Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them.”
Olivier Morel’s film “On the Bridge,” which I viewed on Saturday, October 8, 2011, at the Chicago Film Festival, is a powerful, intense examination of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), based on filmed interviews with many of the veterans, families and friends affected by this “cancer of the spirit,” as it is termed by one soldier in the film.
The singer mentioned in the film (Jason Moon) put it this way in one haunting lyric:
“Somewhere between lost and alone, Trying to find my way home.
I’m tryin’ to find my way home. It’s hard to fight an enemy that lives inside your head.”
Nowhere is this more true than in those returning Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Olivier Morel, a French-born film-maker on the faculty of Notre Dame, began filming the documentary interviewing returning veterans in cities across the United States over three years ago. The film, which is showing at the Chicago 47th International Film Festival is “On the Bridge.” (*Review to follow).
What follows is an exclusive interview from Olivier Morel, the Director, who was kind enough to answer these questions about the documentary, [which I will review in a separate article and in shorter form for Yahoo and Associated Content.]
Olivier Morel to Connie Wilson
Interview on the film “On the Bridge” (Zadig-Productions/ARTE, 2011)
1) What initially inspired you to start making this documentary 2 years ago? Did you personally know some returning veterans …what?
This film would never have been possible without the fantastic women and men, the Iraq War veterans that I met while starting to develop what was at first a simple curiosity for the “subject:” They are the ones who inspired me. My initial intent was not necessarily to make a “film.” The very reason why I started working on the issue of war trauma among returning veterans from the war in Iraq is that I got really angry: I was stupefied when I learned about the epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans. (*8,000 a year, 23 a day).
The first thing I was exposed to, if I remember well, was that cold but gut-wrenching statistic in the news. I was also uncomfortable with the fact that the “news” rarely report on the subject: this is not a “breaking news” story. On the contrary. Like the war itself, it has become a very banal thing: the soldiers who are struggling with war-related psychological trauma “survived” the war, but many kill themselves at home and most of those deaths are completely anonymous. In most cases, those deaths are not seen as are war-related but rather as “personal” matters affecting “individuals” and it tells a lot about how our society relates to the current wars and those (soldiers, relatives, communities…) who are sacrificing for them. I found that unacceptable.
For some reason I ended up re-considering the entire way that the soldiers, or the veterans, are perceived in our society. To put it in a nutshell, I have the unpleasant feeling that, on the one hand, there is a positive perception that “glorifies” the “heroes” who are coming back from the war zones, and that, on the other hand, there is a (very) negative perception, a discomfort, to say the least, a taboo, or worse, a profound and insidious disgust with regard to what the soldiers have been through in combat zones, and regarding the kinds of actions in which they have been involved, the things they have done, etc.
Those representations, if they are connected with a concrete reality in many cases (yes, they are very brave, they deserve a tremendous respect; yes, in some cases that have already been reported. Bad things were done by occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, during the past ten years…), are also, in my opinion, very reducing, if not, very unfair when it comes to the “bad” things, and very disconnected when it comes to the “good” things.
This Manichaeism, this is my point, instead of helping us comprehend what the soldiers have been through, this attitude is, on the contrary, blocking us from understanding in all of the senses of the word, what is going on here. This is not only about understanding what it means that the U.S. is a society at war since 2001, this is also about what happens when, very concretely, soldiers are coming home : they are not understood, not well treated, not well considered and regarded, and the controversial ways in which the soldiers and veterans are handled by an institution such as the Veterans Administration is a paradigm of this lack of understanding. That is what I found the most unacceptable. It affects the soldiers, the warriors, but also millions of families. I had the unpleasant impression, that neither the families, the communities, were prepared (for their return from war), nor, the soldiers themselves! And that raises enormous questions: about our culture, our culture of the war, our understanding of what it means to be a soldier, to serve a country, to sacrifice, to be a warrior, and of course, to make the highly challenging adjustment back to civilian life when they come home, surrounded with civilians who (in the vast majority) have no clue (even when they think they know, which is complicated…) of what being in a war means. So, the consequences of this gap between the “good” and the “bad” soldier, is just devastating.
That’s why the film is “devastating.” A good friend of mine, who runs a movie theater, after having watched the film, said: I have tried to film in this “in-between” zone, this grey zone, trying to avoid the “good” and the “bad,” guy, this is why this is an observational documentary.
I started filming when I knew I had reached this point with the veterans, when they knew I would never judge them, but also not be a part of the “congratulations, thanks for your service” automatic and pre-formed discourse (this does not mean, I want to make it very clear, that I do not want to “thank” them. On the contrary: they are the most inspiring, bright and respectful people I have met in my life!). I’m not trying to glorify or magnify, and I’m not judging the fact, the war, the actions in which they have been involved or about which they talk in very raw terms in the film.
The film is straightforward in that sense. No sentiments, no myth, but, I hope, a profound compassion, at the end. This is also what I have done with those mute portraits of the protagonists who are watching the viewer, looking straight into the lens of the camera, at the end of the film. To a certain extent and without sounding too convoluted I am trying to give the impression that this is a film that watches us, that interrogates us, instead of a film that we are passively watching.
So after the initial shock, I started investigating around 2007. Now the subject is less and less anonymous, mostly because the post 9/11 era veterans are organizing themselves and starting to constitute a real “political” and social lobby in our society. Also because there are wonderful individuals who are publishing books or making great films (think about the unexpected recognition of a feature film like The Hurt Locker, great documentaries like Restrepo, Poster Girl, Where Soldiers Come From, for example), that are, very slowly, exposing the general public to these issue. I still do not see a drastic change in the overall people’s attitude toward the issue, but I hope this will happen!
My interest in the subject might also be related to the fact that I am European citizen (born and raised in France) who emigrated to the U.S. in 2005. While I was developing this project, I was also applying for United States citizenship. As a European, I belong to the first generation who never got drafted in a war since the beginning of the 20th century. And what wars! WWI, WWII, decolonization (the Algerian war specifically…)… all conflicts that had a devastating and profound impact on everyone’s lives, including in my own family. (*In introducing the film, Olivier mentioned his grandfather, who became an alcoholic after his war service and died of a heart attack when Olivier was a boy.) So making On the Bridge was also a very personal journey.
2) How did you first become interested in film, and what is your “official” title at Notre Dame?
I have worked as a radio, print and TV journalist in Europe for almost 20 years (I started when I was just 18…). While I had collaborated on many TV documentaries, I never had directed one before On the Bridge, which is feature-length.
At the University of Notre Dame I teach as a lecturer and also work for the Doctoral program in Literature. This is a great institution and the level of support and enthusiasm that I encountered at “N.D.” while doing this, is just fantastic: from colleagues and students, from employees, from all different horizons! Notre Dame has a very convincing way to cross boundaries and take advantage of the “trans-disciplinary” dimensions of such a work: from film studies (Film Television and Theater) to sociology, from literature (Romance Languages and Literatures) to “peace building” (Notre Dame has a powerful Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, http://kroc.nd.edu/aboutus).
In this very dynamic context, most of my recent classes and research focuses on this question: why is trauma such a significant source for creation and writing today, while at the same time trauma is also what leaves us speechless, without words? I faced this question in my doctoral dissertation, which investigates the impact of the Holocaust on contemporary writers from outside Germany (People who live in Berlin, the epicenter of the Holocaust, and who are dealing with multiple religious identities, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and nationalities, Russian, Hungarian, Turkish, etc.) I am also dealing with this in the film, while showing veterans who are carrying the burden of the War in their souls, while writing, composing music, speaking out, building bridges between soldiers and civilians, Americans and Iraqis…
3) We talked a bit about your country of origin. Do you have any insight into how the people(s) of Europe (including France) view the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan at this time?
It is very dangerous to generalize. Historians, sociologists, among others, are already investigating this very carefully. Without misrepresenting things here, one can say that in most European countries, including those who joined the coalition which invaded Iraq in 2003, a vast majority of the population was, to say the least, very suspicious about the reasons to go off to war against Iraq, and more specifically, I think there were not many European citizens who believed in the official version(s) provided by the U.S. administration: the existence of WMDs, for example, but more importantly, the fact that Iraq had anything at all to do with the 9/11 attacks, etc.
You probably remember that, on the contrary, a majority of the U.S. population trusted those versions, while there were huge demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq all across Europe. This is not saying, though, that the European people “liked” the Saddam Hussein regime or “hated” America and “supported the terrorists” against the U.S. On the contrary! But Europeans (to just mention the place where I was born and raised) were very cautious and had bad memories of the previous invasions of Iraq! It might sound very far from us today, but for the reasons I already explained, WWI has affected every family in Europe (including mine), and there are still many families in the United Kingdom or France, who remember that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers fought and died in the Middle East, and… in Iraq for example, in…1917, 1918 and that Europeans were militarily involved in those regions during the Second World War, not to mention the wars of decolonization. Of course most of the world leaders who were in favor of the invasion, never put this history up in the front, but the citizens are not as stupid and amnesiac as is often claimed.
Witnessing and facing these misunderstandings made this time (2002-2003) a very painful moment for me. And even with the turnabout of the U.S. attitude towards the war in Iraq, things still have not been processed, and this tension still has bad consequences on the very complex and passionate U.S./France relationship, to just mention an emblematic case of the love-hate fascination that the world (and not only Europe) has for the U.S.
Now, I am only focusing on Iraq in my response. The case of the war in Afghanistan is slightly different in many ways, and it would take me a long time and too much space here to explain why. You probably know that the French are involved in Afghanistan, and that, by the way, more French soldiers died in Afghanistan this year than ever since the beginning of the war ten years ago.
4) I worked with head injury patients at a Sylvan Learning Center I owned for close to 20 years. Your film is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, another serious mental condition. What do you think is going to happen to all these returning damaged young men and women? More of them were “saved” in these conflicts than in any other previous wars, but saved in what fashion? Do you think the U.S. is equipped to deal with such serious mental disorders as these, and, if not, what would you as an educator and a human being like to see done to help these injured soldiers that isn’t being done?
In his second address, President Abraham Lincoln said that the Nation had to “care for him who has borne the battle and for his woman and orphan.” Unfortunately, instead, the Veterans’ Administration is far from living up this motto.
I am not an expert in PTSD or war-related trauma from a medical perspective. I am not the most competent person either when it comes to analyzing and commenting on the way the health care system has dealt with the enormous influx of traumatized veterans since 9/11. So all the things I might express here relate to the many books and articles I read on the subject, as well as many conversations with care providers, therapists (my dear friend Hans Buwalda, who was a consultant on the film, or Dr. Judith Broder who created the Soldier’s Project), and of course the dozens, if not hundreds of veterans with whom I have spent a lot of time in different parts of the U.S. (West Coast, Midwest and East-Coast) during the past two-three years.
That said, to my stupefaction, my empirical study was confirmed by a few other sources like great books I read. There is massive agreement in the veterans’ community about the fact there is a shameful lack of preparation and adequacy of the system. The lack of preparation has a strong impact on the epidemic of suicides by soldiers/veterans in the U.S.
This was not only a lack of anticipation, but, I think, also a political choice. Shortly before the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, on February 3, 2003, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told the soldiers in Italy that the war “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” (*On the 10th anniversary of the war, on-air commentator Wolf Blitzer marveled somewhat disingenuously that no one thought the war would last ten years when it began. This may be true for Wolf Blitzer, but some of us who were protesting it as it started felt otherwise.) This is also in 2003, in January, that the Veterans Administration announced that a cost-cutting move would start turning away middle-income veterans who applied for medical benefits. As a result, in 2007, a team of researchers from Harvard found that 1.8 million veterans lacked of health insurance. This is just an example taken among the many cuts that were operated in the VA’s budget in this period. For me, this was extremely difficult to comprehend and I think that it is also the case for the vast majority of our fellow Americans who are aware of the sacrifice that the soldiers of this Nation are making, as well as their relatives, friends, communities.
Now if we consider that there is a whole generation of veterans who are going on multiple deployments (up to 9 now!) it is very easy to understand why this epidemic of war-related psychological trauma, suicide, etc., is unprecedented… Like you say, it might also reflect on the specificity of those wars. I have seen the devastating effects of that situation all the vets I met! For the majority of them, being just able to survive the VA’s hurdles, and bureaucracy, the delays, the complexity of putting together the required elements to make your case plausible, is a huge struggle, that is even worsened by the fact that the veterans are asked to repeat “their story”, to explain their “problems” over and over, with all the consequences that one can imagine: the system is set up in such a way, that it is re-traumatizing them…
As far as I see it today, I think that this Nation is still very far from recognizing and treating its veterans decently. So as an filmmaker and educator (to answer your highly pertinent question), I am doing what everyone should be doing: not accept the disastrous situation of our veterans as a fatality. Things are going to change, not only when veterans organize themselves (and they are doing it beautifully!), but also, when the “civilian” population takes its responsibilities.
5) When you were filming, you mentioned the warm welcome of Chicago residents, and I know you became close with these returning veterans. Have you “lost” any friends from these groups? In other words, have there been any instances of some of the veterans whom you interviewed saying, “I can’t handle this” and, in an extreme case, committing suicide? Conversely, have you seen any signs of recovery in any individuals you, specifically, became acquainted with?
These friendships that we have built over the course of the past three years with veterans, are among the most inspiring, powerful and beautiful things that happened in my life. And I want to name them, they are my heroes: Wendy Barranco, Lisa Zepeda, David Brooks, Vinny Emanuele, Ryan Endicott, Jason Moon, Chris Arendt, Derek Giffin, Sergio Kochergin, but also my dear friends Jason Lemieux & Kevin Stendal, the veterans’ friends and relatives whom one should never forget when we talk about war-related psychological trauma: Eduardo Zepeda, Louis and Sylvia Casillas, Cecelia Hoffman, Paulina Brooks, Alejandro Villatoro, Aaron Hughes, Pete Sullivan, Hans Buwalda, Nikki Munguia, Sarah Dolens-Moon, Dylan Moon, Molly M. Taylor and of course the parents of Jeffrey M. Lucey, Joyce and Kevin, and his sister Debbie, who are playing a crucial role in the film.
The reason why I am mentioning these names is because when you ask about how the vets could “handle this” one can never forget the great men and women who are behind them: this is not an individual who is being deployed and then comes back to civilian life. For the reasons I mentioned earlier—the lack of institutional care, notably—the first in line who “cares” for the veteran is a husband, a wife, their children, a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, their friends, their neighbors, the overall society… They are the one who are, at first, exposed to the consequences of the war on a soldier’s soul. And when most of these exposures to the soldier’s tormented souls, occur in private, when the first “symptoms” or “crisis” erupt in the middle of the night, or during the Thanksgiving meal, or… on the 4th of July (you know why… the explosions…), I deeply think that it is not a fully “private” thing, on the contrary! We are all involved, concerned, and this is why I have put these animated “pictures” of mute, immobile veterans, watching straight in the lens of the camera, head on, at the end of the film: to give the viewers the idea that this is not a film that they are watching, that this is not for entertainment, but rather, that this story regards them, that the vets are watching them at the end, asking them questions. I know it might sound like an easy and convoluted affirmation, but I wanted to make a film that watches us, us the society, instead of a film that we watch in the classical sense of the term.
In this context, filming those veterans would never have been possible without a long, very careful and dynamic preparation. I did not show up one day with a crew, putting a huge HD camera and lights in their faces to ask them to talk about the most disturbing moments of their lives! I worked hard on trying to find veterans who would be willing to talk about their “stories” but also at the same time, to try to avoid, as much as possible, the potentially strong undesired side-effects of the exposure to their combat-stress that would logically occur as a consequence of the filming, the interviews etc. I was very fortunate to have the support, and tremendous help, of wonderful professionals, like Hans (Johanna) Buwalda who is a therapist who does an amazing job (http://storiesandart.com/), working in Chicago with veterans, fighting for their rights, helping them readjust, and find their way through the complex and discouraging VA system, among many things. It has been the most challenging and extremely stressful thing that I had to handle during the making of this film: I really wanted to do it to address the issue of “PTSD”, but to do so, to share the difficult aspects of the daily life of a traumatized veteran “at home,” I had to put my protagonists in difficult and challenging situations and I did it in full awareness of what could happen. It is still a source of astonishment to me, that they all gave 200% in the project, from the very beginning, and this is not “my” film, in a certain sense, or a film about “them”, but our film, a film about us (in many sense of the term). In other words (and I do not want to say much about that), I also gave a lot of myself in this work.
I really admire the courage that they had, and their relatives and friends, to testify without filter, straight, head on! I could not begin to tell you all the amazing stories behind the film (this would be another film), but for example, this fascinating singer, Jason Moon (http://www.jasonmoon.org/fr_home.cfm): we filmed him in March. Around the middle of July, I received a long email from him. He had not contacted me in a long time, and I did not want to bother him… so I was awaiting a sign from him in great anxiety, furthermore, I was already in the stressful editing room, surrounded with colleagues who were just in tears anytime they had a chance to watch the images of the recordings of his beautiful and moving songs, of his interviews… If you watch the film, you will know that Jason is, was, has been extremely disturbed after is deployment to Iraq, to a point that was debilitating. After he came back, he went through all kinds of phases, from the happiness of being back home, to… hell. The only thing that he could still do from time to time, was take his guitar, write songs, but even that, he could no longer do it after a few months. During this period, he wrote the most powerful, violent, sad and haunting songs I have heard in my life… (Jason had written a few songs upon his return from Iraq, in which he described the different phases of his PTSD, but was unable to “touch” those, because of the overwhelming emotional charge that was associated to those songs…). Now, as said, I get this email in July: Jason explained that it had taken him eight long weeks to “recover” from the filming session (March), that he was starting to feel “better” and that he came out of the post-filming depression, while wanting to finish writing his songs, and that new songs were pouring out of his soul, that he wanted to record an album. While reading this email in the Parisian heat in the middle of our editing room, I was going through all the possible states of mind that are humanly imaginable: anxiety, fear, devastation, but also elation, happiness, joy. Not only had Jason been profoundly affected by our filming session, and had been put at risk, but also, had he been able to beautifully overcome, and come back stronger than he ever was since he had deployed! I was so impressed and proud him… of us! Today Jason is performing every week, he has been invited to perform in all kinds of contexts, including at Walter Reed… And I could mention similar stories of veterans who are today doing much better than when we first met three-four years ago. Not that the film has always necessarily played a role, but I think that it was the case for many of them: the sensation that they would touch other people’s minds, was indeed, very rewarding from them.
That’s why I also deeply hope that this film will reach people out, that we seeing the very beginning of its career. And this is not a selfish affirmation, as you see. This is our contribution, and we want to change things here. It’s urgent.
Chicago! Yes! After many years in the U.S., for reasons that I still cannot fully explain, Chicago remains as my favorite, always close to my heart! By far! And this is not only, for the obvious reasons, due to the beauty of this city, the mysterious presence (especially for an European) of this gigantic Lake, the splendor of its downtown… this is also that in my experience of the city, I have found a level of understanding and support in Chicago. For example, we have had the privilege to film Lisa Zepeda at her workplace, with the Chicago Police. Many people told me that it would be fairly difficult to obtain authorizations, to be able to film Lisa in uniform, etc. We had to work a bit on it, but as soon as they learned about my project, and how I was planning on working, they were not only very welcoming, but even preceded all of my expectations. For example, I have had the privilege to interview Lieutenant Jeffry Murphy, who is in charge of a very original program, the Crisis Intervention Team (http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=CIT&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=94839), a group that is trying to train people in the Police on how to handle potentially traumatized veterans in their daily work, interventions etc. This, as far as I know, is a pilot program, that is rather unique that it is precisely going in the direction that I am pointing in my work here: the fact that our society has to prepare itself for all the challenges that are occurring when the soldiers, the warriors are coming back. And this is not a discovery: unfortunately, many people do not realize that we are only seeing the beginning of the epidemic (of PTSD or war-related psychological trauma) at the very beginning of the process, it will take a long, a considerable and constant effort…
Olivier Morel, Director
South Bend, Indiana, October 7, 2011
 There are several good books about this vast subject. One of the most convincing and well informed is Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home, “Washington’s battle against American veterans”, University of California Berkeley Press, 2009.
 Again, read Aaron Glantz’s book in which he details all those cuts and the political justification that motivated them… op. cit., chapter 10, p. 118.