Student Veteran Cynthia Kao-Johnson Creates “Resilient Documentary” at Syracuse University

Documentary Film and History (DFH) graduate student Cynthia Kao-Johnson entered the military with a creative mind and left with the added benefits of skills and discipline. Now she wants to make a difference by igniting conversations about sensitive topics through her skills in documentary filmmaking.

Kao-Johnson is a mother of three, an active-duty army wife, and a veteran who was in the Army Reserve from 2009 to 2013. According to her, being a reservist is living in both the civilian and the military world at the same time. She is used to having a civilian job while living in a military world. This gave her a unique advantage but it also created trouble. It was a surreal experience when she left that world. Not having to go to drills, or having people understand the acronyms that had become part of her vocabulary, took some getting used to. Feeling it was time to explore a different world, she enrolled in the DFH program at Syracuse University. Kao-Johnson came back to grad school searching for individual creativity, and to see how she could shape her storytelling in an artistic and provocative way.

“I was a broadcast journalist with the Air Force. I did a lot of camerawork. So I have a lot of creativity and a yearning for the freedom that documentary film-making affords.”

Throughout the year the program requires the students to put together a thesis film in order to complete the graduate program. Kao-Johnson’s film revolves around veterans’ experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and is a complete feature-length film. It deals with understanding PTSD and what veterans go through paralleled with how the community and outside world perceive it. She brings to life different war eras and how PTSD was experienced in earlier times because the actual term did not exist until 1980. Older vets sometimes did not even know they struggled from the disorder.

This topic is very close to Kao-Johnson as she personally struggled with PTSD herself. This encouraged her to integrate her story into the film as she felt that the veterans she was working with were making an impact on her life as she hoped she was making an impact on theirs. So the film to her is not just surveying different troops and chalking out a story, it is something much closer to heart. The film showcased at the end of last month. She has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to market and distribute the movie further. The trailer can be viewed on YouTube.

The Master’s of Documentary Film & History (DFH), a joint degree program between the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, is the only program in the country designed for students seeking the skills and knowledge to produce documentary films on historical subject matter.


Meghavaty Suresh is a Graduate Assistant at IVMF currently pursuing a Master of Science in New Media Management from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She holds a Master’s in Management and Bachelor’s in Commerce from Mumbai University.