Student film, ‘Mensch,’ challenges the perceptions of mental health on the silver screen

Chris Peck

The Yiddish word “mensch”  is often used to describe those in the armed forces for their integrity and honor. Several UT graduate students are trying to show that for some soldiers, the war continues long after they have left the battlefield.

“Mensch” is a short film directed by Derek Allison, a radio-television-film senior, that focuses on James, a former soldier. After serving in Iraq, James develops post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Allison was inspired to make the film four years ago when one of his close friends, Jimmy, was diagnosed with PTSD after returning from Iraq. Allison said Jimmy and other veterans felt their experiences with PTSD had never been portrayed accurately on screen before.

“A lot of films that have covered PTSD in the past have dealt more with external (appearances),” Allison said. “Our film is going to go more into the mind and allow the audience, for all of 12-plus minutes, to feel anxious and feel stressed as though they are actually part of this character.”

Allison is trying to do away with the tired stereotype of what others think people with PTSD are like.

“This is just a regular everyday guy who happens to have this disorder,” said Kyle Krogan, who plays James in the film. “He is a guy who is trying to have all his stuff together, keep his head straight, but is just sort of falling apart on the inside.”

Krogan said he was initially nervous about playing a character based off of someone so close to the director, but said it helped him shape his understanding of the film’s character.

“While the character was written after (Jimmy), (our character) is a combination of a lot of the guys that we talked to,” Krogan said. “It just gives us more ideas on how to ground him in reality instead of trying to come up something out of thin air.”

Though it was orginally written as a drama featuring a linear series of flashbacks, the film’s producer and co-writer Holly Cook, a radio-television-film senior, said she wanted to intermix the past and the present throughout the film, turning it into something like a psychological thriller. 

“We went away from these flashbacks to ‘flashing-sideways’ as a way to show that they are reliving that experience and that it is a very present kind of emotion,” Cook said. 

The majority of the filming will be done here in Austin during spring break. The war scenes, however, will be shot at the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Los Angeles, where there is a pre-built Middle Eastern-style city that they will be renting.

“We really wanted to do the story justice by giving it the largest and most authentic production design as possible,” Cook said. “We couldn’t achieve that without going out to LA and shooting on a real set that had the correct architecture and the right sand.”

The use of expansive sets, complex visuals and practical effects is all adding up to an estimated budget of about $65,000. The students are raising money through their fiscal sponsor The Suiting Warriors Foundation, a charity that helps veterans reintegrate themselves into society. They are also funding the project through a Kickstarter campaign which has surpassed its goal and is set to end tomorrow. 

The filmmakers are looking to go further with “Mensch” by creating a film that actually means something to someone other than just the filmmakers themselves. 

“(Cook and I) are both firm believers that art can incite change,” Allison said. “And at the end of the day, I hope this is something they all can appreciate.”