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By Alan Ng | February 17, 2023

When life throws its worst at you and things change drastically, in all the wrong ways, know you are not alone. But know that there is hope. This is the overarching message behind writer-director Eric Christiansen’s motivational documentary, UnMASKing HOPE.

The film tells the story of seven PTSD survivors. Sandra Lee is an actress who was sexually assaulted during her military tour in Iraq. Heidi Bender is a survivor of the tragic Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting in Las Vegas. Molly Maurer was also at the Route 91 Festival, and if that wasn’t enough, a year later survived a second mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill. Lyman Montgomery is a survivor of child sexual abuse committed by a trusted teacher. Today he is a motivational speaker helping other men who experienced sexual abuse.

Becky Lazinger, Ken Fairben, and Jack Delaney are all survivors of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Lazinger arrived to celebrate her work anniversary and escaped when the planes hit the towers. Fairben was a volunteer firefighter along with his son Keith. Keith died in Tower 2, and in his last call to his father, he said he “had to go and help people.” Delany was an EMT called to duty at the World Trade Center. He lost two team members and sustained severe injuries, including inhaling toxic material due to the debris.

As you would expect, UnMASKing HOPE walks us through the tragic stories of these seven individuals. It is revealed that other than their trauma, what these seven have in common is that they were able to rise up from their tragedy and find new life. As their trauma is revealed, the recovery process is explained by PTSD expert Dr. Arieh Shalez, clinical advisor Dr. Amit Etkin, grief expert M. Katherine Shear, M.D., and author Laurie Margot Ross, Ph.D.

“…other than their trauma, what these seven have in common is that they were able to rise up from their tragedy…”

The film’s structure is pretty straightforward. The participants’ stories are interwoven, then we are walked through the recovery process. It starts with what happened and the aftermath of the tragedy. Left alone, all seven suppressed their tragedy and refused to talk about it. They put on metaphorical masks to show their friends, loved ones, and co-workers that they are as normal as can be. Unfortunately, they not only kept quiet but bore a great deal of guilt, wondering why they survived while others perished or felt helpless to stop the tragedy.

No one can bare this much guilt without collapsing eventually. They each reached a point where they needed help, which came in meeting other survivors in support group settings. In these meetings, people who experienced the same tragedy can “echo their feelings” as if saying, “I know a little about what you are feeling.” From there comes the long healing process by confronting the event and ultimately finding the safety to return to life again.

Look, there’s just no way to be critical about UnMASKing HOPE. It exists to do good. It took courage for the participants to share their stories and be vulnerable for the millions of survivors who feel lost. It’s also the perfect resource for friends and family who know people who have PTSD. Christiansen took great care in being respectful to the stories and ended up with a documentary that has the right intentions and will help many people. I should point out that some beautiful and thoughtful animation by Ed Bell and Roger Martel complements the story.

If you or anyone you know has suffered tragedy or PTSD, I don’t know the right timing, but UnMASKing HOPE is an excellent film and resource to bring to their attention. Christiansen’s film can act as step one in the process of saying that you don’t have to be silent anymore. You can take off your mask and know that others know what you’re going through and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

UnMASKing HOPE is now airing and streaming on PBS. For more information, visit the UnMASKing HOPE official website.

UnMASKing HOPE (2023)

Directed and Written: Eric Christiansen

Starring: Sandra Lee, Becky Lazinger, Jack Delaney, Ken Fairben, Molly Maurer, Heidi Bender, Lyman Montgomery, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

UnMASKing HOPE Image

"…can act as step one in the process of saying that you don't have to be silent anymore."

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