Stephen Olsson filming Vets Michael Broas, Bob Reiter and Dr. Ed Tick in Ho Chi Minh City.

Olsson Feels ‘Soldier’s Heart’ Beat

Michael Fox January 26, 2011

It was just another week in the life of Stephen Olsson. He flew from Turkey, where he was shooting one film, to Tehran to screen Sound of the Soul (a record of the 2004 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco), to Saigon to embark on a third documentary. This last project originated with a two-hour, last-minute phone conversation with Dr. Edward Tick, a New York psychotherapist and author who’s devoted the last 30 years to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Tick was heading to Vietnam with four vets and their wives, and decided it would be all right if Olsson and his camera joined them in country.

“I had to meet everyone the day they arrived in Viet Nam and start shooting that first day,” recalls Olsson, who was director, cameraman and soundman on the 2009 journey. “Because of the issue of emotional sensitivity and the rapport factor, I thought even two of us would be too many. I basically had 10 characters to follow. They nicknamed me Cyclops because I was always right next to them with this wide-angle lens. Of course, you have to get close to get good sound.”

And impactful images, too, it goes without saying. But Olsson had to continually read the moment, and judge when to pull in tight and when to allow space. He cites Jean Rouch and his cinema verité approach, which acknowledges the power of the camera’s presence, as opposed to the pure observation of Robert Drew’s direct cinema.

“It’s a patience and rapport issue, and an instinctual process to feel when someone wants the camera [in order] to release something,” Olsson says. “The camera became a witness. Camera as catalyst; fly in the ointment rather than fly on the wall.”

Olsson will complete postproduction in March on A Soldier’s Heart and the Long Road Home, which takes its name from Soldier’s Heart, the organization Tick founded “to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD by developing a new and honorable warrior identity” via a range of practices. For those vets who can handle it, Tick accompanies them back to Southeast Asia on what he calls “their second, willful descent into hell.”

“It’s a story about soul loss, about how the soul is fragmented through the trauma of war,” Olsson explains. “This trip was about reconnecting the soul with itself. Each character takes us to the actual location where they were traumatized, and Ed Tick works with them. It’s an open-ended road trip; you don’t know where this film is going. It’s exciting. One’s hoping that transformation will happen [on camera]. I was shooting and deciding constantly.”

Olsson, an Emmy, Dupont and Peabody award-winning  filmmaker who is also Vice President of Original Programming at San Francisco-based Link TV, describes A Soldier’s Heart and the Long Road Home as a character-driven film without narration. “I’m trying to get inside the characters so their voices eliminate the need or the place for any outside narration,” he says. “The inside is so powerful that no narration could stand next to it. From the inside out, I’m trying to tell the story.”

To that end, Olsson traveled all over the U.S. filming his characters for what became the feature-length doc’s third act. As you might gather, both the tone of the film and the way it works on viewers are unusual.

“It’s tracing an experience rather than delivering a message,” Olsson says. “It’s asking viewers to take an emotional journey and to connect the dots themselves. In that sense, people see their own film.”

Approximately 30 percent of the 3.5 million Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD, Olsson, says. Now apply that ratio to Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and the size of the problem becomes almost unimaginable.

“Ed is trying to lead [the Vietnam vets] from being draftees to taking on their full legacy as warriors and, in rebuilding the soul, rebuilding the persona that has more to offer younger vets fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, where it’s not possible for them to take a healing journey,” Olsson explains.

The good news is many of the Vietnam vets treated by Tick are now mentoring and working with younger soldiers back from the current wars. However, although  A Soldier’s Heart and the Long Road Home ( introduces Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the first few reels, it’s not an antiwar film. It’s intended for vets and their families as well as the general public.

To that end, Olsson plans to roll out the film through Veterans Affairs (VA) groups backed with a few select festival screenings. The key ingredient, he asserts, is having the characters and other veterans accompany the doc to every stop. The last-stage fundraising campaign, therefore, includes community screenings and the vets’ travel in addition to final archival footage, music and sound mix.

“It’s not a film I think I need to travel with as the filmmaker, but that the vets need to travel with,” Olsson says. “It reconnects the pieces of souls broken through war. And it does so for all those unwilling or unable to take this painful healing journey themselves.”

Notes from the Underground
Congrats to Bay Area Academy Award nominees Charles Ferguson and Inside Job (Documentary Feature) and the Pixar crew for Toy Story 3 (Best Picture, Best Animated Feature, Adapted Screenplay and Sound Editing). Oscar underdog of the year: Yorgos Lanthamos's Dogtooth, which lit up the SFFS Screen in September, and was Greece's entry, got a precious spot in the final five of Foreign Language Film. In previous though semi-related news, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a set of stamps featuring characters from five Pixar movies on August 19. … "Cinema Across Media: The 1920s” is the theme of the first International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema, an academic throwdown that U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Film & Media is hosting Feb 24-26. Get the picture at … The Castro has booked the 35mm restoration of Eisenstein’s 1925 landmark, Battleship Potemkin, for March 18-20.