At the start of each semester, Brian Hauser notices an odd distinction among the veterans in his classes. The Clarkson film professor spent years in the military, so he says it’s easy to spot his fellow vets — but not all of them.
“I can usually tell within a couple minutes,” he says. “The haircut, how they walk, where they choose to sit in my classes. And once they say ‘sir,’ I know.”
But, he says, this only applies to men.
“Among the women in my classes, I can’t tell who’s a vet. They usually don’t bring it up until we’re well into the semester and I’ve mentioned my time in the military.”
So he began talking with female veterans about their experiences coming home and re-entering the lives they knew before serving overseas.
“We know that some returning soldiers can face unexpected challenges,” he says. “They’ve just left a highly regimented world where they’re in extreme danger most of the time. Once they’re home — with family and friends, going back to work — they have to navigate a social structure that’s extremely ambiguous, at the best of times. It’s not easy for most people, whether they’re military or not.”
Hauser says there’s another complicating factor: “There’s a huge difference between the way our society treats men and women veterans. Coming home from war zones, men are often called ‘heroes’ and ‘warriors.’ What do we call women?”
The lack of a commonly used term, he says, might help explain why women are less likely to identify as veterans. “They don’t get the positive social reinforcement that men do,” he says. “Femininity, motherhood and other aspects of identity shape them and the way they present themselves to the world. We’re only just beginning to see how women vets handle all this. Will they change how we perceive them? Or will our perceptions force these women to conform to more traditional norms?”
These questions convinced the film professor that he’d found a compelling subject for a movie. He worked with his partner, Christina Xydias, also a professor at Clarkson, to put these ideas into a script. They plotted out a story line that gave voice to the female vets they interviewed.
“Our movie follows a woman transitioning from the Army to college,” Hauser says. “She’s not connecting with her classmates because she doesn’t really have much in common with them. Her professors are on a different wavelength, too, and because of all this, she feels alone.”
The main character, he adds, is initially driven by her belief that college should be a lot easier than serving in Afghanistan. But the abstract thinking required in college proves to be one of her more difficult challenges.
This led Hauser and Xydias to the title Nontraditional. “It’s a term that applies to older college students,” he says, “but also to the path taken by women veterans. Our main character is a fish out of water. Psychologically, she’s still partly in Afghanistan. Loud noises and open spaces — like a parking lot — can be unsettling. So can emails from friends at her former base. But, she’s strong. Strong enough to let down her guard, connect with people and find ways to make it through college academics and the social scene.”
The friend and actress they wanted for the lead role liked the script and signed on to the project. Most of the movie was shot on the Clarkson campus. Editing wrapped up recently and the film is being submitted for possible screenings at several film festivals across the country.
“We’re telling a story that hasn’t been told,” Hauser says, “and it’s about people our society doesn’t really see. This movie could change that.”
Kat Evans plays "Erika Byrd" in the new movie Nontraditional--filmed on the Clarkson campus.
Nontraditional premiered to a full house on Veterans Day (November 11, 2013) at the Roxy Theater in Potsdam.