“When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless” | Interview with Producer / Director Nina Gilberti

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No one is more deserving of honor and respect than those who voluntarily put their lives on the line to defend the freedoms so many of us take for granted. Yet, so many of these brave men and women return home only to feel isolated, lost, and in many cases left with out the help they deserve. Far too many return without a home to come to, without a job to make a living, or without access the benefits they were promised. Recognizing the need for their story to be told, Nina Gilberti put her own money and so much of her time and tears into the documentary, “When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless”.

Veteran Journal speaks with Nina Gilberti, the producer and director of the amazing new film. For more information about the film and the issues it addresses for our veterans please visit When Jane & Johnny Come Marching Homeless on indiegogo.com.

Tell us about your film, When Jane and Johnny Come Marching Homeless. What is it about?

This documentary is about compassion, understanding and hope for our Veterans.  It addresses the hidden wounds and issues our Veterans have ALWAYS faced upon returning home from EVERY war.

The wounds of war are not all on the outside, and the battle doesn’t necessarily end when a soldier returns home, for many it is just the beginning.  These invisible- hidden wounds are carried back home inside the hearts, minds and souls of our warriors- altering them forever, affecting their emotional and psychological well being, and that of their family.

Within many there is a feeling of an emotional and psychological disconnect from that which was once safe and familiar.  They find themselves feeling an emotional “homelessness”- of being lost, isolated, and uncomfortable despite being surrounded by their loving family and friends; thus the title: When Jane & Johnny Come Marching Homeless.  The film also focuses on the plight of the homeless Veteran who is on the street, couch surfing, and living in cars, but the word “homeless” is meant to encompass an emotional state that explains the reason for the circumstance.

Some of the most pressing and insidious hidden wounds include: PTS (Post Traumatic Stress), formerly known as “shell shock & battle fatigue,” an anxiety disorder. Often PTS is associated with war flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, paranoia, emotional numbing, hyper vigilance – being on guard all the time, scanning for signs of danger- having an exaggerated startle response, and unpredictable behavior.

In addition, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) which often goes undiagnosed only to show up later with greater consequences, military sexual trauma (abuse) among both women and men, drug & alcohol addiction, homelessness, and suicide.

This documentary not only raises the necessary awareness but also gives those Veterans and family members, who have taken part in this film, an opportunity to finally express their Voice and speak their Truth directly to the American people; many are speaking out for the first time – sharing their experiences, pain and continued struggle.

This film doesn’t concern itself with politics, per se; the focus is on Human Beings- our Sons, Daughters, Brothers, Sisters, Mothers and Fathers- who went to serve willingly and in good faith only to return home forever changed and eventually invisible.

I feel ALL of us, as a nation, has a responsibility to help and care in some way for those who have answered the call to serve this country and through no fault of their own, return home with issues beyond their control. Whether these are physical in nature or the ones focused on in this film, and whatever one’s position is about war, these men and women answered the call- they are the other 1% who sacrificed greatly so we can enjoy the freedoms that most of us take for granted.  And many more have made the ultimate sacrifice on the battle field and at home through suicide- their families continue to suffer their loss.

Ron Kovic, Vietnam Veteran, Peace Activist, and Author of Born on the Fourth of July endorsed this film saying it is, “One of the most important documentaries being made at this time.”

What inspired you to make the film?  Have you always been involved in supporting our Military Veterans?

People often ask how I was drawn to this subject. The Vietnam War became part of my childhood, in the 60s and early 70s, as my family and I watched it unfold on the Nightly News. The juxtaposition of popular culture in television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, The Addam’s Family, That Girl, Bewitched, The Flying Nun, to name a few, and the real life drama and turmoil on the news – the war, civil rights, the assassinations of our leaders, women’s rights, the protest movement, the hippie generation, and of course, the music – all had a profound influence on me.  And through it all, a consciousness emerged in which I began to embrace the idea of a social responsibility, which all Americans should have, to give back to those who’ve sacrificed so much for all of us.

When I look back, I realize this project began, at least subconsciously, in the summer of 1972. As a first year student on a University campus, I was exposed for the first time to Vietnam War protests and found myself drawn into the quagmire of emotions that surrounded that war. I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television- news footage of jungle warfare, helicopters, and planes dropping napalm, and flagged draped coffins being unloaded on the tarmac. The massive protests and demonstrations across the nation, the murdering of students at Kent State, only two years prior in May of 1970, and the civil unrest of that entire decade haunted me.

“Hate the war, love the warrior” was a mantra I adopted along with others. Unfortunately, many Americans managed to forget the second part of that important and meaningful slogan. Vietnam Veterans returning from war were treated with great disrespect by both their compatriots and their government. Most returning soldiers were drafted into that war against their will. They served their 12-month tour and came home fundamentally changed forever.

For a multiplicity of reasons, the Veterans Administration and the military machine did very little to help these men and women cope with the many issues—ranging from combat stress and PTSD to drug abuse- that they carried with them along with their duffle sacks as they landed on US soil. As a nation, we turned our backs on these veterans of war, and as a result, many landed on the streets of America, homeless, dealing with the hidden wounds of battle.

In 1997, I found myself on the VA website, researching for a screenplay I was writing about a homeless Vietnam Veteran, and was horrified to read “one-third of those living on the streets across America served during the Vietnam War.” This fact angered me, and ultimately propelled me to create this documentary.

When did you start making the film?

I began shooting this documentary when the WGA writers went on strike out here in Hollywood, back in November 2007. After I completed my last episode on Criminal Minds at the end of October in 2007 (I am a film editor on the series), I had a choice to either sit the strike out in Los Angeles, not knowing when it would end, or go into debt and purchase an HD camera, sound equipment, and fly back to my home town of Philadelphia and begin shooting the documentary I have always wanted to create. I chose the latter without hesitation. I made a lot of calls to friends- to see who knew who in this world of veterans and non-profits (the experts) who help them- and I began an amazing journey into learning more.

The film is still being made- I hope to finish the last leg of filming by February or March 2012.  Then the editing will begin.

How has this film changed your perspective of veterans and the military?

I have always had the utmost respect for those who served our country. My maternal grandfather served in WWI, in Italy, he was part of the “Raggazzi dei ’99”- The Boys of ’99.  In 1917, the Italian government sent boys who were born in 1899 to the battlefield on the front lines at Monte Grappa and the Piave.  Ernest Hemingway, a young American Red Cross volunteer, witnessed these battles and wrote about it.

My grandfather spoke about the war in his later years.

My three uncles, my mother’s brothers, served in either the Army or Navy.  My uncle Jimmy made a lifelong career in the Army as a member of the prestigious Army Band.

 

Were there any stories in particular that impacted you in a special way?

This film has very much been a personal journey ~ taking one baby step at a time into a world that held many unknowns. One great learning experience for me happened with Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran, and author of the book Born on the Fourth of July. I had managed to find Ron online and we began emailing about the documentary. He and I ventured into an amazing dialogue over the next few weeks about Vietnam, his hometown, the sixties, his movie with Tom Cruise, and of course, his own return home.

During this time, we had set up a tentative date to film an interview with him for the doc. Friendlier, yet terribly profound conversations by phone continued for another couple weeks until it was time to finalize the interview date and time. That’s when I received an email from him saying that he wouldn’t be able to do the interview after all. Needless to say, I was extremely confused and disappointed. I lost sleep over it. I gave it a few days before I wrote him back an email explaining my confusion, but also how valuable his voice would be to this film.  And how so many young, returning vets could learn from his experience- given the current two wars, and how the same issues have continued since Vietnam.

After a day or so, I received an email from Ron explaining why. Simply- it was his PTSD. He said that he rarely does interviews anymore, because frankly, the interviewer gets the story—they get what they need from him and then they pack up and go home – leaving him alone to put all those pieces of himself back together again that he unraveled for the interview – reliving that horrible past.

I got it. It was a shocking truth– which I never thought about, but was very real. It was one of those great learning experiences, and to see firsthand that kind of covert episode of PTSD before my own eyes.

I told Ron that I understood, and proposed that he not speak about his experiences in Vietnam but about HOPE. To give these young men and women returning home a different and positive way of looking at their world, despite the fact that they are forever changed, forever different. And I promised him that my assistant, Glenn, and I would not just leave him after the interview, that we would be more than honored to take him out to dinner and share some laughter. We did, and it was one of the most profound moments I had making this film.

A MIRACLE REUNION:

During the first months of shooting, I experienced a moment of documentary filmmaking magic that continues to compel me to make this film.  While visiting his mother at a nursing facility, my boom operator, Mike Molettiere, mentioned to the staff that he was working on Jane and Johnny.  A woman overheard him and said that her brother had been homeless for over seven years, but she did not know if he was even still alive. She thought he might be somewhere in the Philadelphia area. Mike told me about her story, gave me his name, I contacted the local VA, but no one had heard of him.

About six weeks or so passed, and one of my contacts in Philadelphia, Sam Santiago, an outreach worker at Project H.O.M.E. who I was shadowing for a few days, connected me with a local homeless vet who was willing to speak to me on camera.

He was only introduced to me as Robert by Sam.  He had lived on the streets for years, he was a Vietnam era Veteran, and had a visible back injury- he remained in a hunched over position.  After the interview ended, I asked him to sign the standard release form, which he agreed to do.  His hands were crippled by frostbite so I offered to print his name for him on the top of the form.  I asked him if he would spell his last name for me, and after I wrote it down I stared at the name for a moment, and a sudden rush filled my being— I realized we just found the missing brother!

I shouted to Mike and Robert began to cry- I turned the camera back on—and we were witnesses to a true Miracle.  I called Robert’s sister when we returned to Sam’s van, and told her the unbelievable news.  To give that gift to someone- a total stranger- was life changing for me- and it happened because of this documentary.

That night I interviewed Robert’s two sisters and got the back-story on their family and the pain they had all suffered over the years. The following morning, we re-united Robert and his two sisters at his “spot” in downtown Philadelphia – three days before Christmas. Robert’s story is just one of many profoundly moving experiences in this film.

In researching and making the film have you found any common threads contributing to the growing homeless veteran crisis?

There is no transition in place within the military training system to help soldiers return to civilian life. In addition, there is the added stigma attached to being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress within the ranks that compounds the problem of being properly helped.

Many Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans are homeless, but are not necessarily visible on the streets, many have that feeling of being lost and alone-  that inner, emotional homelessness, then they find themselves coach surfing- going from one friend’s place to another, and many find themselves eventually living in their cars due to complications upon returning home.

It’s time to give back, and that is what I intend to do in creating this film.

We are all responsible for helping those who have fought the wars, no matter how we feel about war. Those warriors are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. They are a part of each of us—we are one. When one of us dies in the name of Freedom, so we can all live Free, we ALL need to give pause and honor them. When one of those warriors returns home changed forever, physically, emotionally or psychologically, it is our duty, our responsibility as Americans, to come to their aide with compassion, understanding, and hope for a better life.

It is my hope, through making this film, to inspire a nation to care, to generate real compassion, and perhaps create a movement towards profound healing and understanding.

We noticed a number of celebrity spokesman in your promo for the documentary. Was it difficult to find celebrities and spokespeople for the cause?

Believe it or not, no- I believe after they speak with me and they discover my motivation and where my heart is and the extent of my commitment to making a difference-  they admire the effort and agree to share their Voice on the film.  It’s about the Veteran and their family- that’s why people have been so incredibly supportive on this project.

I am still trying to reach out to a few very important ex-military people and remain hopeful they will agree to be a part of this film.

Has it been hard to find homeless veterans willing to speak about the challenges and problems they face?

Yes and no.  I have never just gone out on the street and turned on a camera.  I have always been with a non-profit organization that is doing outreach on the streets.  They are the ones helping the homeless by giving them clothing, water, food, trying to get them into shelters, or into rehabilitation programs.  They are the experts and know who and where these folks are in the city, and have established relationships with them over a long period of time.  The outreach workers I’ve been with both in Philadelphia and Los Angeles are the ones who have paved the way for me to meet those Veterans on the street who agreed to be in the film.

Trust is the most important thing for me to build with any person who agrees to talk on camera. Before filming, I speak to each person, at some length, usually by phone. My goal is to bring their message to a wider audience in order to raise awareness and affect change, thereby bringing compassion, understanding and hope to our veterans and their families. By the end of the conversation, I think they’re confident that I am their devoted advocate.

When shooting, I use a very small crew, usually just two people: me and one other person. In addition to directing, I operate the camera. I always keep the shoots intimate because it is less intimating for the person being interviewed.  It’s hard enough for vets and their families to share their story on camera, so the fewer people around the better.

What message do you hope people take away from the film?

Americans tout, ‘Support Our Troops’, but when it really counts there isn’t much being done after the return home to help the veteran ~ except by the non-profit, veteran organizations, who must also fight a battle every year to raise the necessary funds in order to survive.

What happened to our consciousness as a nation when we ignore those living on the streets, as well as those whose lives have been significantly altered physically, mentally and emotionally so we might live free?

We need to wake up and step up to do something positive, to share in the responsibility as Americans, and to help create a real difference in the lives of those who gave us so much. They put their lives on the line for us despite the rhetoric and politics.

It’s time to give back. It is my hope, through the making of this film, to inspire a nation to care, to generate real compassion, and perhaps create a movement towards profound Healing and understanding.

Today, many soldiers are returning home only to find themselves “lost in America – out of uniform, and out of sight,” to borrow a phrase from my good friend, Shad Meshad, who appears in this film, and is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation in Los Angeles. The OIF/OEF Veterans are finding themselves invisible in a nation struggling in this recession.

We, Americans, need to wake up and step up. It is our responsibility to do something positive, to create a real difference in the lives of those who gave us so much.  I believe it is our duty to come to their aide with compassion, understanding, and hope for a better life.

It is my hope, through making this film, to inspire a nation to care, to generate real compassion, and perhaps create a movement towards profound healing and understanding.

There is tremendous power in documentary film in that it has the ability to change a collective viewpoint. The visceral emotion we feel as we watch and become affected by a film can have a profound effect within the very cells of our body and, on many levels, can motivate us to create an entire movement toward healing.

In her book Trauma and Recovery, psychiatrist Judith Herman writes, “the interpretation of what seems to be a cathartic experience for the participant can also be seen as a means to initiate a collective working through trauma within the audience. Since we have gone through the act of listening, we too can function as a witness.”

And if we bear witness together, we can heal together.

With Jane & Johnny my purpose is to do just that – to wake up a nation from its apathy and to move people to take some form of responsibility to help those who have sacrificed so much for all of us.

Giving veterans and their families a voice on camera is not only incredibly powerful and moving to witness, but it is also deeply empowering to the interview subject. For the first time, they find validation of their feelings and experiences through the act of telling their stories on camera. Those veterans and family members I have interviewed on camera have expressed great appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity to experience a personal catharsis, which is at the very least a relief for them, and sometimes a start towards healing.

This film also provides veterans and their families a glimmer of hope evident in the testimonies and experiences of many veterans who have made it through to the other side of their pain and suffering. By providing witness to stories like Ron Kovic’s, this film will send a message of hope to veterans struggling with the ravages of war.

The interviews in Jane & Johnny provide the viewer with moments of raw candor and emotion – depicting the rollercoaster ride of the human journey and the broken spirit we all have experienced in life. It is because of the experiences that come out of the “dark places,” as Ron Kovic puts it, that we find ourselves challenged to find the light of hope and beauty.

How can the American public get involved and make a difference when it comes to ending veteran homelessness?

Volunteer- pure and simple.  Give your time to those organizations around the country that provide help, goods, and services to Veterans.  Call your local VFW or any other Veteran group in your area, and ask if they are sponsoring something.  If you can, support the non-profit organizations that are in need of funds to stay alive, which are actively helping all veterans, both those who are on the street and those who are invisible, suffering in silence within their families.

I hear many people say, well how do you know if someone who is homeless and holding up a sign claiming to be a Veteran is truly a Vet?  You don’t.  But you can bet on the stats that state that 1/3 of them are indeed Veterans, so be that good Samaritan and help your fellow human being-whether it’s by giving them a sandwich, a bottle of water, or just a smile and a hello.

It’s about doing more- going beyond the catch phrase of “Support our Troops”- it’s about giving back.  If you can’t give money, then give your time in some small way.  It will make a difference.

How can Veteran Journal and our readers’ best help you with your work?

Since 2007, I have funded this entire project myself, spending over $200,000 of my own money.  Now, I must reach out and raise the rest of the money to complete the film.

I am asking for donations, which are tax-deductible.  The Center for Independent Documentary, in Sharon, MA, is the film’s non-profit, fiscal sponsor.  All donations go to them, and are deposited into the film’s account.

Tax-deductible donations can be made by credit card, through PayPal or by check.  Any donation would be greatly appreciated, and no donation is too small.

In addition to the deduction, everyone who donates will have their name appear in the film at the end credits, (if they choose), as a personal thank you for your support.

Donations can be made here: http://documentaries.org/cid-films/when-jane-johnny/

You can view the first promo for the film here:  http://jamontoastproductions.com/promo.html  A shorter trailer will be coming soon.

This film, in many ways, is a grass-roots movement to moving a nation towards understanding and having compassion for our Veterans.  And this film offers hope to those who are in need of Healing and real change through the Voices of those who have lived the same path and found a way to balance their lives.

To date, I’ve shot over 160 hours of film with veterans and family members located in California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Massachusetts. I have about 25 more film shoots to go in various locations around the country.  In December 2011, I am taking a leave of absence from my day job on Criminal Minds in order to continue and, hopefully, complete the filming stage for this documentary.

If you know a veteran who may be interested or may benefit from the information, please share the link to the film’s website: www.jamontoastproductions.com

If you’re a veteran, family member or non-profit organization, and would like to share your story, please contact me via email at: nina@jamontoastproductions.com

If I can, and funds allow, we might be able to get your story in this film.

You can also join us on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/When-Jane-Johnny-Come-Marching-Homeless/118167492759

Twitter: @NinaGilberti  http://twitter.com/#!/NinaGilberti and stay updated.

 

Photos Copyright 2011 Jam On Toast Productions, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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