In 2008, Sara Nesson was a struggling filmmaker doing wedding videography on the Vineyard to fund her latest project “Iraq Paper Scissors.” She put $5,000 of her own money into hosting a local event that she hoped, in part, would serve to raise the additional funds needed to complete her film, but fell far short of that goal — only clearing $1,000.
Now Ms. Nesson is headed for Hollywood — and the Academy Awards ceremony. Her latest film, the documentary “Poster Girl,” is one of five films vying for the Documentary Short Feature Oscar and she’ll be attending the ceremony along with Robynn Murray, a young veteran of the Iraq War and the subject of her 38- minute film. From there, the two women will commence work with two Hollywood producers on a feature length narrative version of “Poster Girl.”
This red carpet ride began during that workshop and fundraising event two and a half years ago. “Iraq Paper Scissors,” the film that Ms. Nesson was working on at that time, deals with veterans involved in the Combat Paper Project, using the act of transforming their military uniforms into handmade paper to help them deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Ms. Nesson hosted 30 veterans at a friend’s property in Chilmark for a weeklong writer’s retreat in July 2008. They were also involved in a paper-making workshop at Seastone Papers in West Tisbury, and the week concluded with a fundraiser at the Grange Hall that included readings by the vets and a screening of the trailer for the film.
Ms. Nesson was hardly disappointed with the event’s failure to meet one of the original goals as a fundraiser. She was very impressed with the number of people and organizations who donated goods and services to the project, and feels that her primary mission was well served. “In the end it was really about exposure, this healing week, and sharing,” Ms. Nesson said in a telephone conversation last week while in New York.
Ms. Murray, who has taken to writing poetry and prose as a cathartic exercise since returning in 2007 from a two-year tour of duty with the Army in the Middle East and Africa, was one of the participants in the retreat. She and Ms. Nesson struck up a friendship and Ms. Murray became one of the soldiers featured in “Iraq Paper Scissors.”
Ms. Nesson notes that the then 24-year-old was the only one who really shared the most intimate moments associated with her pain and guilt, along with her coping efforts.
Says Ms. Nesson, “The healing journey was something I wanted to document but it was important that their struggle with PTSD inform their art. A lot of the guys I worked with — filming them doing art — were very open when it came to talking about PTSD, but showing it as it affected their daily lives was too much for them. [Ms. Murray] let me totally in. She had such a powerful voice that I knew her voice was going to speak for thousands.”
On the advice of a producer, Mitchell Block, who was shown a rough cut of the film, Ms. Nesson decided to make a separate short documentary about Ms. Murray, a former cheerleader who became her Civil Affairs unit’s machine gunner and is now an outspoken member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The film was picked up by HBO who helped Ms. Nesson finish the film (it will air next fall). “Poster Girl” also screened at a number of film festivals worldwide and was entered into the Oscar pool.
When Ms. Nesson first learned of her film’s Academy Award nomination, she was in disbelief.
“I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn. My editor at HBO, Geof Bartz called and said ‘Congratulations,’” Ms. Nesson recalls. “I couldn’t react until I saw the film posted on the Academy website. When I saw it I just started shouting, ‘I’m going to the Oscars!’”
Every filmmakers’ dream aside, Ms. Nesson is mainly thrilled that the exposure of the Oscars will bring her film to the attention of a larger audience. She expresses her commitment to informing the public through filmmaking, saying, “PTSD is an epidemic, with 18 soldiers committing suicide every day. My belief is that there’s a disconnect between veterans and civilians. Veterans don’t know how to talk to us. We don’t know how to help. Veterans are left to struggle on their own. And we’re not given the opportunity to help. This [the retreat on the Vineyard] was such a successful model of how civilians and veterans can come together. People asked ‘how can I help?’ We provided that opportunity.”
“Poster Girl” is a favorite to win the Academy Award. A.O Scott of the New York Times (movies.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/movies/11oscar.html) writes that the film “manage[s] to push beyond the delivery of messages into the raw, complicated stuff of reality. In the case of Sara Nesson’s ‘Poster Girl,’ this is done through the creation of an intimate, unflinching bond between the director and her subject, a young woman named Robynn Murray trying to recover a sense of purpose and stability after traumatic combat experience.”
Ms. Nesson was able to facilitate this bond, which translates so well onto the screen, by fully immersing herself in Ms. Murray’s life for a year. “I wanted to show the nature of PTSD,” Ms. Nesson says. “It’s not something that goes away. It comes and goes. It can take years for PTSD to reveal itself or even to recognize, especially when clouded under a veil of denial, or even pills and alcohol. I wanted to show the nature of the beast. I knew the way to do that was to follow Robynn over a period of time.”
Ms. Nesson, a Newton native, spent seven years on the Vineyard before she moved to Vermont in 2006 to take a temporary editing position before embarking on a five-week filming job in Tibet.
“I was doing whatever I could do to stay on the Island but finally I realized that I had to spread my wings,” she says. She returned briefly to the Vineyard to host the 2008 event, and she retains a connection with the Island. The second generation filmmaker, who now lives in Brooklyn, will be here, along with Ms. Murray, sometime this summer for a screening of “Poster Girl.”
“I completely credit the Island with this opportunity,” Ms. Nesson says. “In the ending credits of ‘Poster Girl’ I thank Noepe and the community of Martha’s Vineyard who put their hearts and souls into making the vets feel welcome. I value that time so much. I will never forget one of the vets, Jennifer Packanowski, told me that the Island saved her life. After the retreat she checked herself into rehab, got sober, and went back to school.”