Veteran Documentary Corps in LA

Last week, Veteran Documentary Corps (VDC) kicked off its film tour in Los Angeles. Funded by a California Humanities grant, the tour consists of 5 film screenings that aim to promote the humanities by engaging audiences with a program of 4-5 short films produced by Veteran Documentary Corps. These films are the result of pairing a filmmaker with a veteran in a collaboration that aspires to spark a dialogue surrounding the veteran experience.

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Photo by Violet Gratianne 

The first screening was held at UCLA in the James Bridge Theater during Professor Brook’s lecture on documentary films. Four short films were shown to a large group of students (all ranging in age). The films were followed by a Q&A led by VDC’s Director, Daniel Bernardi. The participation was incredible, which was the product of astute questions followed by authentic answers. Out of all those in attendance, 90% said they would recommend the event to others.

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Photo by Violet Gratianne 

The second screening was held at the Echo Park Film Center (EPFC) for the 17th Annual Human Rights Film Festival. In the eclectic room that is the EPFC, 5 VDC films were screened in front of a diverse group of filmmakers and activists. Co-Founder of EPFC, Paolo Davanzo, introduced the Q&A, which was headed by VDC’s Associate Director, Carolina Gratianne, and veteran filmmaker, Bobby Hollingsworth. The audience expressed their approval of the diversity of the films; moreover, they insisted VDC continue to seek out the voices of those who are underrepresented (i.e. transgender, homeless, etc.).

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Photo by Violet Gratianne 

The response to VDC’s time in Los Angeles was positive. Some people suggested that VDC continue to screen at colleges, while others even urged VDC to reach out to high schools. A few voiced how essential it was for these types of events to be held on a regular basis. Overall, everyone understood how crucial hearing these veteran stories are in opening the dialogue between veterans and civilians. VDC eagerly looks forward to continuing its effort in advancing such dialogues.

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Photo by Violet Gratianne 

For more information about future events, follow VDC on Facebook and Twitter:

https://www.facebook.com/veterandocs/

https://twitter.com/veterandoccorps

 

Images by:

Violet Gratianne

CalHum Humanities for All Project Grant

Veteran Documentary Corps is honoured and excited to announce that we have been awarded a Humanities for All Project Grant by California Humanities (http://calhum.org/grants/humanities-for-all) for the project “Reel Veterans. Reel Stories”.

For this project, VDC will screen five short films, each about ten minutes, at five different locations over an eighteen-month period, with the goal of generating thoughtful and compassionate conversation about veterans. Special consideration will be taken to invite and include those who are active in the military, and their families.

“Reel Veterans. Reel Stories” is about the people behind the uniform. Each documentary is focused on the story of one veteran. The focus of these narratives range from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” campaign, to conscientious objection, to the journey through post traumatic stress disorder. At the core of each of these films are intelligent, thoughtful questions from both the filmmaker and the subject such as: How ethical are my actions? What does it mean for me to be participating in this process? What difference am I making? These questions are universal and as such the films retain a quality of approachability designed to make the viewer consider the journey of each veteran.

The “Reel Veterans. Reel Stories” films aim to showcase how veterans use art, documentary and critical thinking to contextualize their experience in the military. It encourages the audience to use the same approach and really engage with the material through Q&A sessions, which are held at the end of each screening. As part of this, at least one veteran and one filmmaker from the assorted films shown will be present at the screening, in order to answer people’s questions and facilitate discussion. The filmmakers and veterans will vary from city to city.

 

For more information, like us on Facebook or find us on Twitter to keep up to date.

“This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit http://www.calhum.org.”

VLP: Embracing Meaningful Education

As Veteran Documentary Corps at San Francisco State University gets ready for it’s first Veteran Legacy Program screening, we asked our National Cemetery Campaign Evaluator, Christina Sabee, to reflect on this veteran project. Here, she explains the importance of making meaningful connections through oral history, and why student involvement plays a crucial role in the program’s success. 

Embracing Meaningful Education 

By Christina Sabee, PhD

I remember learning about war from a textbook back in elementary and even high school.  It seemed like fiction – these were stories that seemed so far away from my own privileged experience that it was challenging to think through how the lessons we learned would influence my own life.  Like many others, it wasn’t until I engaged my grandfather to talk about serving during World War II or my own father about being drafted during Vietnam, that I really felt engaged, and understood the incredible sacrifice that our veterans make and the important reasons that they do so.  Those stories of real people in my life stuck with me better than any of the lessons I learned from my textbooks.

Teaching history in an engaging and experiential way is challenging because most of what we have available is text – but many educators are increasingly experimenting with using historical films to introduce personal stories and experiences to learners of history.  And really, using film to establish empathy with particular characters becomes increasingly relevant for a generation of students who might experience much more on the screen than their older counterparts.

But the Veteran Legacy Project has gone even farther than creating films that illuminate the experiences of our veterans.  We engaged students in the creative process of producing these stories so that other students could learn from them.  In my capacity as a project evaluator, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from our student creators, and look forward to learning from our student viewers, about their own experiences and insights engaging in this process.

The student historians and filmmakers engaged in a process that had them collaborating about the narratives of veterans from very different perspectives, and it seemed clear that both groups had a deeper and richer experience because of that collaboration.  While the professor advisors in this process (Professor Trevor Getz in History, and Professor Daniel Bernardi and Carolina Gratianne in Cinema) developed learning goals for their students that were specific to history and cinema respectively, their students went beyond the professors’ goals and came together to create films resulting in a truly special understanding of each others’ contributions to the telling of veterans’ stories.

Student producers of the films paid special attention to the final presentation of the narratives and had what they describe as a real-world professional experience. The care that they took in polishing and presenting these works is something they are proud of, and they should be.  Beyond the experiences in this project, I hope these students carry with them the importance of what they have produced and appreciate the impact that their creations can have.  Stories stick with us and color our understandings of important historical events.  Perhaps like me, other learners of history will feel more engaged and appreciative because of these students’ work.

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 Photo by Hannah Anderson 

 

 

 

VLP: Connecting With Our Youth

During the Spring 2017 Semester, 3 K-12 Teachers in Bay Area Schools partnered with VDC to create lessons for students about the national cemeteries located in and around San Francisco, including field trips to the national cemetery sites (i.e., either San Francisco or Golden Gate Cemetery). Each one of the school groups represented a commitment from school leadership, strong connections to academic standards in English/Language Arts, History/Social Studies and ongoing interest in civic engagement through learning about our community’s veterans.

Connecting With Our Youth

By Judith Munter, PhD

April 2017:  The first group came from an after school educational program located in San Francisco’s historic Bayview/Hunter’s Point community, Urban Ed Academy.  The mission of this program is: “To provide adequate educational enrichment, family support and advocacy for struggling communities of color. . . to help students and their families succeed academically, improve social conditions and well-being to become productive citizens of their community.” The teacher and director of this program decided to focus the learning experience on study of the Buffalo Soldiers, exploring and discovering the historic legacy of African Americans in the U.S. military following the Civil War.

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Parents and community volunteers participated in Urban Ed Academy’s April 2017 field trip to the San Francisco National Cemetery, and feedback on the learning experience indicates community-wide interest in expanding the students’ and community’s knowledge about the important contributions of Buffalo Soldiers in U.S. military history. Grades: 3-6.

May 2017: From Pacifica School District, Vallemar Middle School’s 6th grade class integrated a unit on the national cemeteries into their English/Language Arts curriculum during the spring semester. They also participated in a field trip to the Golden Gate National Cemetery in May 2017. A total of 54 students and two teachers participated in the project, with a total of 56 learners. Student groups researched the life story of diverse veterans buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery. Their research projects included study and presentations about Medal of Honor awardees and other heroes from our own local community.

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Their teacher reported that the students shared interesting feedback and reflections after completing research projects and the field trip to the cemetery. Some were shocked at the age of death of the veterans they learned about, whether he or she was very young or very old.  One student wondered how her veteran went on to live so long after fighting in such a terrible war – this student thought it would be hard to go on with memories of the fighting. One student thought it was odd that a person could win an award for killing so many people.  One student compared his veteran’s story with a movie scene.  Many students made connections to family members who were in the military and/or fought in a war.  Some students did not realize that military people have died in events other than a war. They were all shocked when they saw how many grave markers there are at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.

June 2017: The third school partnership group was led by two 7th grade teachers from Alta Vista Middle School. These two teachers developed an integrated humanities lesson designed to connect English and History. The purpose of this interdisciplinary lesson was to engage students in the processes of interpreting and responding to the value of memorials. Students began by learning about various national cemeteries across the United States in history while developing their skills of describing a place through writing. Students had a chance to learn about the San Francisco National Cemetery, and to research various individuals and groups interred there. During their field trip to that site in June 2017, students had time inside the cemetery to begin capturing the spirit of these life histories and places in writing.

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After the field trip students considered key questions about why military history is important and how memories of these histories can be shaped and influenced. As culminating activities, the students designed, planned, and created models or blueprints of memorials to represent ideas, events, or persons they deemed important from the San Francisco National Cemetery (History). They also outlined, wrote, revised, and published poetry that captured the spirit of this site (English). Following here are selections from the 7th grade students’ poems:

In The Calm Of Death, the Light

by Sam Rothenberg

In the calm of death I see the light,

As I walk in this starry night

As I walk, I see the names in the stones,

All I can think about are the bones

In the calm of death, the light

 

The bones that are buried

Unhurried, unwearied, unworried,

The bones that are buried six feet down

Makes the cemetary feel like a ghost town

In the calm of death, no light

 

And then I see it, plain and clear,

As if it had only been a year,

This gravestone was perfect,

With no markings that I could detect,

This grave was perfect, well and kept

 

In the calm of death, there is a light,

A light so bright that it lights up the night

 

Solitary Soldiers

by Kokwe Dadzie

A sea of gravestones

in a pit of grass.

A prickly, painful,

pit of grass.

Thousands dead

Six feet under

Resting peacefully.

Their voices,

Their souls,

emotions,

and goals,

radiating energy

through my fingertips.

 

I can smell the sweet,

sweet scent of flowers,

Floating in the air.

Peonies, roses,

Buttercups, orchids,

All in tranquility

honoring the dead.

 

The birds sing,

Their songs of sorrow,

Whilst a wistful silence,

blankets over the

clear

blue

sky

of hope.

 

So as I sit,

Immersed in heartache,

for the

Dead

Deceased

Departed

beings,

who devoted their lives,

Their prides,

To our nation.

As if service to our country

Was why god had their creation,

I leave a part of me

With these bodies,

I leave my respect

My honor,

And lay it across the fine grass.
And walk away.

VLP: Making Meaningful Histories

For the last six months, Veteran Documentary Corps at San Francisco State University has been immersed in the Veteran Legacy Program, a program aimed at telling veteran stories. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, this program focuses on turning the lives of 12 veterans interred in one of the two National Cemeteries in the Bay Area into meaningful short films and lesson plans. Helping execute the program’s vision is SFSU’s very own Trevor Getz, Chair of the Department of History and Professor of the History of Africa. As the program gets ready to launch its 12 films for the public to see, VDC asked Professor Getz to reflect on his experience on the project. Here, he explains the importance of the historical aspect of the Veteran Legacy Program.

Making Meaningful Histories

By Trevor Getz, PhD

The commemoration of the sacrifices, experiences, and worldviews of veterans who are interred in our nation’s national cemeteries isn’t something to be undertaken lightly.  Veterans’ stories exist at the intersection of history, heritage, and memory.  We commemorate and often celebrate their service to the country as a whole.  We have memories of individuals – friends, family members – who passed away either in service or afterward.  We also study their experiences, both of war and of its aftermath, in order to better critically understand the meaning of what has happened in the past.  Researching and producing creative work about veterans – whether movies, or curricula, or books and articles – means really thinking about the job of the historian and what we do, our role as both ‘rememberers’ and critical interpreters.

The opportunity to work with members of the Veterans’ Administration, film-makers, and teachers on a series of videos and lesson plans focusing on veterans interred at the Golden Gate and San Francisco National Cemeteries has been a real privilege, but perhaps the most exciting part of the project was that it allowed four history students – two graduates and two undergraduates – to really become ‘applied’ historians for the first time.  This excellent crew consisted of Bradley Zenoni, Nicole Miller, Belinda Sainz, and Michael Hephner. Ours was a meaty and quite difficult task, and for some of the students a bit of a trial by fire.  Sure, some of the work entailed sitting in the library endlessly searching books for information we could use to construct the history of, say, General Funston or Admiral Nimitz.  But there was also a great deal of archival work, sinking deep into newspapers produced in Japanese-American internment camps or looking for pictures taken in the aftermath of the Port Chicago explosion during the Second World War.  But perhaps the most difficult and rewarding task was working with friends, relatives, and survivors to reconstruct the real, human lives of those who had passed away.

This kind of oral history work can be draining, to be sure.  Emotions are easily communicated.  There is no detachment possible during an interview, or in looking at a picture album put together lovingly by family members, the way there is when one works with old, dusty archival material.  But the rewards are many.  History, after all, is about people who lived and felt and experienced and thought.  What most of us want, as historians, is to understand, to empathize, and to feel something of what they felt.  As Michael Hephner told me: “Talking to people face to face about their experiences gave me a much greater and deeper understanding of them, their emotions and their motivations.  Not only the feelings they had many years ago, but about their memories of these events today and how much these memories mean to them now. ”

Many of the stories we selected as a group had to do with “big” events in the experience of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the bay area, and many of them had a social perspective.  We wanted to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, both the racism they experienced and the opportunities they found in the US Cavalry. We felt that we needed to present the experiences of Nisei soldiers who fought for the US while their families were interned. We wanted to reflect the significant civil rights struggle of African-American sailors who died or survived the Port Chicago explosion, and of LGBTQ+ men and women who served this country. But we strove to tell these stories through individuals, whose experiences cannot be gathered merely from a headstone but who, together, make the national cemeteries such an important place of memory.  We also wanted to tell stories of servicemen and servicewomen whose individual stories of heroism and of quiet service often get lost in the chatter about wider issues, and we strove to do so as well, whether they served in Vietnam, or Iraq, or the Civil War.

I don’t know yet whether we’ve successfully captured the humanity of these women and men.  Only time can tell.  But I do think that, in collaboration with family members and survivors, teachers, film-makers, and the staff at the national cemeteries, we’re making a contribution to the rich tapestry of history and memory that surrounds service in this country.

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VDC Screening in Christchurch, New Zealand

“Each of these films is a fight (struggle) involving people in a battle against injustice.”

At the Returned Services Association (RSA) hub in the heart of Christchurch City, New Zealand, 40-odd people gathered to view a small selection of Veteran Documentary Corps films. An even smattering of university students, scholars and veterans produced an atmosphere of engagement and curiosity.

Photo by Sophie Clement

VDC Director and University of Canterbury Fellow, Professor Daniel Bernardi, provided a brief introduction to VDC’s mission and the four documentaries that were screened: Concentration Camp liberator Ralph Rush (directed by Bernardi); “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Resistor, Zoe Dunning (directed by Silvia Turchin); US Army Ranger and Conscientious Objector Rory Fanning (directed by Michael Behrens); and, Special Forces Combat Cameraman Michael Blackwell (directed by Bernardi). Bernardi also screened the trailer to a feature documentary, “The American War,” which tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of five Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army veterans.

Photo by Sophie Clement

The screenings were followed by a Q&A session. A diverse range of questions were asked, from to “What do you think of 9/11?” to “How do the experiences and opinions of a person affect the overall narrative of a documentary?” The level of engagement from the audience was both surprising and thoughtful, with conversation revolving around agency and democracy, the right of American citizens, and, inevitably, the topic of U.S. President Donald Trump. There was a certain universal quality to the thread of discussion, in which people engaged critically with the films shown, both relating their own experiences to the ones on screen and considering the global picture.

Photo by Sophie Clement

An ex-soldier who attended the evening commented that he enjoyed how the films “didn’t have an agenda” and provided an “honest and neutral dialogue on each of the subjects.” Scholar Alec Groysman felt that he connected with the films on a personal level, saying “These films force people to think and ponder how to behave, how to live, and what is truth… These films are truthful. They touched me to the depths of my heart… ” Each individual who graciously shared their thoughts on the films expressed the importance of understanding the weight of war and the ways in which we can create a better future. As one viewer put it, “I honestly don’t think that the average Kiwi can comprehend what war and devastation is, as we are such an insular country… I think Daniel should try and work with the modern Kiwi soldiers, as I think he will be able to develop a completely new way for the general public to understand [war].”

Photo by Sophie Clement

Overall, the screening revealed how the community in Christchurch is a conscientious one, and how the stories of American soldiers shown are a key tool in allowing a space and the opportunity for important discussion.

If you would like to attend a VDC screening, follow us on Facebook for the latest updates.

Blog post and images by:
Sophie Clement
University of Canterbury English Literature and Cinema Studies Major
VDC Intern

Miami VET Fest Makes Its Debut

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After a major surgery, Bryan Thompson was laying on his hospital bed when he had an inspired idea. As a military man turned filmmaker, Thompson understood that the production of web series was on the rise. So, with the slogan New Media in a New Way, Thompson set forth to create a new kind of festival that was in line with the vibrant Miami culture.

Miami WEB Fest is a festival that combines the typical film festival concept of screenings, panel discussions, and elaborate award ceremonies with something Thompson calls screen bash. Screen bash takes the content from the festival and displays it onscreen at the hottest clubs while the DJ is playing. This creates a whole new way for the filmmakers and the audience to interact with the material, taking the digital media experience to a new level, while still allowing the filmmakers the same sort of thrills that a filmmaker who creates the traditional type of film would experience.

Miami WEB Fest became an instant success; however, Thompson realized that it was not connecting him to the military film community in the way that he hoped that it would. He wanted to give veterans a platform to explore their untold stories, which lead to the creation of Miami VET Fest. With the first annual Miami VET Fest debuting this fall, I caught up with founder and CEO Bryan Thompson to get a closer look at the significance of having a festival whose aim is to pay honor to the military experience.

Carolina Gratianne: What is Miami VET Fest? 

Bryan Thompson: Miami VET Fest is a film festival for veteran inspired and veteran produced content. It’s a one-day event that happens on September 24th. We have all types of productions from short films to feature-length films and documentaries. We also showcase web series and commercials. We do all the screenings at roughly 7 o’clock, which are followed by an award ceremony and an after party that goes on late into the night.

CG: What inspired the creation of Miami VET Fest?

BT: When I created the Miami WEB Fest, I imagined I would find other filmmakers who are former military. Unfortunately, I didn’t find those people. Most of the filmmakers that were submitting were either people who had been film students or who had pursued this career path the whole time. I really didn’t come across any the first year and then only a few the second year that were actually former military. As a result, I started the Miami VET Fest, which has allowed me to discover other like-minded people who have been in the military. People who have applied their military background to the production process in very successful ways. I’m really excited to be able to showcase their work in the Miami VET Fest.

CG: In your own words, what is your role within Miami VET Fest?

BT: I’m the founder and CEO. I’m sort of responsible for every aspect, but my major focus this year has been connecting the festival’s events with the community. We had our board meeting and the mayor of the city, Tomas Regalado, showed up and explained that the veterans are of high importance to him and the city of Miami. Particularly, supporting homeless veterans, supporting transitioning veterans, and hiring veterans is a high priority. So the fact that there is a VET Fest and a WEB Fest that is veteran owned and operated makes a lot of difference. We believe that the festival will continue to make an increasingly large impact on the community.

CG: How involved are you in the selection process of the festival. Do you play a part in choosing what gets screened? 

BT: I do. The way we have it set up is that we have a group of judges. I’m also a judge. So I have a vote in what gets screened, but that vote is weighed with the other judges that are involved in the process. When there is a tie in the numerical process, then the judges have to get together, and we discuss what the pros and cons are so we can break that tie. I’m intimately involved in the decision-making process.

CG: So in your opinion, what makes a great film? Are there certain qualities that you look for? 

BT: A great film is subjective. A great film may not be a great film for the festival, and a great film for the festival may not be considered a great film by everyone else. What I mean is that art is one of those very subjective things and a lot of times something that may not be completely marketable in Hollywood may be something that people really want to see. In general, to answer your question, we look at the technical aspects such as lighting, sound, etc. Those things are universal. We look at storytelling. Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and end? If it’s a documentary, is it telling a story in a clear, concise way? Overall, is it a message that will resonate with people and that people really need to hear? Is it something that is going to be eye opening? Ultimately, we’re also asking the question, does this film contribute to society in a positive way?

CG: As the CEO and founder of this festival, do you feel a responsibility to the Miami community, to the film community, and to the vet community, to bring a certain level of diversity when you are choosing films? 

BT: Absolutely. Although it’s funny, when you just operate out of fairness the diversity thing happens organically. We don’t have something where we go by a numerical quotient. I wouldn’t operate that way because it needs to be a pure evaluation of art. That being said, of course we want to check ourselves and make sure we’re not being biased in some way. Biases can creep in without the evaluator really realizing that their biases are there. So, what we’ve done is we’ve created diversity in the judges themselves. We hope that the diversity amongst the judges will naturally lead to a sort of fair and honest and sincere process and that everyone has a chance to shine. Cause at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. We’d like to see all artist get their shot at glory.

CG: What advice would you give to filmmakers who are interested in submitting their work to Miami VET Fest? 

BT: I think that when you’re creating a piece of work you don’t want to cut corners. People think that not cutting corners is synonymous with spending a lot of money and that’s not really the case. Sometimes it’s really just a questions of putting in more time and effort into what you’re doing. Personally, I would like to accept absolutely every submission to the festival because I want to recognize veterans for what they’re doing and I feel a certain connection to anyone who is a veteran filmmaker or telling a story that is related to it. But of course that’s not the case because it’s a competition. So if you’re going to enter a competition you want to always make sure that you put your best foot forward. Sometimes that’s going to mean that it takes you a little longer and sometimes that means that you wait a year to submit until it’s exactly right. However, don’t over think it. If you create a film and you show it to 10 people who don’t know you, and they don’t have any reason to tell you I like it or I don’t like it, and all 10 of those people say it’s good as it is but you think that it has flaws that need to be corrected then it probably doesn’t because a good artist is always its own worst critic.

CG: Whether it’s the importance of it, whether it’s the future of it, the present of it, what’s something you would want readers to know about Miami VET Fest?

BT: The VET Fest is designed to give the public an opportunity to show appreciation to veterans in a unique way. These are people who have served our country and have discovered that they have an additional ability that they want to share with the world, and Miami VET Fest is their opportunity to do just that. So people should attend, people should support the event, and people should really remember that this is about more than just art. This is about showing our heroes that we care about their sacrifice and we care about their stories.

For more information about Miami VET Fest, click here.