Veteran takes a long journey down the road in Slamdance documentary
“Bastards' Road,” an entry in Slamdance Film Festival Documentary Feature program, is set to screen at the following times and locations:
Sunday, Jan. 26, 1 p.m., Treasure Mountain Inn Ballroom
Thursday, Jan. 30, 6 p.m.. Treasure Mountain Inn Gallery
For information, visit slamdance.com
In the opening scene of Brian Morrison’s “Bastards’ Road,” a documentary feature in this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Jonathan Hancock, a former Marine and an Iraq War veteran, recounts an incident where he killed a young boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The boy’s death is part of Hancock’s post-traumatic stress disorder, which has prevented him from transitioning back into civilian life when his service in the Marines ended in 2009.
Six years later, Hancock, after sliding into a pit of depression, anger, substance abuse and a suicide attempt, decided to walk cross-country from Maryland to California to visit some of his 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines brethren, nicknamed the “Magnificent Bastards,” to cope with his PTSD.
Although Morrison didn’t know Hancock personally, the two shared high school friends, and it was one of those friends who put the two in touch with each other.
“The thing is, I wasn’t aware of Jon’s walk until he was a couple thousand miles into it, and he started popping up on local TV reports,” Morrison said. “I knew he was a Marine who was struggling with PTSD, and I was so curious as to why he was walking.”
The two met face to face in January 2016, after Morrison pitched the idea of making a documentary about Hancock’s walk.
“My initial reaction when I finally met him in person was that he was well rehearsed,” Morrison said with a laugh. “I wasn’t expecting him to be so articulate, because of the heavy (stuff) he has been through. He was very compelling, and it shocked me at how forthcoming he was with some of the things he had experienced.”
After thinking about things, the filmmaker realized Hancock had already been on the road for six months, talking with people every day.
“I think he evolved the narrative up to that point from just ranting about fighting in Iraq to a really concise mission,” Morrison said.
Hancock’s mission was to be a bridge between combat veterans who are struggling to transition back into society and friends and family members who want to support and understand them, said the filmmaker.
Although Morrison wanted to tell Hancock’s story, it took some time for the veteran to develop enough trust to open more transparently, Morrison said.
Morrison would meet Hancock periodically on the road, usually just before Hancock would meet up with one of his battalion members.
“Each trip was a learning experience, and a friendship growing event,” Morrison said. “I think there was probably only one trip where it was just him and me, because we were so far away from anyone he knew.”
Morrison saw Hancock light up every time he would meet his friends.
“Jon is a very vivacious personality, but how he opened up while he was amongst his brothers was very eye-opening to me,” Morrison said. “It was inspiring to see that level of commitment they had for each other. It made me appreciate the loyalty they had to each other, because when they signed up, their job was to act as a team. If they don’t act as a team, people’s lives are at risk. It’s that cohesion that makes their bond stronger and it kept them alive.”
Sometimes Morrison would feel like he was intruding on these reunions.
“Some of those guys haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and that kind of made me sad,” he said. “I noticed, however, when they met up, it was like they never left each others’ sides. And I felt bad that I was spoiling this experience. So I tried to minimize my presence in whatever way I can.”
Morrison did that by not bringing in a full film crew.
“I filmed everything by myself, and I did that to accommodate that trepidation on their part about talking with someone on camera,” he said. “Those guys only talked to me because they trusted Jon. They put their faith in Jon and he put his faith in me, so I felt even one extra person, an audio or camera person, would have been too much.”
Throughout the filming, Morrison saw patterns in these veterans’ PTSD struggles.
“I could see everyone was fighting the same issues in different ways,” he said. “Some talked about it. Some didn’t. Some were doing pretty good, and some, on paper, were not.”
There were times when Morrison would find himself becoming upset as the similarities became more evident.
“PTSD is a pervasive issue, and we should have a better handle on what these guys go through,” he said.
Morrison’s emotions intensified when he read a 2019 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stating that 60,000 combat veterans died from suicide between 2008 and 2017.
“The irony is the information is now coming out of an organization that doesn’t have a strong history of supporting mental health-related issues,” Morrison said. “But I think it’s encouraging to see more research and more awareness of the issue, because if you go back to Vietnam and World War II, the active military culture pushed this issue aside.”
Morrison said he would like to see the military be more proactive in helping veterans when they come home from service.
“I would like to see more of an effort to make sure these guys have reunions, especially the ones who have seen combat and are susceptible to high incidents,” he said. “I think putting them in a safe space for a reunion to reconnect is very therapeutic for them.”
In addition to the footage taken by Morrison, “Bastard’s Road” includes mobile phone footage taken by Hancock.
These clips are critical to the narrative, according to Morrison.
“You see the dilemma he has after finding a gun in the side of the road, and you also can laugh when he says his worst fear is running into a skunk, as opposed to a bear or a mountain lion,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s challenge was deciding which mobile footage to use.
“There was so much, and some of it wasn’t so humorous,” he said. “There were some scenes that showed people throwing pizza crusts at him, and there were people who would heckle him as they drove by in sports cars. It was insane.”
Although Hancock walked all of those miles, Morrison also went on his own transformative journey.
“I think I have a much better appreciation of the sacrifices our veterans have made, and the struggles they go through after they come home,” he said. “I think I have a better understanding of the cost of war, and have been given a glimpse of the unseen costs war has taken with these people and their families.”
Morrison said “Bastards’ Road” isn’t an anti-war film.
“It was never to be that, but I just feel if we have a better understanding of the negative outcomes of war, it may discourage people from making those kinds of decisions,” he said.
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