Filmmaker Daniel Bernardi and his historical documentary series for the National Cemetery Administration
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Daniel Bernardi is a remarkable young filmmaker, and a very busy person. He is a Navy Reservist, a professor of film at San Francisco State University, and he manages a film production company specializing in documentaries. Daniel's current project, as a filmmaker, is a series of pieces for the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), which manages the nation's veteran cemeteries across the United States. These National Cemeteries are amazing historical sites, and are home some of America's greatest military heroes. -- In fact -- The Centennial Commission worked with the NCA for the Wreath Laying Ceremony for World War I heroes buried in NYC's Cypress Hills National Cemetery on May 2nd. Daniel's biggest film of this series, the WWI-themed WAR TO END ALL WARS, will premiere during Memorial Day Weekend at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Much of the new video work done by Daniel and his team can be found on their YouTube channel. We took some time to talk to Daniel about his work, and hear his thoughts on why these stories are important.
Tell us about this documentary series you are producing. What is the focus?
Veteran Documentary Corps at San Francisco State University makes profiles, short films and feature-length documentaries that tell the story of the veteran community. In the last five years, we have made over three feature-length documentaries, 40 short films and numerous profiles on vets from a range of nations, eras, wars and branches of services. We have made films about the buffalo soldiers, for example, a Civil War actress turned spy, the Harlem Hell Fighters of WWI, the first American in the first WWII concentration camp discovered by the allies in WWII, the Vietcong, a pioneer of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” PTSD, TBI, and a Ranger that turned conscientious objector. Our films reveal the veteran community’s challenges and success. We love when vets watch our films, of course, but our primary audience consists of global civilians that might not know anybody that has served in uniform. They’re distributed through El Dorado Films.
Tell us about the WWI-specific stories in the lineup. Who are they about?
Over the last three years we have received funding from the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) to tell the story of veterans interred at National Cemeteries across the U.S. and some interred at American Battle Field Monuments overseas. In the first year of funding, NCA asked us to tell the story of twelve different veterans interred at San Francisco and Gold Gate National Cemeteries. Last year, our second year of funding, NCA encouraged us to tell the story of the WWI veteran, which took as to Hawaii, France, New York, California and Pennsylvania.
We made a feature-length documentary on the American experience of WWI, including the Bonus Army March and the founding of the VA, and five shorts: 1) a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, John Henry Balch; 2) a Nurse who died close to the front lines, Helen Fairchild; 3) a Sailor and future governor of Hawaii, Samuel Wilder King; 4) an ACE who died in aerial combat, Raul Lufbery; and 5) a Harlem Hell Fighter, Noble Lee Sissle.
These films are now in festivals. One film will premiere on May 18, 2019 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Our film on the Harlem Hell Fighter, Noble Sissle’s Syncopated Ragtime, just won the American Documentary Film Festival Best National Short Film award, making it an Academy qualifying work. This would not have happened without NCA’s generous support and engagement. Their goal – no veteran ever dies – complements and our objective – to tell vet stories that “live” well beyond their initial screening.
How did the series come about? Whose idea was it, who has been helping you in the various stages of prep, production, post, and distro?
In 2013, after several deployments, including one to the Iraq War, I decided I’d use the resources of one of the best film schools in the world, the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, to challenge media stereotypes of veterans, as well as empower veterans and professional filmmakers to collaborate and thus work together. I was the Chair of the School, had a large grant from the Office of Naval Research, and was surrounded by amazing filmmakers. I was also profoundly concerned about the suicide rate among my fellow veterans. NCA came onboard a few years later. At the same time, more and more filmmakers joined the effort..
I direct some of our films, but not all. I produce all of them, ensuring each meets our standards of storytelling; that’s actually the easy part, thanks to the exceptional filmmakers that we employ. The films are also shot by a professional cinematographer. They’re edited by professional editor and sound designer. The balance of the crew is comprised of students. We have a small but tight staff that ensures each film goes through a paper cut, assembly cut, two rough cuts and two fine cuts. The subject of the film, the vet or family, is involved. In fact, we never release a film until the vet or, in the case of deceased vets, the family give us the greenlight. They’re offered to educational institutions via Kanopy Films. California Humanities has also given us funding to screen the film at universities and community centers. We also distribute several on our El Dorado Films YouTube Channel.
Tell us about your research process - For the scripts as well as for the imagery.
We start a year before production in what is typically called pre-production. Our goal during this period is to find the most compelling veteran stories, secure the veteran’s agreement or, if the veteran is no longer with us, family approval. We also scour libraries for archival footage (to align their story to world events). Once we agreement, we write the treatment – which is part outline and part script without dialogue.
During this phase we’re setting up shoots, digitizing or downloading archival footage, and engaging institutions like the National World War I Museum and Memorial. We have online spreadsheets that track footage, b-roll, archival, and stills that all our directors and editors review. These spreadsheets are managed by top history students from our Department of History (some of whom are also veterans). My chief partner on the faculty, Trevor Getz, makes sure that anything we include in a film is historically accurate. He’s also in a lot of the films as an expert historian, and thus reviews all treatments. Other historians also appear in our films.
For the production, we like to interview people three times in three different locations, capture b-roll, and fly our drone for aerial and tracking shots. We are developing a technique to fly the drone five feet off the ground to mimic a dolly (forward and backward movement of camera) and track (side by side). This saves us a lot of money while making our films a bit cinematic.
We avoid the news story and industrial film looks at all costs. We’re documentary filmmakers with an eye toward the aesthetics of the medium. Once we’ve shot all we’re going to film, we dump it all onto an editor, and charge that person with a paper cut, assembly, two rough cuts and two fine cuts. The subject and/or family get to chime in on the second rough cut and both fine cuts.
NCA often flies out to campus to review rough and fine cuts; this is always ideal because we can put the film on the big screen and review it together. After all agree on final notes and those notes are executed by the editor, we lock picture and then send the film to sound design (often with an original score), color grading and final sound mix. In short, it’s a long process and we don’t cut corners. But we are a team and work well together.
Someone is rightly going to ask: who makes the final call if there is a disagreement on a shot or other element? Hard and fast disagreements are actually uncommon, but they do happen on occasion. I make all final calls. That said, I won’t release a film if the subject objects (this has never happened) or if we find something dishonest after we’ve completed the film (this happened once).
How do you decide which stories to pursue?
We typically pick a theme that gives us some focus. Last year, it was WWI for our Legacy films (films we make for NCA). We also made a feature film last year, Objector, about a Jewish woman that is jailed for refusing compulsory service in the Israeli military. This year we have two themes: Korean War for our NCA Legacy program; Women in Uniform for our Valor program (living veterans). And we’re finishing a feature on the Port Chicago disaster that grew out of a short we made for NCA two years ago. Once we have a theme, it’s all about research and opportunism. We can’t make all of the films we want to make, of course, so we have to cast a fairly wide net. We always settle on films featuring family, have some historical significance with available archival, and that allow us to further our aim to tell more and more unique or diverse stories.
What have you learned from putting these stories together? What has resonated or surprised you?
On a personal level, each film has helped me overcome some of the challenges I developed after my tour of duty in Iraq. It is my hope that each veteran or family member that has participated in a film has also come away with a better understanding of their service and sacrifice. I’ve also learned a great deal from the filmmakers that made some of our best films. I tend to gravitate toward experimental and poetic filmmakers, since I work more in the expository or rhetorical style. Experimental and poetic filmmakers can see things others cannot, but show them in ways that, if we give up a little control, we will also see. Even the directors that tend toward the same style I employ have taught me much, from how to evoke emotion without pandering to how to use coverage to mask one of my many mistakes.
Why is it important for you to tell these stories?
Democracies come under threat when it’s citizens fail to grasp the profound stakes of war and the wonderful yet challenging dimensions of military service more broadly. We have no draft and seemingly endless wars, and documentary filmmakers and veterans alike have a responsibility to shed light on what that means for our American democracy.
Good luck with your feature premiere!
We don’t have the feature online, as we’re about to put it in festivals. But here is the trailer.