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Friday
Aug162019

FROM SHOCK TO AWE

Featuring: Matt Kahl, Mike Cooley, Aimee Stahl and Brooke Cooley.
Directors: Luc Côté.
Content Producer: Janine Sagert.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The heartbreaking journey through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that many veterans undertake upon their return from combat zones rarely ends on the kind of high note that director Luc Côté offers in From Shock to Awe. As detailed in this alternative-treatment advocacy documentary, more US ex-servicemen and women have died by their own hands back home than on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Returning to feature-length factual filmmaking for the first time since 2010’s Four Days Inside Guatanamo, Côté’s latest offers both insight and answers into a different aspect of military life. The struggle to live with PTSD, to deal with horrific memories and the unfamiliarity of a life that was once familiar, has torn apart generations of soldiers. The production presents this hardship through two struggling heroes - Matt Kahl, an Afghanistan vet having served in the 101st Airborne from 2007-2011; and, MP Mike Cooley (pictured, top), deployed once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq.

The first act punches hard in its depiction of the wide-reaching impact of PTSD. These are broken men, their families and communities alien to them. Côté uses both real-time and archive footage to show the shells of their former selves that Kahl and Cooley have become. The ability of respective wives Aimee Kahl and Brooke Cooley (herself a returned veteran with trauma issues) to deal with the psychological disintegration of their husbands for nearing breaking point.

The production follows the men to a wooded retreat, where they endeavor to purge their psyches of despair by injesting the psychoactive brew Ayahuasca. A banned substance in the US, it combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with plants containing the compound DMT (dimethyltriptamine) to produce a powerful visionary and healing experience. (Pictured, below; Matt and Aimee Kahl)

Scenes of the men under the influence of Ayahuasca are truly revelatory, their emotional and spiritual healing unfolding in real time for Côté’s lens (and, no, there are no Yellow Submarine-style sequences to overstate the experience). Even more remarkable is the footage of the men several months after the Ayahuasca session. They are transformed, their healing allowing for human connection, ambition and clarity of emotion.

Of course, the treatment makes them criminals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to legalize psychotropic drugs for treatment of PTSD in any form. From Shock to Awe allows the recuperative experiences of the men do the hard selling of the film’s message, but the message is clear – soldiers are dying at home and non-traditional treatment can ease the nation’s pain, but bureaucratic governance remains immoveable.

The newfound positivity in the lives of the two men in the wake of the Ayahuasca treatment (and, for Brooke Cooley, therapy under the influence of the similarly-blacklisted MDMA drug) wraps up their story in what could be the feel good film denouement of the year. But the sadness that now haunts them is that so many of their combat brothers and sisters (many of them federal employees and subject to workplace drug testing) live burdened with PTSD, while a treatment exists that could ease their suffering.

 

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