Filmmaker creates documentary transforming tragedy into triumph

For Austrian filmmaker Alex Vesely, what began as a small archive project of his late grandfather Viktor Frankl turned into a documentary of transforming human tragedy into triumph.

While many students attending Monday’s screening of “Viktor I” credit Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, for establishing “logotherapy” — a psychotherapeutic school defined as healing through meaning — the film isn’t centered around his experiments or his tragedies at Auschwitz.

“It’s a very personal film … about the man who came up with this concept, Vesely said. “It’s Viktor seen through the eyes of the people who knew him best.”     

Vesely traveled the world for three years interviewing his grandfather’s friends, family, colleagues and former students. The interviewees’ anecdotes of Frankl’s life and work illustrate the impression Frankl made on their lives.

Frankl, who lost his entire family over three years in various concentration camps, authored 39 books over his lifetime. In 1991, The New York Times cited “Man’s Search for Meaning” as one of the “10 most influential books in America.” According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, Frankl’s work is “perhaps the most significant thinking since Freud and Adler.” He received 29 honorary doctorates from universities worldwide.

The film incorporates home videos of Frankl with his children, grandchildren and wife. There were also photographs of Frankl rock climbing, a therapeutic activity that Vesely said his grandfather pursued until age 80. Among the interviews are clips of Frankl speaking at Holocaust commemoration events and lecturing on logotherapy.

JMU psychology professor William Evans invited Vesely and Mary Cimiluca, CEO of Noetic Films to JMU when he heard about the completion of the film. Evans reads Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” at least once every year, because it “gave me a sense of hope that life is worth living.”

Sharon Lockaby, a second-year graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, appreciated the hands-on documentary about “famous people’s lives, people who’ve really changed the psychology world.”

Frankl’s life maxim of overcoming tragedy by searching for meaning in life was one of the film’s messages.

The film reminded John Clarke, a second-year graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, of the importance as a therapist to live out what you teach. 

“Once we’ve found meaning, so many things like anxiety and depression might be underlying a lack of meaning,” Clarke said. 

“Viktor I” had its first screening last week at the University of Mississippi, as part of a college tour around the United States and Canada. It’s Vesely’s first U.S. film.

“I originally thought this would only be interesting to people who were already familiar with Frankl and his teachings,” Vesely said, “but I got this tremendous feedback from people.”

The event began with an introduction by Vesely and Cimiluca, followed by the 90-minute documentary and a question-and-answer session.

“What really struck me about hearing [Vesely] speak and seeing the movie was that even though I revere [Frankl] as being this great psychologist … he was such a down-to-earth human being, and that was really refreshing,” said Whitney Nelsen, a senior psychology major.

The audience of about 50 was mostly made up of psychology students who had learned about Frankl during class lectures or read one of his books, as well as a graduate students hoping to apply Frankl’s theories to their own counseling work.

The film gave Clarke “a new understanding of what logotherapy is. It’s reminded me of the importance of speaking in a language that is universal.”

“I took away how easily you could impact people’s lives by just taking the time to show people you care,” said Derek Chaudhuri, a senior psychology major.

Vesely hopes that his grandfather, who died in 1997 at the age of 92, would have enjoyed the film.

“He was by no means perfect,” Vesely said. “He was not a saint. He was a human being, a doctor, a therapist, and he tried to use the time he was given best and fill it with as much meaning as possible.”


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