Liza Johnson

02.09.12

Liza Johnson, Return, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Kelli (Linda Cardellini) and Mike (Michael Shannon). Photo: DADA Films.


Liza Johnson is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and professor at Williams College. Her work has screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Walker Art Center, and the Centre Pompidou, as well as the Cannes, New York, Berlin, and Rotterdam Film Festivals. Return, her latest feature film, premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival last May. Staring Linda Cardellini as a war veteran returning from the Middle East to her hometown in Ohio, Return will debut at Village East Cinemas in New York and Laemmle Santa Monica on February 10.

A FEW YEARS AGO a friend of mine told me some intimate stories about his efforts to stay married after he came back from his military deployment. Most of the accounts that civilians hear about the current US wars are either in a statistical mode of address—forty-two people are killed in a car bomb—or they’re in the style of policy debate—pro or con, good or bad. When my friend told me this very personal account about his efforts to cross this gap of empathy that had opened up in his relationship, I felt aware of missing this other register, this other kind of account.

I met many female soldiers while writing the script. They were strikingly different from one another, and it was immediately clear that there is no such thing as a typical or representative military woman. Linda Cardellini’s character is very specific—Kelli is one plausible female soldier but there’s no way she could represent every woman. The genre of “soldiers returning home” movies typically use flashbacks as a kind of wish-fulfillment, wishing that you could be in an extreme situation and then transparently convey it to another person, rendering the experience understandable. I don’t use this convention in Return. The entire film is set in the everyday, in the time of the present. The experience of trying to reunite with civilian culture can be disarming even if you don’t have an acute instance of trauma to narrate.

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Liza Johnson, Return, 2012 (trailer)

Many social justice advocates who work for veterans have said that it can be useful to think about how to destigmatize veterans who are presumed to have PTSD. A lot of vets tend to get treated by civilians like they are somehow prone to extreme behavior. I love a movie like Taxi Driver, but I’m also interested in quieter and less explosive forms of reassimilation, which are also full of interest––full of everyday dramas.

I’m from southeastern Ohio, where the industrial base is pretty much gone and has been replaced by an illegal drug economy. Return is set in a town like that one. I shot a short film two years ago in the town where I grew up, and it was very compelling for me to see young people propelling themselves forward in spite of the absence of a clear economic future, and in the presence of a parent generation that is pretty addicted. There is a lot of damage because there are so few jobs outside the drug economy. Civilians can sometimes view veterans as damaged people. But I also wonder, what if Kelli is just no longer willing to tolerate the damage in the world she comes home to?

— As told to John Arthur Peetz