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War Stories: Brave New Foundation Trains Soldiers to Make Docs

By Tamara Krinsky

Usually when one hears the phrase "boot camp," images of guns, camouflage fashionand tough sergeants barking out orders come to mind. A boot camp of a different sort took place this past February in Culver City, California, when five veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars spent three days together getting a crash course in documentary filmmaking. The experience was part of Operation In Their Boots, the kickoff to a unique fellowship program during which the vetswill produce and direct their own nonfiction films.

The program is part of the larger In Their Boots series, which is produced by Brave New Foundation and funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF) of the California Community Foundation. Brave New Foundation received the three-year grant to raiseawareness through documentary stories of how people here at home are impacted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The grant is flexible, allowing executive producer Richard Ray Perez to experiment with different ways of fulfilling its mandate.

During the first cycle of the grant in 2008, Perez wanted to experiment in new media because that's one of Brave New Foundation's prime areas of focus. He hired a producer and director and developed 12 stories, eight to 36 minutes in length, all of which were streamed on the website. In 2009, during the second cycle, Perez and his team produced a more traditional documentary series of 10 half-hour episodes, which they are currently considering releasing on individual public television stations. For the 2010 cycle, says Perez, "We came up with the idea to commission veterans themselves to produce and direct their own documentaries. I realized a lot of people who served are National Guardsmen who may have had experience in the film industry working as grips, DPs, electricians or in jobs that may have helped them acquire any number of skills that are transferable to documentaryfilmmaking."

Perez was able to work out a budget in which the foundation would be able to provide $7,500 in stipends to five filmmakers to help support them during a three-month, part-time filmmaking process. "We had to come up with a formula that would make this really possible for emerging filmmakers," says Perez. "Making a living and making a documentary are two differentthings." Each project was allocated a $10,000 production budget, most of which is expected to go towards travel and crew. The short docs are expected to run an average of 15 minutes in length. The budget does not include equipment rental or post-production costs, as Brave New Foundation will provide these items from its stash of in-house resources. In addition to the funding, a key part of the program would be the mentorship and guidance each filmmaker would receive from the team at Brave New Foundation, including Perez and Robert Greenwald.

Once they set the parameters for the program, Brave New Foundation put out calls for entry through a variety of outlets, including IADIF sister organizations, and documentary-related networking groups. The foundation received approximately 100 applications, and selected Tristan Dyer, Kyle Hartnett, Chris Mandia, Victor Manzano and Clint Van Winkle to participate. Perez says that the filmmakers were chosen based on both their story ideas and an assessment of whether the applicant was capable of actually executing his pitch. While documentary filmmaking experience was not a requirement, filmmaking experience in any genre was a plus. Additionally, Perez wanted to make sure that the participants were open to collaboration and learning new storytelling skills, as the Brave New Foundation's staff would be advising them throughout the process. Although they had hoped to have a woman among the bunch, only two applied to the program, and ultimately Brave New Foundation went with those applicants who presented the strongest story ideas that were well suited for the documentary form.  

Hartnett was thrilled when he found out he'd been accepted into Operation In Their Boots. Hehad studied film production at San Francisco State, and he had come down to Los Angeles to break into the industry. "This opportunity came across as too good to be true," he says. "I never thought I'd be working on a documentary; I studied narrative fiction in school. This is not what I had in mind, but I'm super stoked to be doing it. I've been out here for less than ayear, and I'm already working in a professional environment. I'm super lucky to be a part of it."

Hartnett is a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division; he served a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. His film is about his personal quest to gain a better understanding of the challenges Muslim-American service members and veterans face. During Tristan Dyer's five years of active duty service, he spent one year deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq. Upon honorable discharge he enrolled in the Visual Journalism Program at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, California. His film,which will utilize stop-motion animation, will examine substance abuse among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. Chris Mandia served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. An award-winning playwright and screenwriter, he currently attends the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His film is about the transitional journey American service members make when they go from thebattlefield to a college campus. Victor Manzano also served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and is now an entertainment entrepreneur and veterans advocate. His doc will chronicle the turbulent life of fellow veteran Rudy Reyes, who overcame immense hurdles to become a highly skilled combat Marine, a successful actor and an inspiring self-help author. Marine Sergeant Clint Van Winkle served as an AAV section leader during the initial invasion of Iraq. He is the author of Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his film examines survivors' guilt among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

Despite their different service experiences and proposed projects, the filmmakers found a common bond when they participated in the three-day Filmmakers Bootcamp at Brave New Foundation. The purpose of the Bootcamp was to school the participants in everything from story structure to production basics, giving them the essential skills they would need to embark on their projects.

"There was a strong feeling of camaraderie because we all served," explains Dyer."You sort of click with one another immediately. We've been through a lot of the same stuff, even if it wasn't with each other. It's the whole tribal kind of mentality that's part of human nature."

Adds Hartnett, "We're kind of a rarity. Veterans are able to find their own, but there are so few of us out there who want to be filmmakers. It was immediately comfortable--like, 'I knowthese guys. These guys are me.'"

This trust and shared experience came in handy while working on storytelling exercises. Each vet was tasked with honing his story down to the essential conflict of the film or character. As each filmmaker tried to articulate his pitch and refine his story, the rest of the participants chimed in with valuable ideas and opinions. Their ability to do this was in part due to the fact that they all spoke acommon emotional language; their mutual understanding of the wartime experience gave them insights into what fellow group members were trying to express.

The bond among the five filmmakers has lasted beyond the Bootcamp, and they are all helping one another as they move forward with their documentaries. For example, the group is trying to locate Muslim service members for Hartnett to interview, as he's finding that the most challenging part of his film so far. And of course, it wouldn't be a Brave New Foundation program if new media weren't somehow involved. The program requires that all maintain Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts, and blog on a regular basis, so that the participants--as well as the public--can all follow one another online.

Perez anticipates that all five films will be completed by August. Ideally, he'd like to find broadcast distribution for the docs with a cable network or public television. Perez is open to packaging the films into a two-hour block, or playing them individually as shorts. The Foundation has also discussed bundling the films into a feature, but right now there is no money for the additional editing that would require.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.