The American War Crew: A Conversation with Daniel Chein

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.

daniel_chein_2 (1).jpgSophie 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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:


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