By Molly Stuart
This weekend I had the pleasure of representing Guy Hircefeld: A Guy with a Camera at Impugning Impunity: Human Right’s Documentary Film Festival. In the heart of Manhattan, the festival setting stood in stark contrast to the mountainous Palestinian desert I tread with director Andrés Gallegos to make this film. Distant though these locations are, the film’s timely themes had no problem translating across cultures and continents.
The personal sacrifice and political transformation of Guy Hircefeld (lead subject) resonate with people around the world seeking justice in these tumultuous times. And his ever-present use of the camera as a weapon (in the face of more lethal weapons) reveals a unique example of the power of popular documentation.
Audience members remarked on the simultaneous beauty and unsettling nature of the images. They asked about the impact of Guy’s filming of Israeli settler violence and the expansion of illegal settlements. I reported that since the completion of the film, the settlers whose violent acts were documented in the film have been removed from their outpost on Palestinian herding land. However, last month another illegal outpost was built by the same group of extremist Israeli settlers, demonstrating the continued importance of the tireless efforts of Guy and his organization, Ta’ayush.
It was encouraging to hear such resounding enthusiasm from our New York audience. Their insistence that this film must be seen broadly will fuel our efforts to grow international understanding of this intractable conflict and the personal stories within it.
By Director Daniel Bernardi
Andrés Gallegos, a VDC filmmaker and a recent graduate of the School of Cinema MFA program, has been nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers for his graduation film, Shoe Shiner. Andrés is one of five students nominated in the graduate category of their annual awards along with filmmakers from AFI, USC and Chapman.
For Andrés, Shoe Shiner is very personal. It was born from one of his most precious memories from listening to his grandfather. “The script is based on my grandfather’s childhood and it portrays one of his adventures as a shoe shiner in Talca, my hometown,” Andrés told us. “This story has always resonated with me and during the evolution of my creative process as a filmmaker, I have been able to identify its narrative qualities and cinematic potential,” he said. “Wanting to bring it to a film form was a very natural decision for me.”
The fact that the script is based on a real story is a reflection of Andrés commitment to certain narratives that he feels close to, that he can observe in his home country in a daily basis. In Chile, the greatest manifestation of segregation is rooted in class division. Chileans live in such a dynamic that everything is articulated so that the less privileged classes have a lack of access to basic rights like quality education, working opportunities and health, directly affecting their human condition.
It is the sensitivity to the personal stories of peoples that preserver through great challenges that drives a number of Andrés’s VDC films. During the year 2017, he directed three short documentary films for VDC under the framework of the VA Legacy program. He carried out detailed development work together with the history department at San Francisco State University (SFSU). He also worked with teams of undergrad students from the School of Cinema at SFSU. “Personally,” he told us, “it was a very enriching experience, from addressing very sensitive stories to my performance in leading a documentary team.”
To see one of the films he made, Private first class Benjamin Tollefson, See:
This short tells the story of a Gold Star mother who honors her son and his family. “Benjamin found meaning in the Army, and his wife and son carry his strength forward.”
In this 2018 Andrés participated as a cinematographer in the realization of several VDC film projects now in post-production, traveling to France, Belgium, Hawaii, New York and Pennsylvanian to shoot material for five shorts and one feature on WWI. VDC then sent him to Israel film a feature-length documentary, Objector, directed by Molly Stuart. This film tells the story of Atalya Ben-Abba, a young Israelite who refused military service and chose prison to oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Unstoppable, during his stay in Isreal Andrés directed a short documentary, “Guy Hircefeld: A Guy with a Camera” for VDC. This short tells the story of a veteran that served in the Israeli military who now fights against occupation. This film is currently on its film festivals circuit.
Check out a trailer here: https://vimeo.com/288612014
VDC will continue to work with amazing filmmakers like Andrés. He has made us a world-class production unit focused on telling the veteran story.
Zayna Altoubal is a student born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, attending the University of Arizona as a film and television production major and planning on graduating in 2020. She seeks to become a director and actor.
Interning at VDC
by Zayna Altoubal
I was able to spend this past week in San Francisco working with the Veteran Documentary Corps, an organization dedicated to telling the real, sometimes unexpected stories of veterans and their families. Although their workspace is small and humble, I could immediately see that this team had enormous potential, with plans to expand their repertoire of films this year, and continue the growth of the organization through festivals and production of feature films.
My job was to help edit a promotional video for the VDC’s piece on Noble Sissle and his son. In the past, I have mostly worked on editing fiction pieces, music videos, and commercials. Documentary editing is a much more tedious process. First the interviews have to be transcribed. From there, you can piece together a concise account of whatever the subject is describing. The most difficult thing is to remove the less elegant parts of their speech, while still remaining true to the message that each subject wants to convey. Although doc editing can be frustrating and time consuming, I have realised this week that it can also be the most rewarding.
This experience has made me reconsider my thoughts about going into the documentary field. Throughout school, my goal has been mainly to work on fiction films, but I think now, I might look into getting involved in documentary film. It’s an important outlet that has the ability to both entertain, and teach a broad audience. I look forward to seeing more of VDC’s content, and watching the organization grow, hopefully working with them again in the future.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon I sat down to chat with Daniel Chein, editor and producer on Veteran Documentary Corps’ first feature length film The American War. Currently working towards his Masters of Fine Arts at San Francisco State University, Chein has previously edited a few shorts for VDC and has made several of his own documentaries. Thoughtful, articulate and patient, Daniel is well-versed in the art of storytelling. We talked about making documentaries, American identity and capturing the essence of the Vietnam War.
Sophie Clement: So tell me a bit about yourself, how did you get in to the process of filmmaking?
Daniel Chein: I came into filmmaking by way of anthropology actually, I studied anthropology as an undergrad and took a couple of filmmaking classes in my last year and it wasn’t until that last year where I really found an outlet that allowed me to express both my creative and critical insights… after that, I decided to pursue filmmaking.
SC: I watched quite a few of your films on Vimeo and it’s interesting that you say you come from an anthropological background because I think that shows quite a lot in your films. How do you go about picking something you want to create a film about?
DC: Filmmaking is a lot of work and what I’m trying to do is use a little more intention when deciding what projects to really engage because I think there’s a story in everything… with the project I’m currently working on… there was a specific approach to storytelling I was interested in and I sort of found the right situation and people to make that come together.
Okay, cool. How long does it typically take you to make a film, from start to finish?
The films that I’ve made so far are all short films and they have ranged anywhere from a quick project, maybe taking a couple of months, to something that takes a lot longer to develop and execute… the film that I’m currently working on for my thesis, Sonsplitter, I’ve been working on since the spring of 2016 so it’s coming up two years for a short film.
Wow, so it’s a full on process?
Filmmaking requires a lot of patience and… in the case of my an ability to step away and come back without becoming too disconnected from it. I think every film has its own set of challenges and for Sonsplitter it’s really been a test of patience.
Awesome, so is that how you became involved with The American War?
I heard about The American War and that there was an opportunity that I might be able to edit it, I reached out to Daniel and we talked about the project and pretty soon we started working on it.
So is this the first feature length film that you’ve edited?
It is not, I’ve edited two feature films prior, both documentaries, so I came in with some experience. One of the challenges with this film is that the film is in a different language than my native tongue so working with subtitles and picking up on the nuances of characters who are from a different culture or are speaking a different language, and have a different set of life experiences than me, is an interesting process.
Yeah, it must be challenging.
As an editor you want to try to find ways of relating to these subjects and to tell their story… I feel like I know them even though we’ve never met.
Cool, so how does that work when the subjects are speaking in a different language? Do you have to get the subtitles straightaway for all of the footage or?
The way it worked for The American War, our producer Trang worked with the team to translate and to determine what was worth translating… In my experience one minute of footage could easily take three times as long, four times as long to translate, so, it’s very time consuming. And even then trying to boil something down to the essence of what someone is trying to say… you really need a translator who’s able to pick up on the nuances, so Trang was great.
You’re also listed as a producer on the film, is that correct? What does a producer do?
A producer can do many things, but in my case I’ve really brought in a few key components to the project, one being our illustrator… and the music, the music was another big component of the film that I helped to secure the rights to and negotiate for and to ultimately use in the edit. Also just sort of managing this post-production workflow is part of my role as a producer, but more generally I think producers can serve in different ways. They help to raise money, they can help to promote the film, they could be brought on just to help facilitate a smooth production in Vietnam. They can wear many hats… For documentary it’s a credit that can mean a lot of different things depending on the type of film that’s being made.
So have you always worked in documentary?
Some of my films are more experimental, but I think my approach has been informed by the documentary film making practice, more so than fiction, although I do incorporate some elements of fiction into my work as well.
What draws you to documentary versus fiction film?
There’s a kind of innate spontaneity in the documentary process that forced me to rely a lot on my intuition… there’s a tension in documentary where you’re trying to control the story that you’re trying to tell and yet at the same time there’s so much that’s outside of your control operating within that space is appeals to me.
I suppose that’s the inherent quality of working with real people, it’s never quite going to end up how you expected.
I’ve met so many great people working in documentary, as collaborators but also subjects or participants. It’s expanded my perspective and something that I’m really drawn towards.
What about the editing process do you like the most?
The magic of editing it’s kind of an intuitive process for me so it’s hard to breakdown. There is a way of working with the material and playing with it… like a sculptor with clay or a painter with paint… trying to see what speaks to me, what ideas and what themes, what storyline emerges, I find that interesting.
How much do you work with the director of the film, Daniel Bernardi? Is he quite involved in the editing process?
I think he really trusted me with the material but also I think he needed a certain kind of critical distance… Having trusted me as an editor, I was able to work with the material and then, when it was ready, approach him and say, from the material that I have to work with, this is what I came up with. And then later in the process, Daniel became much more involved getting more into the details and lately, at this point, we’ve been working together to try to get it exactly where it needs to be.
What do you think is the importance of telling a story like this? It seems to me to be an unusual take on something – even the title of the film, The American War, it seems to be a little bit of a play on the perception of that war itself. The film is marketed to an American audience, is that correct?
I would say that from Daniel’s intent, The American War is geared towards an American audience, but also an audience that might not understand that particular conflict from a veteran’s point of view, and particularly a veteran that would have been considered our enemy. I think that enough time has passed to where there’s space to have this kind of conversation, where Daniel as an American vet, even though he didn’t serve in the Vietnam War, is able to go to Vietnam and try to talk about what that experience was like for them.
Do you think it [the film] is intended to be provocative at all?
I think that, I would say, from my point of view, it is going to be provocative to some people but I don’t think there’s an outright intent to provoke. I think that people have different associations with that war that if you were sympathetic to the cause or you were opposed to it, you’re going to have, a different take on the film.
Did you find that you had to do a lot of research into the history of this event?
I did. Even though my parents emigrated here after the Vietnam War was over, growing up as an American in the U.S., my life was influenced by the Vietnam War in ways that I can’t really explain. There was still so much about it that I didn’t really understand, and I wouldn’t even go as far to say that I understand it even now, but there’s aspects of it that I feel I understand very well. and I did have to do a certain amount of research yes, everything from you know the timeline, to the statistics, places that are being referenced and even the pulse of the American perception… all that stuff, I had to figure out.
Interesting, because it was fairly divisive, was it not? It seems to me that it is quite ingrained in American identity, the Vietnam War.
Well, it’s interesting because I ask people who lived through Vietnam, “America seems to be going through a very difficult chapter now, how does it compare to the state of the union back in the Vietnam era?”, and I get different responses actually, some people feel like it was even more divisive during the Vietnam era and some people feel like it’s more divisive now. It’s definitely something that has profound influence on the American identity and what it means to be American today.
I think it’s fascinating and it will be an interesting climate to have the film released in.
Keep up with Daniel here: http://www.danielchein.com/
Tran Hong Hanh is a knowledgeable and thoughtful man whose input as a producer during film production proved invaluable. Here he has written a few words about leading The American War film crew through the Phu Quoc Prison and explains to us, the audience, some of the history of the Vietnam War.
It was after dusk when we arrived on Phu Quoc Island. As the plane was descending, I looked out the window and caught zillion lights from the city, just as glistening as the reflection of the starry sky on the ocean surface. This was my second time visiting Phu Quoc, and my first time with my family. Phu Quoc Island welcomed us with a “locally” generous deal of rising wind. In the middle of an incredibly pleasant sound of the ocean, the coconut leaves, scooter exhausts, and scattered local street cries, I felt mixed feelings in me. I was relieved to see the beauty of such a pristine island yet anxious for what I was going to show my family in the next day – Phu Quoc Prison.
First thing in the morning, we rented scooters and headed to the well-known Phu Quoc Prison. The ride was marvelous. Everywhere our eyesight reached, the scenes were captivating lush green and mountain landscapes. It felt like a stone’s throw when we reached the prison. Here is a quick overview about Phu Quoc Prison – it was built in the Indochina War by the French colonists and was originally designed to jail Vietnamese revolutionists who were considered dangerous to the colonist government. After the Geneva Accords were signed, French returned most prisoners here to North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, more prisons were built and reinforced across Vietnam, including Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Danang, Can Tho, Quy Nhon, etc. Phu Quoc prison, hence, became a P.O.W. camp under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam for detention of captured Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.
Phu Quoc prison covers an area of 40,000 square metres, divided by 12 zones, and housed more than 400 detention areas. There were four subdivisions named A,B,C, and D in each zone, each surrounded by half a dozen rows of barbed wire and stacks of mines. Guarding towers with machine-guns, constant patrols, and additional security during nightfall made Phu Quoc prison virtually impenetrable. The prison was manned by two thousand ROV staffs and wardens and about fifty American advisors. Each battalion of military police and each detention area was supervised by a corporal-rank American advisor. Overseeing Phu Quoc Prison was a ROV commander whose ranks were either lieutenant-colonel, a captain, or a warrant officer. There was always an American lieutenant-colonel and an American major sitting in the commander committee.
As we walked into the prison area, another world opened up in front of us, where ocean sound, rising wind and friendly local accents faded behind. In each subdivision, there were 9 rooms for prisoners and 2 others for interrogation, punishment or solitary confinement. The 36 square-meters prisoner room was built to house 50 people but actually had 100 to 120, sometimes 180 people. We walked by each subdivision to see the montages of tortures, trembled by the most poignant examples for the sheer brutality against human lives. Corporal punishment used included electric shock, waterboarding, hanging prisoners upside-down, nails driven into fingers, feet and head, thrusting burning metal to prisoner’s flesh, pouring boiling water onto the prisoner’s body, burning prisoners in a big wok, tightening prisoners in sacks and pouring burning coal onto them, burning prisoners alive, burying prisoners alive, and hurting prisoners with pounder, sticks and rod, pulling teeth.
Wardens could sentence prisoners to death en masse by firing guns at them at once or using poison. Misery and pain inflicted on communist prisoners also included the well-known “tiger cage”, a cramped cage covered by barbed wire where prisoners were kept inside for days and nights. Huynh Duc – a subject in our documentary film The American War – was kept in one of these each time he plotted an escape. Beating was constant. With the systematic tortures and the worst living conditions, between June 1967 to March 1973, 4,860 prisoners were killed in Phu Quoc prison. Thirty-one times escapes were plotted, including prisoners digging trench four seperate times to get out, seven instances of rioting and fighting against the wardens and thwarting guns to escape, as well as the fourteen times prisoners escaped by climbing the walls and six times when prisoners just scattered and escaped successfully.
After walking around for a while, I was getting ready to leave. On my way out, I caught my youngest daughter standing quietly next to an old woman. The lady was telling my daughter about her annual visit to this place as her brother and sister-in-law died here. We didn’t have anything to say. Our minds were beset, and our hearts were heavy. The war, which we thought to have ended way back now laid out in our memory, explicitly more than ever.
Translated by Trang Tran
Associate Director of Veteran Documentary Corps and a filmmaker in her own right, Carolina Gratianne is undeniably an ideas person. With an eye for detail and knack for problem solving, Carolina worked as a producer for The American War. We talked about the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking, new perspectives and the importance of veteran narratives.
So tell me how you got involved in filmmaking!
The short answer is that I’ve always been interested in it. When I was nine, I decided to make a short film for my mom as a birthday gift. It was me directing, editing and producing the whole thing on the family video camera while my brother and sister were the actors. In college, one of my professors was advising me on potential careers that I would be good at. We were making a list of pros and cons and she randomly said, “What about filmmaking?” I vividly remember walking away from that meeting having made up my mind about doing film. I was eighteen so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.
Tell me a little bit about your job at Veteran Documentary Corps?
Daniel is the Director and I’m the Associate Director/Production Manager. I do a bit of everything, from the day to day activities to producing. I also do tasks like managing interns and doing my part in running the center.
And how do you like that compared to filmmaking? Do you prefer behind-the-scenes production work?
The cool thing about this job is that I’ve been able to do both. I recently directed a short film for VDC so I’ve done my own creative work. At the same time, I’ve done a lot of the pragmatic, day-to-day tasks such as budgeting. That kind of work is necessary. Without people working to get the permits and do the budget and set everything up, things wouldn’t get done. So I’ve kind of gotten the best of both worlds.
So you’re the most important person on the team!
I wouldn’t say I am, but in general, producers play an important role. They get the money, they make stuff happen, and then they just let people be creative.
And you enjoy being a producer?
I do. I also enjoy being a director, I’m kind of straddling both. Long term, it would be ideal to produce my own films. In the meantime, I’m happy to produce anything that’s VDC.
Did you enjoy the process of being a producer on The American War? Do you think it was a different experience from producing the shorts?
Working on this film was really rewarding. The process of seeing something you worked on go from pre-production through production and then come to life in post is very satisfying. With The American War, there was that moment in post when all looked at each other and said, “Wow, we really have something here”. We didn’t realize how special it was until we saw it. It was an awesome feeling.
So you’ve been working on The American War since it’s inception?
I started working at VDC at the brink of the film’s starting process so I was involved in pre-production. I was responsible for getting everything they needed to go on the trip, from equipment, to visas, to flights. By the end of pre-production, I’d visited the Vietnam Consulate so many times that they recognized me by face! In the back of my mind, I was aware that things had to get done and the whole team was depending on it. Not just the team, but also the people who were already signed up to be interviewed in Vietnam. There is a lot at stake sometimes. Filmmaking can be very intense.
Do you have a preference between documentary and narrative film?
I don’t really, I enjoy both of them for different reasons. I think that fiction work lets you go to places that you wouldn’t be able to go in documentary; however, documentary has evolved so much. Beforehand, documentary was stereotyped as over-informative and a bit monotone and one-dimensional. Now, you can get so creative with it that you can really engage your audience with information without it feeling like just numbers and stats or research.
Do you think it’s important for a film like this to be told in a documentary format, as opposed to a narrative piece?
When people go to see documentaries they look at them through a lens of “truth” and that’s important when telling a story that hasn’t been the mainstream, American perspective. The Vietnamese have their perspective, and it’s important that it is shared on an international level. If this was a fiction piece of work people could write it off as “inaccurate”. However, this film interviews veterans. It’s a first person account mixed with actual war footage that we acquired from the Vietnam Film Institute. It’s a film that’s not only researched, but is being told through people who lived it. That’s really hard to refute.
I like that the film is subversive.
Yeah, absolutely, and it’s not about saying that the mainstream narrative is wrong. It’s just that there are always two perspectives and two truths and two sides. In a way this film is coming in and saying we’re not going to let you forget that there’s another perspective. There’s something really cool about the documentary form because it allows people to speak truth to power or speak truth in places that haven’t been before.
How do you think American audiences are going to react to this film?
That’s a hard question because it’s hard to gauge how invested a group of people are gonna be in a film. There are amazing films that for whatever reason don’t connect with audiences. However, this is a film that’s going to stand the test of time. Regardless of whether or not it connects now, it will connect at some point. If you’re interested in politics, if you’re interested in history, if you’re interested in humanity, if you’re interested in understanding why people have gone to war and the effects of war, this is a film for you. I think right now we’re in an era where people are understanding the significance of knowing the past so that we don’t repeat those same mistakes. Also, people are more open to documentaries these days. Before, documentaries were more for academia, but now we have Netflix doing original documentaries and people are invested. I can’t predict the future, but now seems like a good time for this film to be released.
So, where do you see yourself in the future, in terms of filmmaking?
Making films that are interesting to me. Here at VDC, we tell stories about veterans, and the more that we tell stories about veterans, the more I see the necessity of it, and it’s something that I can be really proud of. When we’ve shared these films, like when we’ve done screening, people really connect to them. Veterans are so embedded in our culture and society, and we need to pay attention to how we’re treating them. It’s so important for us as a society to understand how they feel when they come back from deployment, this organization helps facilitate that conversation. If we make these films for people to watch, maybe, just maybe, there can be a better understanding of this thing that is really hard to understand. If I can continue doing something like this in the future, then I’ll be happy.