Danfung Dennis’s “Hell and Back Again” will probably never be toppled as the definitive documentary about coming home from a warzone with PTSD. Jan Haaken’s “Mind Zone: Therapists Behind the Front Lines” makes an excellent companion piece but is not about coming back home. It’s about the system in place to treat soldiers and send them back to the battlefield. I had the pleasure of reviewing Haaken’s latest documentary “Milk Men: Life and Times of Dairy Farmers” and with this she seems to be building a strong oeuvre tackling the present state of America.
While “Milk Men” dealt with the struggle of the American dairy farmer as they face down possible extinction, “Mind Zone” deals with the psychological toll the endless wars of the last 15 years have taken on young American men and women. It profiles the 113th Army Combat Stress Control detachment as they prepare to transition and take over the duty of counseling and assessing soldiers’ ability to return to the fight in Afghanistan. As suicide has surpassed combat fatality as the leading cause of death of US soldiers, these specialists’ role is more essential than ever.
Like Milk Men, Mind Zone is apolitical. As the former doesn’t tackle the complexities that destroyed the middle American farming economy, the latter doesn’t address the lies that led the country to war. It is simply an objective account that shows people in an unbelievably stressful situation trying to hold other people together. It details the history of how the military has dealt with mental trauma and how hard it has worked to de-stigmatize it. We see how they try to tiptoe a line of performance vs. stress. The US Military knows that a certain level of stress increases performance in their soldiers, but once these men and women are pushed past the breaking point, they need real help to bring them back. They call this “riding the crest”.
Caleb Heymann, who handled cinematography duties on Milk Men as well, does tremendous work here. Haaken and Heymann are deftly able to document people who must have their guard up at all times without ever losing trust. “Mind Zone” documents therapy sessions and the incoming unit as they talk about their own fears and insecurities. An IED training session quickly reminds them of all the shapes and sizes danger can come in.
“Mind Zone” clocks in at a brief 51 minutes so it exists in that nebulous zone between short and feature (“Milk Men” was a perfect 76 mins). With such unbelievable access, and intriguing subjects, it’s unfortunate Haaken doesn’t turn in a lengthier effort. She brings her psychology background (a natural attribute for a documentary filmmaker) and again proves to be a powerful and singularly American voice.