Tim Rath: ‘Clownvets’ highlights some of the best in Big Rapids

Far from the pleasant peninsula of Michigan, men and women of the U.S. military have fought for generations to help keep our country safe.

This fact is well publicized and celebrated in American media and culture, with holidays in place to honor both the dead and the living. Less well known is the trauma suffered by many during their time abroad — some pains of which are not readily apparent on the surface. And not necessarily easy for even the best doctors to treat.

In an effort to make due as best they can, many veterans “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol. But what if there was a new way to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder — a way that didn’t involve medication at all?

This question and many others are considered in a new documentary film, “Clownvets,” produced by the Gesundheit Institute and Chile’s ER Films. Significant portions of “Clownvets” were filmed in Big Rapids and Mecosta County-area military veterans are prominently featured in it. “Clownvets” was shown recently to an invited audience at the Ferris State University Williams Auditorium.

“Clownvets” opens with several establishing shots of local landmarks — including restaurants, AmVets and American Legion halls and Spectrum hospital. Once we get inside, we meet men and women whose kind faces belie the struggles in their minds. These people tell us about seizures, night terrors and suicidal thoughts they deal with on a daily basis — all of which came after their military service.

We also meet Dr. Mark Kane, a Big Rapids-area psychologist who deals primarily with veterans struggling to re-adapt to life in the U.S. on their return home. Kane is as stumped as anyone else as to how to help, until he comes in contact with Patch Adams.

Adams, the subject of a semi-autobiographical film released in 1998 that bears his name, is a physician best known for dressing as a clown and performing magic tricks to make patients laugh. What is less-well known about him is that he helps teach others how to be clowns, and arranges trips to hospitals all over the world for his proteges to meet the people who need them most.
Kane puts the local veterans in touch with Adams, who flies them out to Guatemala, in Central America. There, they receive a quick lesson in clowning. It’s quite a far cry from earlier in the film to see these once-solemn faces cracking up while learning to apply makeup and fitting themselves in a pair of giant clown underwear.

Once their training is over, the new clowns are taken to children’s hospitals in remote areas of the country. They see kids struggling with terrible conditions — but thanks to the clowns’ funny ways, laughter ensues anyway. Several veterans commented they used to think they had it bad, but visiting those hospitals gave them an important perspective.

“Clownvets” is directed by Esteban Rojas, of Chile, who got his start at 18 after being hired by Adams as his personal cameraman. According to his Internet Movie Database page, Rojas has only directed two documentaries so far in his young career. Still, he shows finesse as a storyteller, and in only 57 minutes, manages to inform and entertain with the touch of a director of much greater experience.

The world premiere of “Clownvets” is set to take place in March at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California. I would imagine that if it’s well-received, “Clownvets” will soon have a wider release — which I feel it deserves. Everyone with an opportunity to do so should check it out.

The laughs and the information regarding troubles that veterans deal with make it worthwhile, but on top of that, these brave men and women — many of whom are our friends and neighbors — deserve as many plaudits as they can get, for their service to our country.

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Posted by Tim Rath

Tim is the Pioneer's associate editor. He also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Veterans pages. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at trath@pioneergroup.com.

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