Havana Times, April 25 – The title of Poster Girl suggests a story – true or fictitious – about one of those lovely girls (her loveliness almost always enhanced a bit by the computer) that we see on magazine covers, showing off their ideal faces and bodies so beyond our reach.
But that’s not the theme of the US documentary Poster Girl, directed by Sarah Nesson, that was shown earlier in the month in Havana as part of the “Closing Distances” section of the 11th Young Filmmakers festival.
In 38 minutes, the film tells the story of Robynn, a 19-year-old North American, ex-cheerleader, winner of an academic honorable mention upon finishing high school, who decides to join the army because “this is a tradition in my family…the military is made up of respectable people who sacrifice themselves for their country…”
Robynn receives the full military training, studies the manual that she is issued and leaves for Iraq with a romantic conception of the war. In the film, she shows us photos in which she appears showing off her uniform with pride; she tells us that she liked to keep her boots polished.
She appears in another photo sitting on her mother’s lap while she waits for the plane that will take her to Iraq; the camera captures the maternal pride. These and other photos are practically the only opportunities that we’ll have to see Robynn happy and healthy throughout the entire documentary.
The story that is central to this documentary is the one that begins when Robynn returns from the war. She has had to turn her gun on civilians, children, and defenseless women. The worst is that at the time it seemed natural to her, she couldn’t allow herself to do anything else.
Don’t be sensitive, they were taught. She even had to be capable of laughing at her victims. But even her mother doesn’t know a lot about the things that Robynn had to see and do; we, as spectators, perceive them in her silences, her glazed looks into space, her fighting with the wall, more than in her words themselves.
Robynn is one of the many United States soldiers who suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, hysteria; reactions that are summarized in a term I find very ambiguous: “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder”. And I can almost say that she is lucky.
She returned alive and with all of her body parts intact. The back pain won’t keep her from walking. It wouldn’t even be so hard to take up her life again, if it weren’t for the shame, the fury she directs at herself, the hatred towards all those things in which she believed. “I’d like nothing more than to return to Iraq and beg forgiveness of those families for being their nightmare.”
Now, she looks at the cover of a magazine in which she appears (because Robynn has been, in fact,, a poster girl) and she is ashamed of that image that shows her in Iraq, with her uniform, together with other young women in the army, as propaganda for the war.
In order to receive some compensation for the damage she suffered as a result of the conflict, she must be seen by psychologists who evaluate her from their comfortable desks, people who will never see the war except on their movie or television screens, and who ask her about her suicidal or homicidal ideas in the same tone that you would use for some trivial question.
And she must go through with this, and then send the documents with their detailed diagnoses, again and again.
But this story, in contrast with others about women and men who returned mutilated from some war, or who never returned, has an almost happy ending – or at least a hopeful one. Robynn, together with other war veterans, finds an escape valve through art.
Those uniforms that they once wore with such pride are processed until there’s not a trace left of what they were and what they represented; the manuals are now utilized to denounce the war.
At the end of the documentary, Robynn and her friends exhibit their works in a gallery, and explain them to the public and journalists present. Robynn looks relaxed and almost happy, she allows herself even to joke with those present.
With the final credits, we learn that she has cashed her first disability check.
Many things could have come to my mind while I looked at the credits. For example, that in war there are only losers; or perhaps I could have thought about the saving graces of art.
But the first thing that crossed my mind was a question: Who will recompense the Iraqis?
Robynn has the good luck of looking back and repenting, of imagining a hypothetical return to Iraq to ask pardon of the families, for whom the war has been an enormous nightmare. That means that she’s alive. They, the Iraqis, in the best possible scenario, at this moment are being terrified by another soldier who will become their new nightmare.
And I say “best scenario” because it would at least mean that they haven’t been massacred yet, that they haven’t yet perished in a bombing raid.
I don’t doubt that Robynn is a victim; that she deserves to be forgiven and to forgive herself for what she did; that she deserves to begin her life anew and be able to achieve some level of happiness in this world.
But I can’t avoid thinking that she joined the army voluntarily. She had a choice and she chose the war. The people of Iraq didn’t get any such choice.