Olivier Morel shares veteran stories in class and on film

Author: Sara Burnett

Olivier Morel--portrait by Jean Gabriel Leynaud

Olivier Morel was in his car one day when a story came on the radio about suicide among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the report, eight to 10 veterans were taking their own lives each day.

The news was like a punch in the stomach for Morel, a Notre Dame faculty member whose research focuses on fiction and trauma.

“I was trembling,” he recalls. “I was angry, and I felt helpless … I was thinking, ‘This is unacceptable.’”

Facing Human Trauma

An assistant professional specialist in French and associate director of the Ph.D. in Literature Program in the College of Arts and Letters, Morel told the story to a friend a few months later during a visit to his native France. The friend suggested he share it with a producer—and within minutes of doing so, Morel had a signed contract to produce a documentary on the subject.

The result is On the Bridge, a feature-length film that will air this fall on the European public television channel ARTE. It is also among 12 documentaries selected for the prestigious Chicago International Film Festival, which begins later this month, and was an official selection at the recent Global Peace Film Festival in Orlando.

The film follows several veterans who return from war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a syndrome one veteran says “will follow you wherever you go.”

Forgive Me tattoo--photo by Olivier Morel

Some of the veterans turn to alcohol and drugs—“anything … to get your mind off whatever it is you don’t want to face,” one young man says. Another has an armful of prescription drug bottles but still panics when he finds himself in a position that could be vulnerable to an ambush. Several seek help from the Veteran’s Administration or the military but cannot get it. One young man, whose parents were profiled in the film, kills himself.

Morel, who teaches a class titled Writing of Disaster, is designing another course for next semester that incorporates the film.

“This is about PTSD, but PTSD is just the doorway,” Morel said. “It’s more about how people cope, how people survive through creative writing and activism … so that people who have not been through that can understand.”

The documentary will premiere at Notre Dame in February, on the opening night of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies’ ScreenPeace Film Festival. Morel is working with festival organizers on a plan to bring the film’s protagonists to campus for a question-and-answer session, and to orchestrate a panel discussion with faculty members and authors who have written on similar topics.

A Life Interest

A former journalist, Morel’s scholarly interest in veterans and their experiences stems from the early death of his grandfather, who was part of the French Resistance. He has written a book Visages de la Grande Guerre (Faces of the Great War) and contributed to a series of documentary films about World War I veterans and survivors. He has also contributed material from his interviews with Holocaust survivors to a video installation for the Mémorial de la Shoah and the city of Paris.

What he loves about making films, Morel says, is the same thing he loves about teaching at Notre Dame—touching other people’s lives by sharing stories.

In the case of On the Bridge, the message is particularly urgent, he says. By the time the film was completed this year, the suicide rate among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had more than doubled to 23 people per day.

“It’s just not getting any better,” Morel says. “My hope is to reach people. I want the word to spread.”

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Photo of Olivier Morel by Jean Gabriel Leynaud. Photo of returning veteran’s “Forgive Me” tattoo by Olivier Morel.