Documentary Review: Traumatized vets seek inner peace via alternative medicine in “From Shock to Awe”

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The statistics are shocking.

In the decades of commitment to the “War on Terror,” millions have served, and a whopping twenty percent of those who have say they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the experience.

Twenty-two veterans a day kill themselves.

One image in the new documentary “From Shock to Awe” sums this disaster up just a few seconds of screen time. Army veteran Matt Kahl shows us his double-sized bathroom medicine cabinet, stuffed to the gills with prescriptions.

“Everything in this cabinet right here almost killed me, multiple times,” he says. He’s attempted suicide, and of course, he’s not alone. The horrors of what many lived through and witnessed is devouring a generation of patriotic young men and women who volunteered for service.

What can be done for them? Because whatever the VA and the medical/pharmaceutical establishment are trying is failing.

As a piece of advocacy filmmaking and movie rhetoric, “From Shock to Awe” takes its sweet time getting to its “solution step,” which we’ve seen teased in the opening scene. Bearded, tattooed veterans gather around a fire pit, being served “the medicine” and wished a pleasant “journey” by a top-knotted shaman, or priest and drug-trip tour guide.

The answer for many of these men, apparently, is the Amazonian herbal tea mental and digestive purgative known as Ayahuasca.

“Shock to Awe” takes us into the shaky lives of Matt and Aimee (his wife) Kahl, the flashbacks (illustrated with combat footage of Matt and others), and Michael and Brooke Cooley (both traumatized veterans), Coloradans struggling to get back to square one years after their tours of duty ended.

Michael lets filmmaker Luc Côté (“Four Days Inside Guantanemo”) ride with him to school at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and we hear the myriad things that trigger panic attacks in this former MP. Cities, with rooftops which he used to scan for snipers, traffic jams where any tailgater is a potential convoy ambush tend to freak him out.

Loud noises, flashes of light in the dark, the veterans here  — and the sample Luc Côté documented is VERY small — share triggers and after-effects, struggling to keep marriages and families together in the face of an illness that has almost killed them and is killing a score of their comrades in arms every day.

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All that changes when the PTSD victims travel to Orlando. It’s not the magic of a theme park they seek, but the faddish “miracle” enlightenment cure-all of the moment, administered in a safe space (out of doors) provided by Soul Quest, led by the top-knotted Ayuhuasca expert Chris Young.

“Feel the medicine,” Young, of the Ayuhuasca Church of the Mother Earth, counsels. You will feel “connected to everything,” he says, coaching them and basically providing the language they will use to describe their experiences later.

And in these two cases (Matt and Michael), the hallucinatory tea seems to work. You would hope, even in our seriously retrograde times, that this substance and this “cure” would undergo rigorous study as psychotherapy tries new drugs to use in conjunction with therapy. Some of that is happening, although not that we see this in the film.

Anything to stem to flood of suicides, right?

But Côté’s film screams out for words like “cure” and “medicine” to be slapped in quotation marks. There is not only no contrary voice here, no skeptic suggesting that maybe this is just this year’s LSD substitute and PTSD victims are merely switching one dependency for another.

No academics or scientists appear, pro or con. Like other Ayuhuasca documentaries I’ve reviewed, there’s a built-in credulity that spending too much time thinking about the self-annointed “expert” we see here invites. It’s not wrong, no matter what anecdotal evidence the film provides, to question where dude went to shaman school.

The alternative is spelled out on Brooke Cooley’s t-shirt in an early scene. “Cannabis cures cancer. Google it!” Maybe it does, but “Google” isn’t proving that, any more than a couple of veterans who ask for multiple ayahuasca trips to calm their anxiety — and that treatment seeming to work — proves the thesis of “From Shock to Awe.”

We can collectively recognize the crisis, urge the study and testing for therapeutic value and do it in all haste, realizing how desperate suffering people are for some relief.

Limiting your arguement to a couple of guys tripping around a fire in Orlando isn’t making your, even if it makes that sale.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with drug use, profanity, accounts of violence

Cast:Mike Cooley, Brooke Cooley, Matt Kahl and Aimee Kahl, Chris Young

Credits: Directed by Luc Côté. An Adobe International release.

Running time: 1:27

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