February, 2022

Three questions with...
2018 Fellows Emma Findlen LeBlanc & Taylor Lee Nagel

Your Fellows project is the documentary film If You Can Ever Get Back, which debuted at the Portland Film Festival in 2021. The film follows a group of combat medics deployed to Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” in 2007 and 2008. Can you share the significance of its title?

During a particularly difficult, candid reflection on PTSD and suicide, Robert Brady, one of the film’s three main subjects, was describing the despair that can take hold. In those moments, he said, you don’t know if you can ever get back. For us, that line captured the central theme of this film: what does it mean for soldiers who go to war to come back? What does it take? How are the soldiers who come home transformed by their experience of war? Whom have they become? What have they lost and gained? Do soldiers who go to war ever really come back? The “if” is an important part of the title. The film invites viewers into this question. We hope to provoke engagement with ongoing public conversations about the post-9/11 wars, the inadequate resources available for veterans, and the place of the military in American society more broadly.

The veterans you feature in the film share their most vulnerable moments with you. What steps do you take to help them and their families feel comfortable in front of the camera? What is that process like?

This kind of film takes deep trust and mutual respect. Our shared history in Iraq was a starting point, but ultimately time was the only way to build real trust. We embedded deeply in their lives. We ate Thanksgiving dinner at Robert’s home, tagged along on Kristina’s family beach vacation, and celebrated Phil’s daughter’s birthday with all of his relatives. We developed meaningful relationships with each of them and built a strong rapport off camera, which helped ease any anxieties when cameras were rolling.

There were also certain moments when we chose to turn our cameras off, when it felt disrespectful or invasive to film. We are humans first, filmmakers second. Those decisions showed our subjects that we weren’t there to exploit them or use their stories for our own ends. We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to tell the truth, in all of its complexity, and our subjects shared that goal.

Now that America’s “forever wars” have ended, where do you see your project fitting into the legacy of these actions?

Projects like If You Can Ever Get Back are more important than ever. The “forever wars” have ended, but their consequences are profound and ongoing, and it’s going to take a lot of persistent work to make sure that the people affected are not overlooked. So many veterans struggle with mental health challenges, moral injury, and extensive physical health problems. Political attention spans are short and honestly reckoning the consequences of war is difficult. But it is during peacetime, when the exigencies of war have eased, that we can and must have those harder conversations.

There is a generation of adults that don’t remember 9/11, and soon there will be a generation that doesn’t remember the Iraq war. Films like ours contribute to collective memory. They also help bridge the profound divide between military families and those far removed from America’s wars.

Hot Off The Press

The Naked Don't Fear the Water

An acclaimed young war reporter chronicles a dangerous journey on the smuggler’s road to Europe, accompanying his friend, an Afghan refugee, in search of a better future.

By: Matthieu Aikins, Class of 2017

Learn more

Two Cents

Fellows on what they would tell their younger selves.

1: Jeez, have some fun! You're going to be working your ass off for a long time to come. Take a break along the way. Also: live out the dream of becoming a foreign correspondent before you have kids. — Lisa M. Hamilton,  Class of 2019

2: Set aside a hefty portion of your freelance income for taxes. Always. Religiously. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 (without setting aside 30%). — Eve L. Ewing, Class of 2021

3: Take a creative writing or screenwriting class! Shorter sentences, paragraphs, chapters! — Ellen D. Wu, Class of 2022

4: I would tell my younger self ten years ago to immediately seek out new opportunities to bring Black women’s history to popular audiences. I have found much personal and professional fulfillment doing “public-facing” work and only wish I had started on the path much earlier in my life.— Keisha N. Blain, Class of 2022

5: Get a standing desk and take care of your lower back. — Yi-Ling Liu, Class of 2021


Matthew Shaer wrote the cover story for the New York Times Magazine about the tragedy in Surfside, Florida and the future of Miami-area condominiums. 

Jonathan Katz's book, Gangsters of Capitalism, was published. The book was reviewed in the New Republic, the Washington PostTask and Purposeand the Associated Press

Rose Eveleth wrote about climate change as a medical diagnoses for Wired.

Theodore R. Johnson has been named an Emerson Collective Fellow as part of their new Democracy Cohort. 

Reuben Jonathan Miller gave a TED Talk about the aftershocks of mass incarceration. 

Bartow Elmore's book Seed Money was reviewed in Mother Jones.

Daniel Bergner's forthcoming book, The Mind and the Moon, was reviewed in Kirkus.

Julian Brave NoiseCat was interviewed on CNBC.com about what Indigenous people can teach about fighting climate change.

Two Cents
New America Events

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How Antitrust Failed Workers

Join the Center on Education & Labor at New America for a discussion with Professor Eric Posner and presidential advisor Tim Wu on how antitrust policy can help workers. Learn more


The Naked Don't Fear the Water

Join the Fellows Program for a converation with Matthieu Aikins and Candace Rondeaux about The Naked Don't Fear the Water. Learn more

Reading this month

This book had some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read. Just exquisite.
— Clint Smith,
Class of 2020

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French writes mysteries that are much more about what the protagonist goes through to solve them than they are about the mysteries themselves. Some of them are actually unsolvable. Also the descriptions of Ireland and Irish people are fantastic.
— Monica B. Potts,
Class of 2006

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A detailed look at the life of a remarkable Black girl and her family as they confront homelessness, poverty, and small windows of opportunity in an unjust society.
— Theodore R. Johnson,
Class of 2017

Learn more

Free Swag

Fill out the form below for a chance to win a copy of The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins, Class of 2017.

Please submit by Monday, February 7th to be considered.


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