War stories: Documentary project captures vets' tales
Jeannie Nguyen gained valuable video editing skills by helping to preserve the oral histories of Oconee County, S.C., war veterans. But what truly interested her were the stories.
Graduate student Frankie Christ and undergraduate Jeannie
"Definitely the technical skills are important, but I was attracted to the story aspect of it," said the English major from Charlotte, N.C. "When they tell their stories, it becomes more personal. I feel like I know them."
Nguyen and about 10 other students participated over a two-year period on a Creative Inquiry project to produce a collection of DVDs of Oconee County veterans describing their war experiences.
Sean Williams, the associate professor of professional communications who directed the documentary project, said it began in 2003 with a grant to capture the stories of the county's Pearl Harbor vets for the Patriots Hall Museum in Walhalla. Over time the scope of the project expanded to include other World War II veterans and those from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
"In Oconee County, one in four households has a veteran," Williams said. "It's one of the highest per capita concentrations of veterans in the nation."
About 75 of those veterans have now been interviewed for the Patriots Hall Museum's "Eyewitness" video collection. Each hour-long session is distilled into a 12-to-14-minute finished product. The editing process involves some weighty decisions and the students learn as much about ethics and responsibility as they do about digital slicing and dicing.
"We are careful not to take something out of context or make someone appear to say something he didn't say," Williams said. "I think this experience really helps students gain a critical eye and see what the media can do in manipulating what people say. In learning how to manipulate media, you learn how the media manipulate you."
In paring each veteran's story down to its essence, the students usually find that the nugget is about people -- family members, comrades, the veterans themselves.
"War isn't about guns and tanks and planes," Williams said. "War is about people and ideas and conflicting ideology."
Aside from the teaching opportunities the documentary project presented, Williams found himself drawn to the larger themes that emerge from the veterans' stories. One is the transition from the way the World War II veterans talk about war -- "war was terrible, but those folks were doing it because it was their duty" -- to the way Vietnam veterans talk about it -- "almost 40 years later, some of these guys are still just downright angry about what they went through."
The other forceful message comes through when the veterans are asked what advice they would pass along, given their war experiences.
"Even the most war-hawkish people will talk about finding another way to solve problems," Williams said. "When you hear people who were in war, who chose to be in war, say let's figure out a different way, that's pretty powerful."
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