Documentaries convey veterans' experiences

Daniel Bernardi knows first-hand that re-adapting to civilian life can be difficult for military veterans.

"My transition back wasn't easy," says Bernardi, a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy and professor and chair of cinema at SF State. "It wasn't as hard as for others, but it wasn't easy."

A screenshot of Bobby Hollingsworth at a desk, from his Veteran Documentary Corps film.

Bobby Hollingsworth, an SF State cinema student who served in the Army for 10 years, discusses his time as a criminal investigator in Iraq in a video that is part of the Veteran Documentary Corps.

To help struggling veterans, Bernardi is harnessing the power of film and the Internet through Veteran Documentary Corps, a virtual army of vets who are sharing their stories with the public. The core component of the project, run by SF State's Documentary Film Institute, is an online library of professional-quality short films about veterans, their time in the military and their experience returning to civilian life.

"I wanted to marry my work at the Documentary Film Institute with some of the struggles I saw vets going through, while at the same time addressing the fact that the public doesn't really understand or know too much about the veteran experience," Bernardi said.

Each video is roughly seven minutes long and tells the story of a veteran and his or her time in the military. Bernardi hopes these compelling videos will help others understand what veterans go through.

A screenshot of Julie Mendez, from her Veteran Documentary Corps film.

Julie Mendez is one of several veterans who participated in the Veteran Documentary Corps, sharing how discovering her passion for graphic design helped her escape the depression she sank into after coming home from Iraq.


"We want veterans to see that they're not alone," Bernardi said. "We don't want to be all pretty and fluffy and patriotic. We want to be gritty. We want to be honest. We want to be very much in the documentary tradition of trying to reveal truth, facts, emotion and experience."

In one film, a World War II vet struggles with the guilt that he returned safely while so many others in his unit died in combat. In another, a female Iraq War veteran describes how discovering her passion for graphic design helped her escape the depression she sank into after coming home. A third documents an SF State student struggling with emotional trauma from serving as a crime scene investigator in Iraq.

Six documentaries have been completed, and several more are in production or planned. The goal is to feature veterans from multiple wars and all branches of the military, with a variety of experiences. The website also has links to resources for veterans and the project's social media sites, and provides veterans an opportunity to create an online profile to interact with other vets.

Bernardi also hopes that high-quality, emotional and freely accessible films will resonate with viewers and help the public better understand the price of war, particularly the more recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

A photo of SF State Professor and Chair of Cinema Daniel Bernardi.

SF State Professor and Chair of Cinema Daniel Bernardi, a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy, wanted to help the public better understand the realities of life in the military.


"There was a human toll," he said. "I personally don't think the American public has as great a sense of the impact of these wars as it did during the Vietnam War, Korean War, World War II or World War I."

Veteran Documentary Corps received initial funding from the University's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and is pursuing additional, external grants to continue the project. In addition, many SF State students, alumni and faculty have participated as directors, editors, production assistants and even documentary subjects.

Several of the documentaries have screened at film festivals for veterans. As the project adds more videos to its library and gains additional steam, Bernardi hopes to involve a TV network to broadcast nationwide.

Bernardi has been outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but says the goal of Veteran Documentary Corps is to be truthful, not political.

"I understand what other veterans are going through, and I want to do my part to help them overcome it in a way I know how, which is filmmaking," Bernardi said. "I don't want to preach, but I do want people to understand the human price of war."

-- Jonathan Morales