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“Messenger” Director Oren Moverman Answers Social Worker Questions About Career, Movie

Director Oren Moverman, center, with "The Messenger" actors Ben Foster, left, and Woody Harrelson. Photo courtesy of

Director Oren Moverman, center, with "The Messenger" actors Ben Foster, left, and Woody Harrelson. Photo courtesy of

Oren Moverman is director and co-writer of the newly released “The Messenger,” an emotionally stirring film  about soldiers who must inform families a servicemember has died.

The movie touches on issues social workers help people handle, including death, grief, and post traumatic stress disorder. The military is also an area where social workers have a lot of expertise — the Department of Veterans Affairs employs more master’s level social workers than any other organization.

Moverman gave the National Association of Social Workers an advanced copy of the film and agreed to answer questions about the movie from the Social Workers Speak! staff and Web site and the NASW Facebook page. Here they are:

Q: Oren, what made you want to get involved in filmmaking and screenwriting?

A: I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I wanted to be involved in filmmaking from an early age, very early, I was nine when I started dreaming about it.  Of course, I knew nothing about what it meant. It was something I felt I had to pursue.  I came to live in the States in 1988 with filmmaking in mind and I started writing scripts while attending Brooklyn College. My goal was to direct. I was very lucky to get financing for my first film as a director in 2000, but the financiers pulled out three days before shooting and I was left with a writing sample I sent around. I started getting hired as a screenwriter, and suddenly that was my profession. But the goal was to direct. It took awhile. And here we are.

Q:  Most Americans avoid issues such as death and grief – issues that you addressed head-on in the movie “The Messenger.” What made you want to tackle these issues? Do you think Americans are too squeamish about death?

A: I think Western Civilization in general is squeamish on subjects like death and other “dark” issues as well — aging, hospitalization, illness and more.  We don’t like talking about these things. So much is devoted to this imaginary pursuit of eternal youth and happiness. But death is so central to life, so important. Alessandro Camon, my co-writer on “The Messenger,”  and I wanted to take the subject on from the military perspective because it is so immediate and dramatic; we wanted to contribute to the dialogue about war from a human perspective, i.e. life and death. It’s really a powerful tool. But the issue of death, specifically notification of death, which means dealing with the reality that people die, clearly goes beyond the military context. We all get notified of the death of a loved one. I suppose we felt ready and mature enough to put these themes out there, to not be too squeamish about it. It’s reality after all.

Q: One social worker who viewed the film liked it because it was a “war movie yet it addressed the after effects of war.” Do you think too many war movies focus on heroism and not enough are like “Born on the 4th of July” and the “Deer Hunter” and focus on troops after they come home?

A: We wanted to show, in a small, intimate way, the lives of people who have to deal with the consequences of the decision to go to war.  That was our first impulse that gave birth to this movie.  I think there’s a cycle to these things, and it has to do more with movie economics than the war. Don’t forget, a movie gets made because someone somewhere thinks he or she can make money by appealing directly to what they think interests the public. Of course, movies are a lot more than that, but we can’t make them without financiers.  So it depends on the time, the mood of a country, the war itself, the financial instincts of certain entities. I think there are plenty of movies coming out of the last two wars dealing with the aftermath. But these movies have not done well in the box office and there’s a hesitancy to make too many of them right now. But that’s not to say that once these wars are over, hopefully soon, and our soldiers are back, there won’t be more. I believe there will be. There are many stories to tell and many issues to cover.

Q: The Department of Veterans Affairs employs more master’s degree level social workers than any other agency. Social workers also provide services such as grief counseling to armed services families. I know “The Messenger” is in the can but if you could have done it again would you have included a military social worker who came in after the news of death was delivered?

A: Honestly, no.  I have the utmost respect for social workers; they are out there in the trenches every day doing great work. But this movie is just an entry point into the current military world. It’s an introduction to most people. It starts a dialogue; it cannot cover every aspect of the war. We just wanted people to become aware that these people, returning soldiers, families, are dealing with tremendous  issues that demand our attention. It’s all we could do with this one. Social workers deserve a film of their own.

Q: Social workers who saw the film thought the acting was great and you handle the issues in a realistic way. They also realize this is a movie. But they saw a missed opportunity. Could you have focused more on social and psychological treatment soldiers can receive when they get home?

A: I’m sorry that they see it as a missed opportunity.  But I also understand their perspective. Social workers are dealing with huge, complicated problems and they are rarely acknowledged for their enormous contribution. So the frustration is clear. But you have to understand that this, as you say, is only a movie. It gives a spotlight for a brief moment and then it’s gone. The reality stays. And we were trying to introduce audiences to the reality. There are so many good people involved in the aftermath. We don’t even show the Casualty Assistance Officer the Army sends to help the families. We don’t go into the healing process, really. Maybe there’s a sequel there.

Q: One social worker wrote: “Based on my proximity to military bases and installations, I’ve had some limited experience with military families on my case roster. Did you use a consultant to help you portray the military ‘culture’ accurately?”

A: The Army fully supported our movie and we have a technical advisor on set every day, Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, a great guy and a great help to us.

Q:  Did you know actress Samantha Morton in your film is part of a campaign to recruit more social workers in the Great Britain? How do you feel about Samantha’s efforts?

A: Sam is a remarkable women and a sublime actress. I knew she was active in social workers issues and I know that it come from her childhood. I applaud her efforts and I know they come from a genuine place.  Sam doesn’t do anything she doesn’t believe in.

Q: Another social worker asked: “Do you feel that social workers are generally misrepresented as unskilled professionals? After directing this film, has your view of social workers’ role and impact change at all?”
A: I grew up in Israel where the role of the social worker is integral to society. I do think there’s a misperception in the U.S. as to what a social worker does. Unless you know one or you’re interacting with one, there’s no real model for people to look at and learn from. Social workers have not gotten their fair share of public attention, and their role has not been publicly acknowledged on a large scale. But that’s not to say that they are not being appreciated and admired by so many for whom social workers dedicate their lives and time.  To me there is something heroic about it. Not in a clichéd, Hollywood way. There’s something heroic about a life of giving, a life of service to social justice and bettering people’s quality of life.

Q: What projects are you working on next?

A: There are a few things I’m looking at, nothing solid yet. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.  It sounds like your members have some ideas for me. And I appreciate it.

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  1. From the NASW Facebook Page:

    Katie Olheiser commented on what type of social work movies she would like to see Moverman address:

    Sorry, haven’t seen Messenger, so very busy. I would like to see more awareness around how institutions reinforce oppression for families of color and how Native Americans still struggle with genocide due to these factors. Its all systemic, and there are things that can be done that aren’t. Things that don’t cost much money (sorry, budget cuts aren’t the right excuse). 🙂

  2. Nice interview. real thoughtful answers and at least he has some respect for our profession.

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