• Film

Jerri Sher Explores Brain Trauma, Where Football & Rape Intersect

Women made up 39% of directors in 2020. While that number reflects gender gains in the field when placed in the perspective of the fact that women make up 51% of the general population – not so much. Part of that uneven playing field is due to the unconscious bias that assumes women are interested in specific topics alone, or that they can write and direct within “women-related” fields but would be challenged in areas generally identified as the male domain.

That prompts the question: why is film content assumed to be gender-related? Unconscious or not, the assumptions and categorizations are just that – bias – so it was good to see a documentary about brain trauma – usually associated with football players or the result of a severe blunt force, more commonly endured by males – directed, written, and produced by a woman. Jerri Sher’s documentary, Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain, highlights how any trauma, physical or mental, shapes the brain, and if untreated, can lead to life-threatening depression.

Of note is that rape victims endure similar effects to those of explosion experts who have suffered PTSD on the front lines of war. Double Emmy winner (for the short film Step Up) Jerri Sher, who has a professional background in the male-dominated field of trucking – which she credits for later giving her the endurance to actualize her vision in Hollywood – presents a variety of different cases of unexpected damage-induced brain distress that has shown up in imaging and has led to impaired coping skills.

Inspired by the best-selling book “Tales From the Blast Factory” by Green Beret Andrew Marr and his brother, Apache pilot Adam Marr, Sher has included interviews with athletes, special forces soldiers, and regular people in her dive into the pain and depression associated with traumatic brain injury.

How did you come to this topic?

I was contacted by someone for whom I babysat. I’d had no contact with her since I was about 18, but she knew I made films about socially responsible topics and that I had two Emmys. She sent me the galleys of “Tales From the Blast Factory.”  I was taken by the fact that there was a cure for this silent illness. My thought was: we have to get the word out. We have to tell people. We have to show people there is hope and there is healing.

I met with this huge guy with tattoos everywhere, Andrew Marr. He said, “You have the rights to the book.” I replied, ‘I’ll only do it if it’s a third about the military, a third about athletes and a third about civilians.’

You include stories of women who are dealing with trauma. When we think of blunt head trauma, we usually think of men in the military and in sports.

Julianna is a gymnast. People who do gymnastics keep getting hurt, their heads keep bumping. Even though Annie is a navy person, not a professional athlete, she was raped. The trauma from a terribly emotional experience can cause PTS – post-traumatic stress. It creates the same inflammation in the brain as a traumatic brain injury. If you were hit on the head with a hammer or if you were in a car accident, you might suffer the same effects as our firefighter from 9/11, pulling dead fellow firefighters out at 9/11 – he had the same PTS from the experience.

What are the most common symptoms of PTS and how can it be treated?

Severe depression is one of the main ones. Curling up like a ball, going in a closet by yourself for ten hours; I heard these horror stories. So many troubling symptoms. Severe headaches. People turn to alcohol and drugs. They are given opiates. They take recreational drugs to try and bury themselves. The solutions are to replace the necessary hormones that are missing in the brain with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which they use massive doses of oxygen going into the brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation. It has been effective on veterans, and also on the football player, Mark Rypien, who was named the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player in 1991. That, and diet.


Lets examine some challenges you encountered in getting this particular documentary made.

It was a challenge to find an NFL football player to speak out. I would talk to players and then they would not want to be on camera. They were afraid of the NFL. It’s a huge organization with lots of money and they didn’t want to say anything that referred to their brains being affected by football.

Theres been the movie, Concussion, that explored this topic so why the reticence?

Players would say they would go on camera if you got ten players talking about it, but then they would drop out. We were lucky to get (basketball player) Anthony Davis and Mark Rypien. That was a challenge.

Another challenge. The people we showcase are vulnerable, sickly, and you never know what they are going to be like when you fly in to meet them. I’d interview them without the camera, go to their homes, become friends with them, and then I’d start filming.

How about finding people behind the camera?

Women have a very hard time in filmmaking, especially directors. It’s very difficult. We are such a minority. I ended up with a female editor from Italy, she did the Glen Campbell: Ill Be Me documentary that was up for an Oscar award for 2014. Most people who I interviewed to edit said, “You have ten characters? Forget it. You can’t have ten characters in a movie.” I knew that what I’d been told regarding too many stories, wasn’t true. This condition affects people from all walks of life and from all over the world, and I needed to show different types of people, from the war zone survivor to the rape victim, to the surfer, and the man who had extensive surgery. Elisa Bonora got it. She said, “You have to show this as a broad spectrum.” We sat together every day doing the work of figuring out a way to weave it together to incorporate all ten characters.


What was the goal of the documentary?

To create awareness, get the protocols into the VA hospitals, to help the veterans who are being pushed pharmaceuticals and not being helped at all. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day. If we bring that number down, we have done our job.

In the section on rape victims, it was fascinating to see brain injury from trauma that came from emotional damage.

Exactly – emotional and psychological effects can cause a huge problem in your brain. (Rape victim) Annie Kendzior Nicholson had all the same symptoms as the person who was blasting buildings in Afghanistan. It’s remarkable. For most people who come away from the movie, that was the biggest shock to learn.

There are so many extreme traumas that dont involve physical trauma.

The firefighter pulling dead bodies from the 9/11 tower collapse and meanwhile endured the guilt of surviving. His brain was also traumatized in such a way that medication did not help. There’s a reaction in the brain that gets so traumatized and inflamed. Then the horrible symptoms begin. (Hyperbaric oxygen therapy each day for 9 months helped Sebastian, the firefighter, reclaim his life.)

It’s the grief people experience that causes inflammation and as Dr. Willeumier, the female neuro-scientist says, grief is one of the main causes of PST and TBI. They are similar in that they cause the same symptoms in the brain. When there’s inflammation you have all of the debilitating symptoms. You want to avoid those symptoms.

Lets examine some systemic issues within the industry. I dont want you to speak for all women, but personally, do you find funding and getting greenlit easier as time goes on?

No, things are not getting easier. The percentage of women directors is not good at all. Before I became a director, I was producing films for three different men. When I finished, I decided to direct my own movie and told them, and they said, “You can’t – because you are a woman, because you live in Massachusetts and because you’ve never been to film school. You cannot.” I said to myself, “I’m going to show them.” And I did.

That must have taken some tenacity and perseverance. Where did you develop that?

This is my third career. My first career before producing was as the first woman in the trucking industry in the Northeast corridor. The trucking industry was all men, and I broke in as the first female. There would be, like, 150 men with cigars sitting in a room and me. I became so successful at negotiating contracts with Fortune 500 companies that I wrote a story about a woman in the trucking business and that’s how I got into the movie business. I was used to succeeding in a man’s world. I was used to working with teamsters, with people who put women down, who said, “You can’t.” But I was trained by Tony Robbins (author of the bestselling self-help book “Awaken The Giant Within”) before he became so famous. My training from him in the trucking business showed me that I can do anything. I can move mountains. I can do things people say are impossible.

I had George Lucas’s Industrial Light Magic do my animation. I’m not Star Wars, but they believed in me because of the project. I couldn’t afford them, but they said, “We are going to help you.”

What are the three skills you rely on to succeed?

Tenacity is major. Perseverance is major both in trucking and in entertainment. And compassion. I focus in on the people I’m dealing with. Whether it be a traffic manager

at Gillette or Mark Rypien, football player and famous guy, I have compassion for my subjects. I care and I listen. I’m a good listener. The movie business puts people down and is very difficult.  You get easy “no’s.” “No” is not in my vocabulary.