Claudia Myers (Kettle of Fish) is a producer/writer/director and an associate professor in the Film and Media Arts Division of the School of Communication at American University. Her latest feature film Fort Bliss (2014) chronicles the story of a female army medic who returns from her tour of duty and struggles to reconnect with her son. The film touches upon issues of managing work and family, PTSD and sexual assault. CMSI sat down with Professor Myers to discuss the film and its social impact since its release last year. Professor Myers also shared with CMSI a case study of the film’s impact and reach thus far.
What was your inspiration for the film?
While working on an Army training film back in 2007, I met an infantry sergeant who was a single dad and had deployed twice to Iraq. I remember asking him what he did with his son while he was deployed and he told me he had to leave him with his neighbors because the mother wasn’t in the picture. I had never thought about that side of the war – the impact of these deployments on the family and what it must be like for a parent to leave their child for 15 months. As a mom myself, I was deeply affected by the idea of that kind of sacrifice. That was the seed of the film.
Do you have a personal connection to this subject matter?
While I don’t have a military background, I feel very connected to the story of the film. I can relate to the difficulty of balancing family and career in my own life and I’ve seen the effect that prolonged work-related absences can have on the family, and particularly the children. In a way, “Fort Bliss” is the ultimate working mother story.
In what ways, can fiction films be used to promote social change?
Fiction films play a crucial role in our society. They don’t just reflect our culture, they help to shape it. Fiction engages us emotionally and because of our identification with one or several characters in the story, it can open us to new perspectives in a visceral and unique way. A good dramatic story can pique our curiosity in something that might not otherwise been of interest, educate us, spark a dialogue and even move us to action.
Did you have a social impact strategy in mind before or while making the film?
I had several goals for the film. First, I wanted to raise public awareness about women in the military. The female combat experience is rarely the focus in mainstream movies and I had never seen a story about a woman trying to balance being a soldier and being a parent. It’s an aspect of the military most people don’t know much about.
Given the reality that less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, I also hoped the film could help to bridge the so-called “civilian-military divide” by engaging a general audience on an emotional level. Viewers who don’t relate to the main character as a soldier will still connect with her as a mother torn between the demands of career and family since this is a tension felt by many working parents.
Finally, “Fort Bliss” calls attention to the unique challenges our soldiers face as they readjust to civilian life (PTSD, survivor’s guilt, repercussions of military sexual assault). It also highlights the fact that the stress of deployment affects the whole family and can impact children in particular. Many scenarios in the film are based on conversations I had with returning soldiers. Rather than provide answers to complex problems, the film seeks to spark discussion about better ways to cope and provide support for veterans and their families.
What results have you seen so far?
Fort Bliss has raised awareness about issues of importance to the public.
The film has been mentioned in more than 50 articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines such as the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Variety, The Huffington Post, TheVillage Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Army Times to name a few. In addition to many positive critical reviews, I have been gratified to receive several moving testimonials from both veteran and civilian audience members, who shared how the film either gave them a new perspective, or validated their personal experience in a way other military films had not.
I have given talks and/or held screenings of Fort Bliss at several universities including the Sorbonne in Paris, Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism (both in Chicago and Washington DC), American University School of Communication, with future screenings planned at The University of Southern California, Virginia Commonwealth University, and New Mexico State University. I am also scheduled to speak about the film at several upcoming conferences including 2015 London Screenwriters Festival, The 2015 University Film & Video Association Conference (DC), The 2015 Screenwriting Research & Network Conference (London) and the 2015 CILECT Conference (Munich).
Fort Bliss is a feature-length, military-themed film. It tells the story of a U.S. Army medic and single mother (Michelle Monaghan) who returns from an extended deployment in Afghanistan to find she must now rebuild her relationship with her five-year-old son. When news of another deployment threatens the fragile balance she has achieved, she is forced her to choose between her role as a mother and her obligations as a soldier.
Fort Bliss is an outgrowth of my experience over several years making documentary films about soldiers and veterans. While researching these projects, I was struck by the number of single parents I encountered, and the immense personal burden they carried to war. I became interested in the experience of female soldiers who are also mothers and how they must reconcile the demands of two very different worlds. Fort Bliss is also timely. 2.5 million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and of those 1 million have been on multiple deployments. Yet for many Americans, these wars seem abstract and remote. It is my hope the movie will create greater awareness of the unique challenges our soldiers face as they readjust to civilian life, and particularly how the stress of deployment affects the whole family.
The film takes a look at the complex reality of the military post-deployment experience, and does so from a woman’s point of view, a perspective rarely seen in the mainstream media. The U.S. Army chose to support the film because it felt it presented a balanced, realistic portrait and highlighted several important issues within the military community:
- Soldier reintegration
- Post-Traumatic Stress
- Survivor’s Guilt
- Sexual Assault
- Toll of deployment on the family
- Impact of deployment on children
- Needed enhancements in the legal rights of deployed service members
As a filmmaker, I believe Fort Bliss can impact an audience in several ways:
- Inspire, educate & spark discussion by the American public concerning the modern challenges of our all-voluntary military and their families;
- Shine a light on our military’s strength and enduring spirit of service to the nation;
- Raise cultural awareness in the general public of the unique challenges our soldiers face as they readjust to civilian life and how the stress of deployment impacts the whole family;
- Engage the audience on an emotional level to help bridge the civilian-military divide, as the audience can relate to the conflict felt by a mother torn between demands of career and family; and
- Encourage a frank dialogue on problems affecting veterans like post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and military sexual assault.
In addition to the general public, Fort Bliss targeted:
- Military families, women soldiers, and veterans
- Advocates for policy change and policymakers
- Social Workers
- Childcare Providers
- Civilian Medical Providers
- Business Leaders
- Family Support Groups
Fort Bliss received U.S. Army support during production. This meant approval to use Army locations and experts to give a level of authenticity that was essential to the film. After a lengthy approval process that went all the way up to the Department of Defense, we secured U.S. Army support for the film, granting the use of Army locations, vehicles, and some personnel. The film was shot over 21 days in the Los Angeles area and at the actual Fort Bliss, Texas. To create a sense of authenticity, dozens of soldiers and veterans participated in the film as advisors and extras. Michelle Monaghan spent time with several female soldiers and did an abbreviated medic training course in preparation for her role.
Key partners included:
- U.S. Army which helped with the production by providing the use of Army locations and personnel
- Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) — assistend with outreach and promotion
- Veterans in Film and Television – co-sponsored LA premiere
- Easter Seals – co-sponsored LA premiere
- Women in Military Service for America Memorial – hosted DC premiere
- National Military Family Association – helped with outreach
- Joining Forces – Lt. Col Parker introduced panel discussion following DC premiere
- DC Film Office, facilitated outreach to additional veterans groups
- Business and Professional Women’s Foundation – helped with outreach and promotion
Fort Bliss was financed independently, using private equity investors. This enabled me to maintain full creative control through production and post-production.
This film had its theatrical release in September 2014 on a day-and-date model, which made the film simultaneously available on demand. This was followed by a DVD release in October 2014.
Fort Bliss is currently available on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and iTunes.
Evidence of Quality
Fort Bliss has earned several awards and special recognition:
- Champs Elysees Film Festival (Paris) – Audience Award Best Independent Film
- Newport Beach Film Festival – Festival Honors for Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking
- GI Film Festival – Best Narrative Feature
- San Diego Film Festival – Excellence in Acting Award to Michelle Monaghan Variety andDeadline put Michelle Monaghan on a short list for best leading actresses worthy of Academy Award consideration for her role in the film
- Television Internet & Video Association (TIVA) Best of DC Award and Best Independent Feature Award
- Film critics from The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer included Fort Bliss among the best features of 2014.
- Independent Magazine: “10 Filmmakers to watch in 2015: Claudia Myers”
Fort Bliss has reached a wide audience through theatre screenings, DVD sales, and VOD including:
- Sold in the U.S. and over a dozen foreign countries including all of Latin America;
- Screened in 6 international film festivals and has had 7 community/university screenings, with two more scheduled for the fall.
- Premiered on the American Forces Network which provides service in 177 countries and U.S. territories, and on board U.S. Navy ships, including most overseas military bases and Operation Enduring Freedom locations;
- Over 109,000 viewings on Netflix with an average rating of 3.8 out of 4 stars;
- Close to 40,000 VOD transactions;
- 41,000 DVDs sold;
- Reviewed or featured in numerous articles including:
- Independent Magazine, “Ten Filmmakers to Watch in 2015: Claudia Myers” (May 1, 2015)
- Slate article by Dee Lockett, David Haglund, June Thomas, Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, and Forrest Wickman, “Best Movies and TV Shows Coming to Netflix in January (December 29, 2014);
- Huffington Post article by Rebecca Abrahams “Fort Bliss: Remembering Families” (November 11, 2014);
- Philadelphia Inquirer article by Stephen Rea “Fort Bliss: Michelle Monaghan Shines as Troubled Medic” (October 17, 2014);
- Washington Post article by Ann Hornaday “Fort Bliss is a Favorite with Military Audiences Deserving of Wider Success” (September 26, 2014);
- Hollywood Reporter article by Scott Feinberg “Can True Detective Star Michelle Monaghan Land an Oscar Nom for Fort Bliss” (September 21, 2014); and
- LA Times article by Martin Tsai “Fort Bliss a Taut Character Study of Female Soldier in Crisis” (September 18, 2014).
- June 2015 Wounded Warrior Project hosts screening and panel discussion
- April 2015 Healing Combat Trauma featured film on its Facebook Page
- April 2015 Mindful Warrior Project hosts screening and panel discussion
- March 2015 Women’s History Month at American University – screening and panel discussion about women veterans co-hosted by the School of Communication and the School for International Service.
- April 2014 National Military Family Association Leadership Luncheon Conference includes Claudia Myers as one of its guest speakers on panel about perceptions of women veterans;
- 2014 Women Veterans Career Development Forum with guest speaker Michelle Obama highlighted Fort Bliss and included DVDs of the film donated for a raffle.
- October 2014 National Women’s Memorial panel discussion moderated by Major General Donna Barbisch featuring writer/director Claudia Myers, producers John and Adam Silver and cast members Michelle Monaghan, Pablo Schreiber, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Gbenga Akinnagbe;
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a surprise appearance at one of the DC theatrical screening of Fort Bliss within the first week of its release.
In October 2014, Congressman Alcee Hastings wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlining the importance and relevance of Fort Bliss:
“This is the right film at the right time to help bridge the military-civilian divide and provide all viewers with fresh insight into the complex and emotionally charged issues related to service […] Fort Bliss can play a greater role in making sure that our nation’s service members have the support that they need and deserve.”
Michelle Monaghan has made a number of appearances supporting Fort Bliss including:
- As part of the White House Correspondents’ Weekend, Michelle Monaghan participated in a panel about veterans’ issues and their portrayal in the media hosted by Atlantic Monthly and The National Journal (April 25, 2015)
- Appearance on CNN on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” (September 26, 2014);
- Appearance on CBS News interviewed by Lauren Moraski (October 1, 2014); and
- Participation in the White House Correspondents Weekend Panel about veterans and their portrayal in the media.
Filmmaker Claudia Myers has discussed Fort Bliss on radio and television shows including:
- NPR/”The Kojo Nnamdi Show (September 15, 2014);
- NPR/”The Weekend Edition” (September 13, 2014);
- WTOP/”Fraley on Film” (May 23, 2014); and
- DC Film Office/”Reel Talk” (May 19, 2014)