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Veterans put their own war stories on film

Irked by Hollywood's portrayals of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts -- don't get them started on 'The Hurt Locker' -- five veterans will offer their cinematic perspectives.

March 07, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis

For years, they have cringed at Hollywood's portrayals of the Iraq and Afghan wars. And don't get them started on the inaccuracies in the Oscar-nominated film "The Hurt Locker."

Now, five veterans have been offered a chance to make their own documentaries about the consequences of the wars for them and for those around them.

Commissioned by Brave New Foundation, they will produce and direct short films on topics including the Muslim experience in the U.S. military and veterans making the transition from the battlefield to the college campus.

"What we are hoping to do is to get . . . a perspective we may not have seen, or that we see very infrequently, and that is the direct perspective of the veteran," said Richard Ray Perez, executive producer of “In Their Boots,” a Web series on the wars' effects in the U.S.

That perspective is readily available in print. One of the veterans, Clint Van Winkle, 32, of Phoenix has published an unflinching account, "Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." But because a film is more difficult to produce, most war documentaries are the product of civilian filmmakers.

Although their subjects vary, the filmmakers share a desire to challenge the stereotypes about veterans.

"It's almost a cliche. I'm a vet with PTSD," said Van Winkle, who plans to take up the subject again in a film about a friend wrestling with survivor's guilt after escorting home the remains of a fellow Marine.

"But I'm not on the street. I went to school. I have two degrees. I'm a functioning person, but I have issues."

Chris Mandia, a former Marine from San Pedro, was one of the first Iraq veterans at Los Angeles Harbor College in 2004.

"When I told them I was a vet, they thought I was talking about [treating] animals," he said. "There was a young girl who was this hippie type, she asked me: 'Have you killed women and children?' "

Mandia, 29, has won a coveted scholarship to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He wants to tell the story of other veterans struggling with the same experience.

"I hope I can help them not to be ashamed to be a veteran," he said. "They are going to college. That means something."

The filmmakers also hope to provide a more realistic portrayal of the military than is typically found in Hollywood fare.

"I'm so mad that there has been such critical response for 'The Hurt Locker,' " said Kyle Hartnett, a Los Angeles-based Army veteran who studied film production at San Francisco State University after serving in Afghanistan. "It's so inaccurate."

"In Their Boots," which is supported by a $4-million grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, has featured episodes on families coping with the deployment of a mother, father or same-sex partner and about veterans dealing with brain injuries and homelessness. Production team members say they are excited to see what the veterans come up with.

Amanda Spain, who produced the first season, said military families tend to be cautious when discussing experiences with civilians.

"I wonder if they are going to be more willing to tell a different truth" to the veterans, she said.

In October, the foundation put out an open call through veterans' organizations and movie industry newsletters, websites and associations. About 100 veterans around the country submitted ideas. Using a webcam and Internet chat programs, Perez interviewed a selection of them.

"I wanted to look for people who not only had the filmmaking skills, but also had the demonstrated ability to articulate a potentially compelling story," he said.

Although the foundation is led by prominent left-wing documentarian Robert Greenwald, Perez said its funding requires it to be nonpartisan about the wars. He assured the veterans that the foundation would help them make the films they want.

The foundation is providing each filmmaker with a $10,000 budget, equipment and mentoring. Each will also receive a three-month stipend of $7,500.

"It is very difficult to make documentaries if you have to make a living," Perez said.

The foundation plans to post the films on its website and will help the veterans arrange screenings.

At the end of February, the five were invited to Los Angeles for a three-day "filmmakers' boot camp" at the Brave New Foundation studio in Culver City.

They practiced camera and lighting techniques and discussed story structure and interview strategies.

They also took a stab at pitching their films to a fictional studio executive -- a process Greenwald warned is "the most insulting, degrading, dehumanizing experience."

Hartnett quickly learned what Greenwald meant. Hartnett, 28, was deeply troubled when a Muslim American was charged last year with killing 13 fellow soldiers in a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood in Texas.

"It got me to thinking, why are the only Muslims I know about killers?" Hartnett said. "Apparently there are thousands of Muslims in the military. I think it is kind of a shame that nobody has decided to tell a positive story about them."

With just 30 seconds to make his pitch to Greenwald, Hartnett said: "I'm taking a journey of discovery concerning Muslim Americans in the U.S. military."

Greenwald's verdict: " 'Taking a journey' is usually not a strong pitch word. It tends to feel a little bit nondramatic and New Age-y."

He encouraged the filmmakers to take advantage of the Internet to raise funds and to market and distribute their films.

"You don't need anybody's permission" anymore, he said.

"You just need your Facebook, Twitter, and you're off to the races."

alexandra.zavis @latimes.com

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