An Accidental Activist: Beating the Schindler’s List Effect

We know the rate of veterans dying of suicide. So why isn’t enough being done about it?
An Accidental Activist: Beating the Schindler's List Effect
Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

Activism is an odd obsession. I’m not really sure that anyone actually sets out to be an activist per-se…it just sort of happens one day. One minute you’re blissfully ignorant, the next you see something that for whatever reason makes you turn against the current and start swimming upstream like a breeding salmon.

What first triggered me was finding out that veterans were taking their own lives at a rate twice that of the civilian average and that cannabis could help, but what really got my mouth frothing was how the entirety of my newly adopted nation seems to be trapped in some kind of phantom zone of denial about it all. A sort of “hear no veteran, see no veteran, speak no veteran” apathy that is completely at odds with the public perception of how vets are doing today. Switch on a TV any weekend you’ll see a cornucopia of flags, flyovers, and “thanks for your service” plastered over every sporting event across the nation. So surely a country that spends so much money recruiting, training, and deploying troops, which very publicly thanks its vets at every public opportunity, surely they must put ten times that effort into actually helping veterans after their service right?

I’d gone into the world of veterans with a fairly positive outlook. What I found when I got there was like being slapped out of a 15-year coma with a hair brush. The truth is that it’s highly likely that the same fans that sing the national anthem with such aplomb and proudly “salute the brave” also drove past a sign saying “homeless vet – please help” on the way to the stadium without sparing a thought about it. I know I’m guilty of it—I’ve done the same thing hundreds of times in my life and if you live in a big city somewhere in the world I’m sure you have too. If you see something enough it becomes invisible. But a large percent of the homeless in America are veterans of the United States Armed forces; one third of men living rough have served. The numbers are so shocking I had to ask: “How do we not all know this?” 

Well to start, the world’s gone bonkers and we’re all yelling at each other…and it’s not going to get better because the information age is in the middle of rewriting the script of our collective human story whilst Mother Nature continues to tap us on the shoulder in a desperate bid to remind us that we’re running out of the ink and paper with which to tell it. 

On top of all this, it’s staggeringly easy to create and sustain a protective bubble over any worldview because a third of the planet has their own portal to a personalized universe and the attention span of a goldfish. So in short, it’s increasingly hard to be heard, especially if you don’t have an endless supply of cash with which to bribe the Gods of the Internet. However, I suspect there is something deeper behind the sheer scale of blanket ignorance, because none of this information is hard to find—people seem to be actively avoiding it. 

The “Schindler’s List” Effect

It’s something I call the “Schindler’s List Effect”, or SLE for short. It hit me after connecting with other filmmakers who were also working with vets and who had produced amazing work to packed premieres and standing ovations, but who all found it really difficult to get people watching their films at home. Meanwhile “Making A Murderer” went viral in 30 seconds and still has everyone talking about it. If you were a streaming giant like Amazon or Netflix, where would you spend the money? 

So, why is it so hard to get people to watch? Well, PTSD is hardly what one might call “light entertainment” is it? It’s not going to take your mind off all the crap happening in your own life or really make you feel good upbeat about the world and that is a huge part of the problem. It’s easy to understand; I myself broke down in uncontrollable floods of tears several times editing the raw footage of the veteran interviews I filmed for VETSGROW. Regardless of whether you have seen the film or read the book Schindler’s List, most people are at least aware of the story and the emotionally taxing tale it recounts from the deep horrors of the Holocaust. It’s something you watch once for the amazing piece of art that it is and never, and I mean EVER, talk about it again. It seems to hang on the periphery of our collective consciousness until someone picks at the scab: 

“Oh my god, have you seen Schindler’s List?”

“Yeah it was amazing, but I don’t ever need to see that again!” 

It occurred to me that people’s reaction to films about veterans was almost identical to this subconscious block and to follow this chain of thought to its natural conclusion, it meant that people were not necessarily ignorant because they didn’t care; in a world of infinite content available whenever you want it, it is just too easy to tune in to something else. We choose ignorance. The realization was groundbreaking. It meant that if I really wanted to help veterans get what they needed, I had to go BIG and not only do something absolutely batshit crazy in order to get people’s attention, but also something they could connect with in order to keep it. I needed something deeply American as a light hearted foil of some kind to counter the heavier veteran content that needs to be seen by Americans—something with which to frame the story.

I struggled with this conundrum throughout the final stages of filming until on the final ride home from the final day of filming, the answer sang to me in my ears…but you’ll have to watch Episode 9 for the full tale. In essence, the idea was to take a road trip around the whole country and find more vets to teach. I wanted to build another 100 VETSGROWs across the country and start a political movement on the ground through all 50 states…and it just so happens I’d been planning one for three years. 


The “Ride for Identity” (RiDENTITY for short) was my original idea to lap the USA on a motorbike in order to figure out my place in it as a freshly minted immigrant citizen and to get comfortable enough filming and riding to take on a much bigger project: “The Home Run.” Basically a mad dash around the world on a motorbike from the USA to the UK, roughly traversing the route taken by the legendary 2004 TV travel documentary called The Long Way Round that had first ignited my desire to film the world I see from the saddle…but of course backwards. Now, I know this is an awful lot of crazy to take in one hit, but it’s important to understand that I’m a nobody: I’m not famous, I’m not rich, and I’m not connected…I’m just some bloke that decided one day to direct his burgeoning mid-life crisis at a new career path instead of a sports car (I’ve already got one), but just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I metaphorically rear-ended the veteran world and got sidetracked…but through that experience, I found a second calling in giving vets a voice. However, I am still trying to create a new career as a filmmaker through nothing more than an overabundance of enthusiasm and a smidgen of bloody-mindedness. However, because my first work has done precisely squat to change things for vets I’ve decided that if I’m going to “make it big” then I’m just going to have to bring veterans along with me.

The simple idea I’d come up with was the addition of a Chase truck full of VETSGROWs, turning my tour of the country into a 20,000 mile, 50 state, 4 month delivery route. Sort of “Smokey & the Bandit” minus the Smokey…and the Bandit…but building VETSGROWs wherever it’s legal and along the way interviewing vets, talking to vet groups and maybe even getting some vets to come ride and camp with us. A national tour of vets talking about PTSD, cannabis, mental health, reintegration, families, and everything in between. Along the way collecting signatures and voices of support to petition the government to give ALL veterans the right to use and grow medical cannabis. 

I’d be the comic relief with this accent likely to cause chaos across the country. But that’s the point— it would be an adventure! One that would give us a long time to talk about some very hard issues faced by those that have served.

The only problem is that the plan…well, it’s not what you would call cheap. Although not Hollywood budget levels, I still need around half a million bucks to cover the costs of production, me, 120 days on the road and a full film crew. That’s what I’ve been trying and failing to do since I finished the first series. I learned the hard way that getting companies to donate time or equipment is one thing, but cold, hard cash? That’s something else entirely. That’s why I approached High Times to ask if I could write—because if I’m going to make “Take the high road” a reality, I’m going to need your help. I’ll get into that next time.

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