Sean Winn collects war stories.
He spends much of his time listening to, and recording, the tales of old folks who tramped the rocky sands of Iwo Jima, survived the chill and short rations at the Battle of the Bulge or subsisted on the gruel of a prison camp.
Then he takes video of their hours-long recollections, boils them to an essence, cuts in vintage war clips and gives them back to the veterans.
“It’s our gift to them,” he said. “People like to say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ This is our tangible way to say, thank you.”
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Winn’s Patriot Features, a year-old nonprofit organization, grew out of his private video production service that specializes in making mini-documentaries to capture family stories, promote motivational speakers or hype book authors.
He’d done a couple of productions — they typically run from 10 to 12 minutes — on veterans and made contact with Gary Swanson.
Swanson for years had made it his mission to record simple, hour-long interviews with veterans in the Kansas City area, video that was stored with the Library of Congress and the Jackson County Historical Society. He conducted more than 1,000 of the chats as a way to preserve the veterans’ remembrances.
His videos were raw, unedited question-and-answer sessions.
Winn took Swanson’s list of local veterans and began the project that grew into Patriot Features a year ago. The short films — he’s got a dozen posted on the group’s website and another handful in production — play more like something you’d find on PBS or the History Channel. They’re displayed on the group’s website, and cached by family members.
Winn spends about as much time shooting B-roll — the stuff that fills the screen when you don’t see the vet — as he does on the interviews. Then he sits in the Shawnee home that doubles as his office and pieces it all together.
So one of the films might begin with a flag flying in the front of a veteran’s house, cut to pictures of the subject as a young farm boy or in boot camp, zooming in and out of still photographs Ken Burns-style while a voiceover from a one-time artillery sergeant or Marine medic begins to tell a story. Music swells and fades.
“It’s a real production,” Swanson said. “(Winn) doesn’t take you from birth to death like I did in mine. He’s telling a story.”
Winn is a self-taught videographer. He’s learning the best ways to capture the best stories from veterans. Morning interviews work best, for instance, before they begin to tire. He’s struggling to find film clips in the public domain that he can add to give the pieces a sense of the period and make them more dynamic.
In its first year, Patriot Features has raised slightly less than $15,000. Winn is looking for corporate sponsors so he can hire others to shoot the films and expand beyond the Kansas City area. Some have already been shown in middle schools, where students can ask the veterans questions after a screening.
“We’d like to get it where everybody can look to see if there’s a veteran who lives down the street and then be able to watch the story,” Winn said.
He’s making a special push to record veterans of World War II while it’s still possible.
“They’re going so fast,” Winn said. “And if they’re not going physically, they’re going in their ability to remember things.”
He recently filmed one veteran about a month before the man’s death. The video was played at his funeral.
For the subjects of the film, it’s a chance to share a story that a grandchild or a stranger might appreciate.
Ed Boswell fought as a Marine on Iwo Jima and said for 60 years he rarely told anyone he’d been there. But Swanson discovered him, and referred Winn his way.
Boswell speaks like someone uncomfortable with the spotlight, but still grateful that others cared what he’d seen.
“It brings back some memories,” he said, not necessarily welcome ones.
“(But) I appreciate it,” Boswell said. “If enough veterans talk about war as a bad thing, these documentaries might spur somebody to think that way as well.”