Documentary exploring journalist’s struggles with trauma to have Canadian premiere at Reel HeART Film Fest

Mike Walter

Mike WaltersI never set out to be a filmmaker.   But then again, I never thought my morning commute could be transformed into a war zone in the blink of an eye.  It happened on a beautiful day.  The sky was gloriously blue, and the air was cool and crisp.  The morning began like so many others here in Washington, DC.  It started with the frustration of trying to navigate rush hour traffic, all the while looking at the clock and knowing that I was going to be late for work.  That was typical, but what was happening on the radio was anything but.  A plane had hit the World Trade Center, then a short while later another plane had struck the South Tower.  I wanted to get into work; I wanted to get on this story.  I was the senior correspondent at USA TODAY LIVE.  I had no doubt that if I could get into work, I would be on my way to New York.  I was sadly mistaken.  For the moment, I was stuck in traffic and frustrated.  That’s when I heard the plane. I looked up and saw it bank. Suddenly it straightened, accelerated and began that fateful dive. That moment in time would change the direction of my life.

Earlier this year I heard my boss recite what’s being read out in newsrooms all across the United States.  It’s a script that goes something like this: “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”  I had been the morning anchor at the CBS station in Washington for close to six years, but I was about to be unemployed,  a casualty of the economic downturn.  The station was going to a solo anchor in the morning, and I was the odd man out.  The timing for my discharge was perfect. I had just finished a documentary short about how my life changed on September 11, 2001. Now it was time to nourish it and to usher it out into the world.  It’s a deeply personal story exploring how that day left me battered psychologically.

Breaking News, Breaking Down premiered to a packed house in Washington in April. Extra chairs were brought into the theater, and people sat in the aisles between the rows of seats. The Q&A after the screening left me thinking about a silent epidemic out there. There are lots of people touched by trauma, and many of them grappling with PTSD.  These psychological wounds are not visible to the naked eye and most people dealing with these wounds don’t want to acknowledge them.  This film gives them permission. There were fellow journalists in the audience. But there was also the paramedic who talked about the images that remained with him long after he left gruesome accident scenes. There was the Iraq war vet who had done three tours of duty who told me that soldiers are in one bubble, paramedics in another, and journalists are in a third.  We all do different jobs he said, but trauma connects all the bubbles. There was the old man who told me about his time as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, carrying with him terrifying memories that refuse to leave. The film gave all three of these men permission to talk.  It also gave the woman in one of the front rows a chance to tell her story.  She was inside the Pentagon trying to get out after the attack.  

In May, I took the film to Australia where it was screened at a conference attended by some of the most influential journalists in the country. They were in Canberra to talk about the psychological toll of covering the worst bush fire disaster in the history of the country.  When the screening was over and the lights came up, there was thunderous applause. I knew that I had struck a nerve.

At another Australian screening,  a woman who looked to be in her late 40’s or early 50’s, thanked me for making the film, and said that it should be mandatory viewing. At just 21 years old, she was sent to Lebanon by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Naturally she was excited at getting an overseas assignment at such a young age. She hadn’t figured that at one point during her stay, she would be on the ground clutching her sound man as he died in her arms. After the Q&A session, she told me privately that she didn’t want to go into greater detail in front of the audience. She recounted how, as she clutched the man’s body, she realized that half of it had been blown away. He had drifted in and out of consciousness before he died.  Those images have never drifted; they are seared in her memory forever.

Documentary shorts aren’t usually considered the show stoppers at film festivals. They are the little films. But I know that my film has attracted people impacted by trauma and I know that it’s therapeutic in some way. It’s a film that gives viewers permission to talk about the unspeakable.

Breaking News, Breaking Down will be screened at the Reel
HeART International Film Festival on Wednesday, June 24
th, 9:15 pm,
Theater 222, Innis College, 2 Sussex Street, University of Toronto Campus,
Toronto, M5S 1J5 (1 block south of St. George Subway).  Check out
Reel HeART’s website for more info and ticketsAnd listen to Mike’s June 6 interview with ABC Radio Perth.