NEW YORK – On July 7, Minos Papas screened his short film Tango on the Balcony for the cast, crew, and funders at Cinema Village in New York City. The extraordinary film tackles the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with an honesty and power rarely achieved in Hollywood depictions of war and its aftermath. Though only 19 minutes in length, Tango on the Balcony stays with you long after the final credits roll, a testament to the amount of research and care that went into the creation of this short narrative. In the interest of full disclosure, I had attended a reading of the script a little more than a year ago and was impressed even then with the dedication of the filmmakers, cast, and crew to telling this story and reaching out to veterans for their input and participation in the development and the eventual production itself. Seeing the story realized on the screen was truly an experience beyond all expectation. The use of actual combat footage donated by veterans helped civilians in the audience glimpse however briefly what life is like for military personnel in a moment that changes everything and then see how PTSD takes its toll.
A Q&A session followed the film screening moderated by Kara Krauze, founder and director of Voices from War, an organization empowering veterans to tell their stories, along with writer/director/producer Papas, producer and consultant on veterans issues Michael Day, producer and production designer Liz Sargent, actor Aristotle Stamat, who portrayed Johnny the protagonist of the film, and first assistant director Neath Williams. Day and Williams are both US veterans and Papas served in the military of Cyprus.
The lively conversation highlighted the importance of depicting war and PTSD honestly and without Hollywood glamorization and conventions getting in the way of telling the story of so many veterans’ struggle to readjust to civilian life. Day was especially vocal on his dissatisfaction with most Hollywood depictions of war and PTSD. He noted that most Hollywood films show one scene of a veteran struggling with PTSD, but the script for Tango shows a moment of PTSD brought to life. Having served in Iraq, Day was discharged from the United States Marine Corps in September 2003 as a combat veteran. Writing and photography were therapeutic outlets for him in the fight against PTS. Day worked on Judd Apatow’s film comedy Trainwreck, the NBC TV miniseries The Slap, and also teamed with Papas on the thriller Behind the Mirror (2015).
Cast and crew both reflected on the emotional response each had to the first reading of the script. The authentic depiction brought many to tears. Stamat though not a veteran, said the story clicked right away for him and after getting cast he found Day a priceless resource on how to portray a man struggling with PTSD, noting his advice, you try your best to deal with it and live with it. Day credited Stamat for his dedication to the role, observing how the film bridges the gap between veterans and civilians. Sargent said the film is therapeutic for many, and shows how the sights and sounds of the city can trigger an unforeseen response as people try to go about their everyday lives. Papas mentioned the response from many in the mental health care field who found the film communicates so much about PTSD to civilians that is often difficult to explain. What is acceptable and not at home and at war creates a dilemma for the men and women who serve in the military. Papas called it “moral injury” and it haunts many veterans, even in their dreams. A feature film expanding on the theme of dreams is currently in the works for Papas and his team who have put out an open call for veterans, their spouses or significant others to submit their dreams to be used for the script.