When Stanford anesthesiologist Audrey Shafer, MD, welcomed attendees to a screening of "The Camouflage Closet" on campus recently, she noted the artistic accomplishments and service work of the film's director, Michael Nedelman. (And also mentioned he was "a Stanford medical student in his spare time.") Nedelman, who will be entering his third year here, conducted a project with nine LGBT veterans, all patients at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, exploring their experiences of trauma and recovery.
Nedelman and his collaborators engaged in a community-based participatory method of film-making, allowing participants to tell their stories through art as a path toward empowerment. The participants were provided with cameras to document their stories; they also had a say in the editing process. And while the project was neither officially sanctioned research nor therapy, many of the participants found the process therapeutic. Christine Stout-Holmes said this in the film about sharing her story:
It's healing. It makes me feel like, "Hey, I don't have to be agoraphobic." "Hey, I don't have to isolate."
Of course, I feel fists beating me on my back, but I know that that's not now. And I know that what I'm doing now is going to benefit clinicians, and vets, and hopefully artists, and young girls to know that every story is important.
Since the film's premiere last June, it has screened at the National Queer Arts Festival, the 31st annual Gay and Lesbian Medical Association conference, and at universities, film festivals and VA hospitals across the U.S. and in Mexico.
Below, Nedelman answers questions about his work.
You have a BA in film studies from Yale. How did you decide to attend med school, and have your interests in art and medicine always intersected?
It took me a while to understand exactly how my interests in art and medicine intersected, but it turned out they had a common ancestor in my love of story.
A few years out of college, I was working at Mount Sinai in New York City on both clinical research and documentary film studies. Whether or not there was a camera in the room, I loved hearing people’s stories, and turning those stories into something meaningful. But in a medical context, I also saw the opportunity to get involved in these stories - to reach past the lens and make a tangible difference.
Combining the two wasn’t really a new concept, though. My first major work in college was a photography project addressing preventable blindness in South India. As with "The Camouflage Closet," I loaned out cameras to rural vision clinic patients who were able to document their restored sight through images that were important to them. But I had no idea that hyphenating doctor-filmmaker was even an option until I discovered, and later met with, filmmakers like Maren Grainger-Monsen, MD, and Gretchen Berland, MD. Something clicked when I figured out that patient care and digital media could go hand-in-hand.
What are some of the issues faced by this population that you're most interested in exploring through storytelling?
Some of the issues I found most compelling are not just the unique challenges faced by some individuals (e.g. witch hunts of the pre-DADT - "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - era, increased rates of military sexual trauma, barriers to accessing care), but also the creativity and strength that come from their recovery narratives. Alongside some of the heavier moments in the film, there’s some humor, too. I think I personally learned a lot from the veterans’ resilience, and how their pride - for being LGBT, and for being veterans - factors into their personal growth.
What do you hope viewers will take away from your film?
I hope viewers will come out of the film with a desire to learn more about the unique challenges, types of trauma, and sources of resilience among a previously silenced community. I think there’s a lot to identify with in the film, whether or not you identify as LGBT or a veteran, and there’s a lot to be said for turning empathy into action. This is partly why we also created an accompanying educational resource that summarizes previous research, evidence-based suggestions for culturally relevant care, and resources for clinicians and veterans.
The veterans were excited that clinicians and providers would see and learn from their work. But at the end of the day, I wonder if some of them might have answered this question a little differently. Something we often heard among the vets was, “Even if just one other veteran out there sees this and knows they aren’t alone, we’ve accomplished what we came here to do.”
Previously: Documentary on LGBT veterans’ PTSD, trauma and recovery premieres tomorrow and Photography and storytelling may help poor women with HIV cope with their illness
Film still from "The Camoflauge Closet" courtesy of Michael Nedelman