At first, we can't see her face. What we can see is her long, dark hair and her brightly colored fingernails, but her features are blocked by a stack of index cards she holds up to the camera lens.
"My name is Lani," is written on the first card. "I'm currently 26 years old."
She turns another card.
"...and a U.S. Marine veteran."
Those simple words open The Camouflage Closet, a must-see documentary that shares the stories of Lani and eight other veterans from all branches of the military, representing conflicts from World War II to the present.
"I just haven't told my family yet, though I live with them" reads another index card. "I am literally living a double life. I'm just scared my family will disown me." This is in spite of the fact that her family--and yours and mine--live under the freedoms Lani served so proudly to protect.
We see Lani's hands shake as she holds the cards, dropping them one-by-one.
"Between the PTSD and depression, my best coping method is isolation," reads the next card. "I'm also male-to-female transgender."
Later in the film, we see her face, beautifully painted by the cosmetics that she would hide in her car so her family didn't learn of her other sense of self. We also see a 2005 photograph of Lani as a man, in uniform, serving as a United States Marine.
"I had no idea who I was. Somewhere along the way I tried to overcompensate by joining the military," Lani says in the film. "Of course, it wasn't what I expected. I was trapped in my cocoon."
But Lani has since emerged, along with the other veterans who share their stories in The Camouflage Closet, which has already been screened across the nation at universities, film festivals and, most importantly, as part of LGBT veteran support groups. The film is being screened three times in Boise this week: twice for veterans at the Boise VA Medical Center and once for the general public Wednesday, June 18, at the Boise State University Student Union (followed by a discussion). The screening is sponsored by the Boise State Women's Center, Veterans Affairs, American Federation of Government Employees and Boise Pride Fest.
"We started an LGBT support group at the Boise VA in November 2012, and it has steadily grown ever since," said Susie Klepacki, Boise VAMC Local Recovery Coordinator. "Our participants are all age groups, veterans from all conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq, going all the way back to the Korean War. And all ranks, absolutely."
As one of only a handful of the region's veterans affairs medical centers to offer an LGBT support group, the Boise VA is "a trailblazer," Klepacki said, and The Camouflage Closet is a compelling tool to support the vets.
"This film tells stories that a lot of our veterans may already know, but I'm certain that the public doesn't know," she said. "But The Camouflage Closet also shares stories of hope and recovery and how you can manage; that allows us to open up dialogue about available resources at the Boise VA. "
Boise Weekly spoke with Michael Nedelman, the director of The Camouflage Closet, in between classes at the Stanford University School of Medicine. So, yes, soon he'll be a physician/director.
"Stanford is pretty unique in that it's a medical school with a film program," said Nedelman, already a graduate of Yale University's film studies program. "The idea of being a filmmaker and caregiver is a pretty great way to disseminate information. My love for telling stories as a filmmaker led me to patient care. And now, I'm involved in those patients' stories, beyond the lens."
That's what led Nedelman to convince the Stanford School of Medicine and Heliana Ramirez, a social worker and the film's producer, to help make The Camouflage Closet possible; telling the stories of nine LGBT vets as part of their clinical care at the Palo Alto VA Healthcare System.
"The film started out to be about 15 minutes. Now, it's 45 minutes," said Nedelman.
The end result is a powerhouse but solution-driven 45 minutes, rarely seen in a documentary short that covers an issue with such heft.
"One of the most motivating factors for me was the idea that there are veterans out there who may not have access to the support they need, or maybe there are clinicians who need more help in dealing with LGBT issues. Nedelman said. "But they might see this film and know that they're not alone. I'm so impressed by the resiliency of these vets."