Filmed over six years and taking eight years to complete, Buried Above Ground follows three Americans fighting to overcome the paralyzing grip of PTSD: Luis Carlos Montalván, an Iraq War veteran who has emerged as a New York Times best-selling author and a leading advocate for PTSD awareness; Erundina López, a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence who has battled addiction for many years; and Ashley Boudreaux, a fifth-generation New Orleans native whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Their personal journeys shed light on an underreported mental health condition that is often misunderstood and left untreated.
As a filmmaker, you’ve focused on mental health issues and related disorders before. What drives you to make films about mental health, and is there a personal connection for you to Buried Above Ground?
My work focusing on mental health issues is really a complete accident of life. I set out to make “A Summer in the Cage” about street basketball. I happened to become friends and briefly collaborate with a man whose life was about to explode. I met Sam in “A Summer in the Cage” the day he quit his job in finance. It would be a harbinger of his life never being the same again, as three weeks later he would have his first manic episode and then be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. From there, it was a six-year chronicle of wrestling with his diagnosis, losing a grip on the person he was, and feeling uncertain he wanted to go on with the burdens of bipolar disorder. I felt a responsibility to him – a lot, of which I grapple with in the film. But, I empathized with being an outsider and perhaps that is why I gravitated towards mental health issues, as I got deeper into telling his story.
PTSD as a subject matter came on my radar while touring with “A Summer in the Cage” from 2007 to 2009 amidst the mental health community and at the heights of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers were coming home with PTSD battling it silently. The term and the concepts of trauma were barely entering the public lexicon because institutionally, societally and spiritually, we had no idea what to do with this mental health condition or the soldiers who were struggling with it. When I researched it further, I found that veterans were only a piece of the demographic pie and more often than not it was folks who had suffered a traumatic event in a private and invisible theater such as rape, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic or intimate partner violence and community violence. As a documentary filmmaker, lending a voice and power where it has been silenced, is what moves me the most.
Buried Above Ground is a PTSD triptych with stories including a displaced Hurricane Katrina survivor, a Puerto Rican domestic violence survivor from the Bronx, and a veteran, writer, and service dog advocate. These are distinct stories with a common theme of PTSD. Can you talk about your process of arriving at this three-character approach, and how you found and selected your subjects?
I wanted to look at three distinct populations of trauma survivors with PTSD. Starting with our traditional understanding of trauma through the lens of war, I then wanted to open up the dialogue for the disempowered, including women and children, and New Orleans was important for me as well. I have a great affinity for New Orleans from a personal point of view (a great friend from college is from there and has guided us through life there many times. After Katrina, we were both in New York and I attended a number of events with her as she grieved the destruction of her beloved city), and I was worried that following Hurricane Katrina, as a nation, we would forget what the city’s citizens endured and survived. I wanted to have a third story that could keep New Orleans as part of our conversation. Women and children are particularly vulnerable as it relates to trauma and PTSD, and in the developing world overall this will be a multi-generational problem to contend with of massive proportions. I’m hoping we become better versed domestically on trauma and mental health, so that compassion and understanding can be applied globally in the future.
Ashley Boudreaux at her new home in the Bywater
While each of the stories have a distinct arc and drama, all of the film’s subjects share the disorder’s devastating symptoms. We see them struggle with many of the common symptoms of this condition including depression, flashbacks, substance abuse, and even suicidal ideations. Unfortunately, the characters must deal with more than just the symptoms of PTSD. They often face additional obstacles to treatment such as a lack of insurance, a limited availability of sound mental healthcare, and an overwhelming negative cultural stigma towards those with mental illnesses. But despite these tremendous obstacles to recovery, the characters also share a common goal of trying to successfully manage their PTSD so that they can enjoy a productive and fulfilling life. The film follows several of these characters to this stage of healing in an effort to contribute to the de-stigmatization of the hopelessness and chronic condition associated with many mental health conditions; the notion that they are permanent and not treatable.
How difficult was it having a camera present while discussing traumatic experiences?
With PTSD, trust – in self, friends, family, institutions, and the familiar – is destroyed. How could this happen to me? How could someone do this to me? How could all of these things fail me life? It’s a devastating effect that shook Luis, Ashley, and Erundina to the core. So the part of the journey that was not recorded was building the trust and credibility before we ever rolled camera. For each person in the film, I think having the camera was sometimes cathartic and actually connecting, breaking isolation. Other times, it felt invasive and made them feel vulnerable. I know how sacred each story; each detail and each re-visiting of the past is for them and for me. I know it’s hard after spending so many raw hours together to have to see me make editorial choices and omit things. I give a lot of thanks to Luis, Ashley and Erundina for that trust.
What has been the most insightful moment in making/screening of Buried Above Ground?
It has not been easy for any of us making this film—all the years, uncertainty of what the film would be, and how Luis, Erundina, and Ashley would be portrayed. Without them, this opportunity would not be possible. So having them see it and support going public with the film is incredibly gratifying and humbling. And then, in terms of engaging an audience, we recently did two screenings with NAMI Monterey County led by an incredible chapter president Joe Livernois that really moved me beyond words. The first night we screened the film and then during the Q&A afterward, we heard testimonies from a combat veteran, a first responder, a domestic violence survivor and a childhood clergyman sexual assault survivor, all with PTSD. I was so proud that with the local NAMI chapter and the tone of the film, we created a safe space to talk about these issues openly, that each found comfort from the room, and sought professional resources as a result of the screening. The next night, we screened to a packed house in a commercial movie theater in Salinas, which has a large Latino population and demographically was very different than the night before. But again, during the Q&A, stories were shared, tears shed, hugs given, and the conversation and connection continued for another hour in the lobby of the theater. That was so encouraging. It gave me renewed confidence about the film’s impact and our modest role as a change agent. Watching Luis’ journey into becoming a New York Times bestselling author, influencer and advocate for a wide swath of social issues is very inspiring, and we are thrilled to be contributing to the national dialog on trauma, PTSD, and mental health as well.
Former Captain Luis Carlos Montalván and his service dog Tuesday
How have you seen the discussion about PTSD in America change since you started making the film? Where does the current conversation stand on the discussion of PTSD including stigma, therapy, and caregiving?
I have seen the conversation expand from veterans to be more inclusive of other populations. But there is a long way to go overall with mental health and stigma. In 2016, the communities affected by PTSD are massive, and the statistics are staggering. Therapy is still stigmatized and not universally subsidized in health care. It’s a luxury. And more often than not, we intervene with mental health conditions at the most costly time: during a crisis.
Do you have any advice for viewers looking to help out or raise awareness about PTSD?
There are a number of national, local, private and public mental health advocacy support groups such as SAMHSA and NAMI, but the first thing is our individual awareness and actions. We have partnered and been supported by The Carter Center, specifically the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship where I was a fellow in 2010-2011, and Mental Health America (MHA). They have helped advise on messaging, promoted screenings internally and to the public, as well been a foundation for our National Community Screenings Program of promoting screening events with discussions to grassroots communities to combat stigma around mental health and bolster awareness. Engaging The Carter Center and Mental Health America, as well as local NAMI chapters are great resources.
Our website, www.buriedaboveground.tv links to other national mental health resources, as well as ways to connect directly with individuals and organizations to bring the film’s message directly to them. The resources on our site expand the role of my team as filmmakers and storytellers, to also being impact producers. Our team of producer Marc Smolowitz, outreach coordinator Chris Riley, and do-everything producer Benjy Blanco have been incredible in developing an enterprise to function in the film and social change worlds.
Can you talk about your background as a filmmaker? How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
It has been an accidental path to documentary filmmaking for me. Between “Star Wars” and “Do the Right Thing” I became convinced I wanted to be a narrative filmmaker, not even contemplating documentaries. I attended Wesleyan University’s Film Studies program to be a screenwriter, but just like the path of documentaries, the road had many unexpected turns. Out of college, I worked in a law firm to cover living in New York, and then taught at an elementary school, thinking I could write at night. I happened to meet Harrison Ford and Melissa Mathison through teaching. They gave me my first break to come work on a film set, which was an incredibly exciting experience. My first day on set I was riding in the in a car while Sydney Pollack and Harrison talked about his character. I think I made an unsolicited suggestion from the backseat! I felt like a voyeur to the creative process and not a participant—after all it’s a guild/apprentice system, and I didn’t feel close enough to the decisions being made. I didn’t want to wait my turn (not realizing experience is the school and there are no shortcuts). I made a dramatic jump into documentary filmmaking after two years working on these studio films, television shows and commercials because I wanted to be at the center of the process. I really wanted to explore the world through storytelling, immersion and the privilege of entering other people’s worlds, but not through fantasy. It was in other people’s cultures where, as an emerging storyteller, the action, decisions, stakes, and pressure were taking place. With time, you realize that the pull to explore other people is really a refracted mirror to explore your own story.
Filmmaker Ben Selkow
Now is a moment also to reflect on what it means to have spent a good part of the last 16 years working on documentaries focusing on mental health conditions and riding the filmmaker and advocacy line. I’m very proud of our America ReFramed broadcast premiere, starting a TweetChat conversation with the #TalkPTSD hashtag that generated over 4 million impressions on the eve of the broadcast, capturing the journey in our ongoing Blog, reading some beautiful coverage by esteemed colleagues at No Film School, as well as writers with a lived-experience in The Huffington Post and Examiner.com. I have been transformed into a filmmaker who partners with producers, distributors and other cohorts to focus on grassroots impact producing leveraging social media, and reaching audiences on both linear and digital/streaming platforms, along with a facilitating a national community screenings tour with the film.
As I grow a bit older in this profession, I have had to devise new ways to stay in feature documentaries. We all hustle, and fortunately, I have found a parallel career in creating and directing/producing docu-series television that I believe in. I’ve gotten to direct on “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and the forthcoming CNN series “Believer with Reza Aslan.” And will keep the balancing act going for the privilege to work in this art form.