UVM alum nominated for Oscar

Voice crackling down telephone wires from New York, UVM alumna Sara Nesson recounted the path that led to her Academy Award nominated film “Poster Girl.” Nesson’s short documentary “Poster Girl” has received international recognition — including an Oscar nomination — for its raw, turbulent, yet hopeful story of Iraq veteran Robyn Murray. “It was really mind-blowing … to be on the red carpet with Robyn and see how far we’ve really come,” Nesson said. In 38 minutes, Murray’s journey unfolds, art and poetry giving new meaning to a life plagued by war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “There is an emotional turn, her really hitting bottom — loneliness, despair, not knowing if [Veteran Affairs (VA)] would give her disability,” Nesson said. “Credit cards, collection agencies calling her. Her car breaking down. All this shit that we all go through, but when you have PTSD it makes life more difficult.” Though fascinated by her father Bob Nesson’s career and adventures as a documentary filmmaker, Nesson did not pursue film academically until she took a film elective late in college, she said. “It just really got me excited about the various artistic approaches directors take … how it could create a mood or effect with camera angles, lighting,” Nesson said. The following year, Nesson was off to Italy to produce her first film on the life of an American expatriate whose sculptures were anti-war, she said. Finding a grandfather in her 86-year-old subject, she became enthralled with history and how stories are passed down — even through film — in oral tradition, Nesson said. After graduating, she worked as an intern with the Discovery Channel; the very standard bottom of the totem pole gig, Nesson said. After that, it was the ski bum life in Tahoe, Calif. and then Alaska as a sea kayaking guide for the season, she said. Feeling undecided and lost, Nesson began work with her father. His jobs took them to Eastern Europe, Japan and Siberia, from following eagle migrations to the Ganges River, she said. Nesson talked about being stranded on a peninsula and cornered by a bear primed for an attack and laughed a bit. “We had a Russian guide who [scared it away] by banging a stick on a rock,” she said. Somehow these incredible experiences editing and filming alongside her dad led her back to the arts district of Burlington, Nesson said. In the Green Door Studio, Nesson found Drew Cameron shredding military uniforms for later transformation into paper and poetry, an outlet of expression from the war, she said. Nesson was immediately fascinated and already thinking of the camera upstairs in her apartment, she said. Over the next two years she began her film “Iraq, Paper, Scissors,” filming veterans across the country holding workshops where both written and performing arts brought together those who had returned thoroughly disturbed by war. Then Nesson met Murray. “She was a different side of the vet experience I wanted to document,” Nesson said. “She was about to navigate the VA to fill out claims to prove she had PTSD.” Murray’s struggles with PTSD and an underfunded VA were overwhelming. With Murray as the subject, “Poster Girl” came together. “She discovered that she had something to say, and people cared,” Nesson said of Murray. “That she had a voice, and a powerful one at that, to stand up for those who didn’t have one … Her speaking out, and creating art, she starts to build herself up again.” The film’s message is hopeful, personalizing the struggle that all veterans go through. Nesson adds that this is not an anti-war film, but one that says that a decision to enlist should be a well informed one. “That’s a majority of the population, the demographic of underprivileged and underclass that need money for school when they might be so [messed up] from war they won’t be able to focus on school and have a job,” Nesson said. “There are other options out there.”