Ithaca. But what happens when he comes home?”
Our own experience — as journalists, photographers, and filmmakers — was never that of soldiers, but we could empathize with what it means to have been away for a long time, to have seen violence, to have learned a new cynicism and hardness but also a sense of purpose. In those late-night talks, we kept coming back to the idea of homecoming — as a process that lasts years rather than months, as a liminal space one inhabits indefinitely, as a simultaneous, overlapping yearning and anger and guilt.
To tell that story, we turned to medics, because theirs is in some ways the most extreme experience, both of war and of homecoming. They see the very worst side of conflict. Their world is populated by the wounded, the dying, and the dead. They never get to look away. But they also save lives, and their importance — their sense of meaning and purpose — is unmatched.
Through IF YOU CAN EVER GET BACK we sought to tell this harder, more complicated story of the Iraq war, honoring the complexity of our subjects, who defy the comfortable stereotypes of veterans as heroes or victims. We wanted to offer veterans an honest depiction of their experiences, and to challenge those outside of war and its effects to reconsider their assumptions. The result is a subtle, intimate portrait of three veterans’ trauma, pain, and coping. Their staggering candor challenges the polite public narratives of America’s post-9/11 wars and defies the usual postures of toughness soldiers mostly muster for one another. We offer no easy answers, only an insistence that we must reckon with the ongoing consequences of our most recent and ongoing wars. These are age-old, essential human questions — what it means to kill, the value of a life, the cost of war — with urgent implications today.
Taylor Lee Nagel, Emma Findlen LeBlanc, Philip Sands
IF YOU CAN EVER GET BACK is directed by Emma Findlen LeBlanc, Taylor Lee Nagel, and Philip Sands. After more than a decade of friendship and collaboration, in 2015 they founded Raw Milk Films, an independent production company dedicated to urgent and provocative stories of human dignity, defiance, and struggle.
Emma’s first film was MA FI EKHWE HON (“THERE ARE NO BROTHERS HERE”), an Arabic-language narrative short set in a Syrian prison, based on the testimonies of detained Syrian protesters and the regime interrogators who tortured them. Written and directed by Emma, THERE ARE NO BROTHERS HERE screened at several festivals and won best narrative short at Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. A recovering anthropologist with a doctorate from Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, Emma also works as a senior researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, where she focuses on racial justice and bail reform. Previously, she worked as a journalist in Syria and Iraq for publications including GQ, Slate, Le Monde, The New York Times Globalization and Human Rights blog, and The National, and she has exhibited her photographs in the US, the UK, and the Middle East.
Taylor’s most recent project is LADY LIBERTY, an independently produced pilot about an aspiring comedian learning to embrace her queer identity. Taylor directed and produced LADY LIBERTY, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019 and has screened at festivals across the US as well as internationally. Taylor’s previous projects include a documentary web series, RUN CARLOS RUN, which chronicled a Mexican immigrant’s journey across America, and she produced THERE ARE NO BROTHERS HERE. Before leaving to found Raw Milk Films, Taylor worked for several years as an associate producer and creative executive at Locomotive, an N.Y.C.-based production, and finance company.
Philip comes to documentary film from a background as a journalist and photographer. A Middle East reporter based in Syria and Iraq for twelve years, his writing and photography have appeared in “GQ,” “Esquire,” “Le Monde,” “The Independent,” and “The National,” as well as specialist regional publications. He is currently writing a book, “The End of Spring,” which tells the story of the assassination of Meshal Tamo, a Syrian opposition leader, during the first months of the Syrian revolution, as a way of examining how a peaceful, popular democratic uprising became a sectarian civil war.