Journalism Students Produce Documentaries about Local Vietnam Vets

Robinson pays his respects at the funeral of a veteran he has never met.

In Jessie Tipton’s film A Hero’s Welcome: The Bill Robinson Story, Captain Bill Robinson pays his respects at the funeral of a veteran he has never met.

Three short documentaries about local Vietnam veterans made by UT journalism students will be featured at Knoxville’s First Friday event and then air on East Tennessee PBS stations in conjunction with the broadcast of Ken Burns’s new epic documentary, The Vietnam War.

Tim Morris

Tim Morris

The short films—made by journalism and electronic media seniors Tim Morris, Isaac Fowler, Isaac Ward, and Jessie Tipton—have been compiled into Defenders of the Dream, which will premiere at 5 p.m. on September 1 at a First Friday event hosted by the East Tennessee Historical Society, 601 South Gay Street. The film premiere will be followed by a panel discussion led by local WBIR-TV anchor John Becker, creator of the award–winning Service & Sacrifice series.

Isaac Fowler

Isaac Fowler

Following the premiere, East Tennessee PBS will air Defenders of the Dream at 10:30 p.m. on September 14; at 7 p.m. on September 17, and at 11 p.m. on September 24. The 10-part, 18-hour Ken Burns documentary will air throughout the month of September on ETPBS starting September 17. Check local listings for times.

The students’ films bring a personal and local perspective on the war in Vietnam.

Isaac Ward

Isaac Ward

“It was amazing to watch the process the students went through while making these three films,” said JEM Associate Professor Nick Geidner. “Their experience in researching and shooting their films refocused their understanding of the Vietnam War, which in turn affected the films they ended up making.”

Jessie Tipton

Jessie Tipton

Geidner leads Land Grant Films, which is the supporting organization for this project. Part of the funding for the documentaries was raised through a successful VolStarter crowdfunding effort. The project was also supported by an Experience Learning grant from the Office of the Provost.

Morris and Fowler directed Welcome Home Brother. Their eight-minute film documents the experiences of three Vietnam veterans as they find their voice in East Tennessee through the help of the Vietnam Veterans Association. For this project, Morris, originally from San Diego, California, and Fowler, a native of Roane County, Tennessee, were paired with mentor Rich Middlemas. Middlemas, a 1997 JEM alumnus, is the Academy Award–winning producer of the feature documentary, Undefeated.

Ward, of LaFollette, Tennessee, was mentored by Knoxville–based filmmaker Doug McDaniel for his film, Life after War. The seven-minute documentary tells the story of two veterans from Oneida, Tennessee, and chronicles their struggles with employment after the war. McDaniel is the author of four books and produced his first feature film in 2013, The Lovelies of John Alan Maxwell.

Bill Robinson looks on the names of his fallen brothers and sisters in arms at the East Tennessee Veteran’s Memorial in Knoxville.

Bill Robinson looks on the names of his fallen brothers and sisters in arms at the East Tennessee Veteran’s Memorial in Knoxville.

Tipton, of Maryville, created an eight-minute documentary film, A Hero’s Welcome: The Bill Robinson Story, profiling Captain Bill Robinson, the longest–held enlisted POW in American history. Held captive for seven and a half years, Robinson dedicated his life to serving his fellow veterans upon returning home to East Tennessee. Tipton had a close relationship with his late grandfather, who was a Vietnam veteran; that relationship inspired him to want to tell the story of other veterans.

“This hands-on experience has offered our students an extraordinary opportunity to further their knowledge in journalism and documentary filmmaking,” said Catherine Luther, director of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media. “Without the support of generous donors, a Provost’s Office grant, and the efforts of Dr. Geidner, this project might not have come to fruition. Many thanks to those who continue to invest in our students’ aspirations.”