Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a documentary I knew would be depressing and perhaps unveil truths regarding issues that I hadn’t acknowledged, but that still didn’t prepare me for the heartbreak I felt while watching the Oscar winning short for 2014. Nor did I expect the adrenaline rush that kept me anxious with anticipation for more than half the film. I didn’t realize until now I was either on the brink of tears or nervous about the outcome of the featured hotline phone calls.
Yes the documentary has viewers thinking, feeling, sympathizing with veterans who reach the crisis hotline with a literal cry for help, but what I think of during these intense conversations are the victims on the other side. One of the featured responders explains to the camera, “Talk to any Vietnam veteran. Their orders were to shoot anything that moves.” He then poses questions: can you imagine what that must be like? To get that order and try to fit in with your unit and shoot anything that moves, but then it’s a family? These veterans are in a pain we can’t imagine, but this is the first film I have seen that focuses on the guilt veterans experience during war/postwar, although it’s seen slightly in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty when innocent children are found in Osama bin Laden’s home and are surrounded by their family’s dead bodies. These phone calls made me think about those in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam who saw their loved ones killed. Who do they get to call for help? Is there anyone to soothe their vivid memories? The documentary invites us to think about the PTSD that may triumph veterans’ lives, but also the realities of the other side that often go unnoticed.
What’s most interesting about this short is the absence of a narrator or even filmmaker. Documentaries usually end with a call to action and in some cases have the creator in the lens, pointing the finger, telling you how they feel, what is wrong and what needs to change. Instead, the camera is floating either outside the hotline headquarters with the American flag waving in the wind or indoors where the counselors tell a one sided story by answering hotline phone calls where most of the conversations featured are not men who just want to talk but are about the end their life and need someone to convince them otherwise. This comes with a lack of talking heads, which I didn’t necessarily mind. The counselors seldom sit down in front of the camera and tell us how it feels to hold such responsibility. We see it as their eyes gloss over when they hang up the phone or when they rest their head in their hands and wait for another coworker to help them cope with the contagious sadness.
Like most documentaries, there’s a lot said here. Much more that only 40 minutes worth, but the positive thing about the length is it gives us the chance to infer what issues need to be recognized without being too redundant. And it’s clear the issues are not only regarding veterans who need mental assistance and stabilization, but also about war, youth, America, and what this country means to so many people, especially those who have served in the military. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with a message, but creates many and injects us with compassion by the only visible people in the documentary: the counselors. Their occupations and entire beings reveal a humbleness and quiet emotion which contraries the film’s loud truths.