Update: Minos’ film has found educational distribution with Kanopy Streaming. SVA students and faculty can watch Tango on the Balcony free at www.kanopystreaming.com/
Minos Papas spoke with us just over a year ago before heading into production on his Iraq War PTSD short film, Tango on the Balcony. Now his film is in festivals all over the world, including NYC’s Big Apple Film Festival.
It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago I wrote an entry on the SVA Alumni Blog about beginning production on my short narrative film, Tango on the Balcony. It’s the fictional story of veteran Johnny Wexler, who returns home carrying the invisible wounds of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and moral injury, visualized by the apparition of a young Iraqi boy who visits Johnny regularly. Is this boy the “T”, the “tango”, the target –the enemy combatant –on the balcony that Johnny was ordered to shoot down during a skirmish? Or was he just an innocent kid? Is Johnny morally justified in what he did? Johnny’s wounds of the mind linger long after combat.
The film has screened at festivals all over the world. Its third New York screening is at the Big Apple Film Festival on Wednesday, October 2nd at 8:30 PM (Program 15).
From its inception, I had a very deliberate strategy for Tango on the Balcony. For the first time in my filmmaking career, I felt an urgent need to reach a specific audience. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, I shot the film in August of 2015 with a team of both veterans and civilians. The veterans were an invaluable resource for me. Co-Producer Michael Day and Assistant Director Neath Williams, both Iraq war veterans, contributed advice and authenticity. Veterans in the art department, among the PAs, and background talent were equally important to me as well. Imagine having your target audience on set to advise and inspire you – often simply by their slightest reactions. Our shoot took place at Attic Studios, which partnered with us to provide studio facilities and equipment. Production Designer Liz Sargent took full advantage of Attic Studios’ set to turn it into Johnny’s apartment – a converted industrial space, littered with the evidence of depression, a palette saturated with the red and sand of the desert that won’t let go of Johnny. During the filming I observed our veterans and how they related to the set and the actors’ performances. After calling “cut,” I would immediately look at the veterans on set for their reaction (not approval) to see from their expressions if the scene had touched them.
The second part of our shoot took us to Broadway and 61st street. Ordinarily, this would be a nightmare location for any film crew to navigate, but I welcomed the chaos of Broadway at rush hour – a wealth of traffic and noise that would trigger anyone with PTSD. Bustling New Yorkers walked through our set, not thinking twice about us (fortunately!). I incorporated the multi-directional flow of traffic into Johnny’s movement, and followed actor Aristotle Stamat with long lenses on a handheld camera. The high shutter angle created a perfect scene of bustling anxiety. I also had to consider how many of the veterans in our small 20-person crew would react negatively to the stress of crowd control on the streets. We were leaving the safety of the studio. But they excelled beyond my expectations. I felt I could trust them even more than a civilian crew because they were all so invested in this film. I am indebted to them.
I began post-production after a month break from the shoot, which allowed me to look at the material with fresh eyes. I called upon fellow SVA alum John Moros to work with me on the sound. We layered Johnny’s world with combat sound effects and signified his headaches with high-pitched sounds. Johnny constantly plays back on his laptop an explosion from his helmet camera footage; sometimes this was ‘memory real’ and sometimes ‘laptop playback real.’ We had to decide when and where Johnny’s experience of life would merge with memory and trauma in every moment of the film.
With Tango finally finished, I started submitting to film festivals. At this point I realized that the approach I had taken in making this short film, was actually very similar to making a feature: Years of research and development, showing it to veterans for authenticity, then creating it with the highest possible production value at our budget level. We have submitted it to as many festivals as possible and to finally bring it to market.
Liz and I researched the international film market and went to the Berlin Film Festival to meet with the US festival programmers. I registered the film in the Cannes Short Film Corner and went to Cannes to pitch it to short film buyers. In Cannes, I made a deal with Aug and Ohr Medien, a respectable German film festival submission agency who took the submissions process off my hands. We premiered at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington DC – the largest film festival for and about military veterans. The film participated in the Palm Springs Short Film Market, which together with my insistent emails and phone calls to dozens of distribution companies, has brought results in terms of a few offers that are still on the table.
Tango has been received very well, having screened in 8 festivals so far and being considered by dozens more. It picked up 2 awards at the Fort Worth Indie Film Showcase in Texas. At the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus I won the Best Director Award in the National Competition. The Jury described their reasons for the award being, “for the masterful composition used in building an imaginary world that derives from the traumatic experience of the main character.”
Overall I couldn’t be happier with the trajectory of my film so far. I believe it has a home in the educational market where it can possibly benefit those researching trauma, moral injury and the reintegration of veterans into society. I hope that many more audiences are able to watch the film and understand what it means to live with a traumatic injury. Making films is an investment of time – a big chunk of your life is committed to one idea. It must be an idea that haunts you, and captures your imagination for years. I hope this story speaks to audiences as it did to me.