Healing through a lens: Alhambra filmmaker sheds light on photography program for veterans with PTSD

Alhambra resident Ming Lai grew up loving film and photography. Now the filmmaker is combining his passions to produce a documentary about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a treatment program that uses photography to help them heal.

Lai, 47, began his career as an advertising copywriter before founding in 2008 Humanist Films, a film and commercial production company. Since then, he’s produced films about art, education, immigration, and violence. We sat down with Lai to talk about his passion for filmmaking, the growing number of Asian Americans in the industry, and raising awareness about PTSD treatment options in the veteran community.

Why did you become a filmmaker?

As a young kid, I would watch programs on TV about the making of a movie, and I was intrigued by not only the movie itself but the making of the movie. I’ve always loved film and studied film when I was still working as a copywriter. Eventually I got into producing commercials, short films, documentaries, and feature films.

Ming Lai (right) and Dilip Isaac shoot the VPRP film. | Copyright: ©Humanist Films, LLC/Ming Lai

While Asian Americans make up roughly half of Alhambra’s population, they are a minority in filmmaking. Did you encounter any obstacles because of your Chinese background?

I remember thinking that becoming a director or filmmaker was like getting in the NBA. It was really difficult. But now there are so many Asian filmmakers out there involved in all levels of production. I think as a community, it makes it a lot easier to get in and succeed.

We owe a debt to all the ones in the very beginning. James Wong Howe was an amazing Academy Award-winning cinematographer in 1930s and 1940s. Years later you have Ang Lee and other Chinese and Indian filmmakers. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of a bigger movement of Asian artists.

What do you think about Asian stereotypes in film and media, such as the martial arts master or nerd?

One of the great things about film is that you get to share your own point of view. And if the film is cultural, you can share your culture as well. I think it’s a pretty powerful medium. There are definitely a lot of stereotypes in filmmaking, but when Asian filmmakers get into positions of power, they get to control the content. Until then, you have this independent movement of filmmakers doing it anyway.

You are currently working on a documentary about the Veteran Photo Recovery Project, a program through the Veterans Affairs Department in Menlo Park that teaches photography skills to veterans suffering from a range of mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma. What made you decide to pursue this project?

The VPRP is an amazing program facilitated by Susan Quaglietti, a veteran nurse who has been working for more than 25 years with veterans with very serious mental illnesses. I wanted to produce a documentary about her work because I was deeply moved by her program.

I love photography. My father was a photographer and I inherited that love. Also I had been developing a feature film concept on a war photographer suffering from PTSD, so I had been doing a lot of research on post-traumatic stress. VPRP is about how art can help heal, so in my eyes it was a natural evolution of my work and it combined all of my different interests. It was a blessing to have Susan and her colleagues do this documentary and also have the support of the veterans.

(L-R): Dilip Isaac, Ernest Cheng, and Micah Mucklow shoot B-roll for the VPRP film. | Copyright: ©Humanist Films, LLC/Ming La

Why is this project important to you?

It’s been an absolute honor to interview veterans. Our documentary is not only about this wonderful project but also about giving back to our veterans and raising awareness about their health issues. They deserve more service and support from the government and understanding from the public. I feel a huge responsibility to these veterans because these people have had incredible lives and rich histories serving our country.

One of the challenges for veterans is to express these negative things they’ve experienced. The VPRP gives them a different language, a visual language, to be able to express themselves. This project has been very special because these people have reached a certain point in their recovery journey to be able to talk with me, to be able to say something on camera, to be able to convey that to somebody else. Hopefully our film will help them with their healing process in allowing them to further connect with even more people.

How can others help you continue to raise awareness of mental health in the veteran community?

We’re currently raising funds to make this film and all our money is going towards production and post-production. We rely on the support of the filmmaking community as well as the audience. It’s awesome to see big films in the theater, but there are a lot of great, smaller films like ours that highlight important issues. There is such a huge community of veterans out there who need assistance.

Anyone interested in donating to Lai's film can visit the International Documentary Association website.

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