Followup: "Visions of Warriors" Now On Demand

By David Schonauer   Wednesday March 21, 2018

Last November we spotlighted the documentary Visions of Warriors, from Los Angeles-based filmmaker and photographer Ming Lai, which tells the stories of four U.S. military veterans who participated in the Veteran Photo Recovery Project at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California. The project uses photography therapy to treat mental illness. Ming Lai recently contacted us to that his film is now being self-distributed via Amazon Video Direct, Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Vimeo, as well as through the project’s own store. Today we take another look at the documentary.

The four veterans featured in the film — Mark Pinto, Homerina “Marina” Bond, Ari Sonnenberg, and Priscilla “Peni” Bethel — served in the military during different periods, from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. They are battling against a range of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma. The documentary also showcases the VPRP team—founder and nurse practitioner Susan Quaglietti, art therapist Jeff Stadler, clinical social worker Ryan Gardner, and clinical psychologist Kristen McDonald.

Here is the trailer for the documentary:

Ming Lai started his career as a copywriter in advertising and later transitioned to producing, writing, and directing short films, commercials, and corporate videos. His photography projects include a continuing series on contemporary architecture and a series on the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated in World War II. Lai noted in a recent article at News Shooter  that he began working on the veterans project after working on a narrative film about a war photographer suffering from PTSD.

“Then I learned about Susan Quaglietti and her VPRP, which uses photography therapy to treat veteran mental illness. To my surprise, it was the exact opposite of my film. So I was immediately intrigued by her and her program,” the filmmaker said. He told Feature Shoot that he then simply sent “an old-fashioned letter” addressed to the VA Menlo Park, with Quaglietti’s name on it. “Miraculously, she received my letter at this massive campus, and she graciously said yes,” he said.

Pre-production work included interviewing a number of veterans. “We wanted a diverse group of veterans to represent the veteran population, considering gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic background, the branch of service, war period, and other important factors,” Lai told News Shooter. The documentary was shot over the course of a year and a half. Not surprisingly, finding funding was among the great challenges. In the end, Lai received a grant from Stanford University’s Medicine & the Muse Program in Medical Humanities.

“[O]ur main goal was to try to understand the veterans and what they’re going through,” he said. “We often used close-ups, physically connecting with the veterans, so the viewer can get into their heads. Alternatively, we employed numerous wide shots with lots of negative space to show the loneliness and alienation of the veterans.”


The film was shot with RED Epic (5K) and RED Epic Dragon (6K) cameras, paired with Canon L-series lenses (a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM lens and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 II USM lens). In addition, Lai used a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition for some shots.

Editing was done on a Mac Pro with Final Cut Pro X and color graded with the Color Finale plugin. Lai explained how he went about the editing process at the Final Cut Pro website. “Transcribing the interview footage and logging the B-roll footage was time-intensive, but it helped me to learn all of the details of the footage and to pre-edit the documentary in my head,” he noted.

The finished film premiered at the Vail Film Festival and received an honorable mention at the 2017 SAMHSA Voice Awards, which honor people in recovery and their family members. The documentary is now being screened at film festivals, as well as at universities and mental health conferences.

“Lastly, because this documentary is about photography therapy, we were deeply inspired by photography, in particular, photojournalism and documentary photography," Lai said. "We did a lot of research on iconic photo essays in Life Magazine and National Geographic that documented people’s lives. We wanted the film to look cinematic, but in a photographic way.


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