DETROIT — “The Vietnam War” was one of the featured documentaries at the 2017 Cinetopia Film Festival in Detroit. The documentary series features 10 parts and 18 hours of footage. It will air on PBS beginning on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.
“The Vietnam War” includes nearly 80 witnesses from all sides—Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as combatants and civilians from North and South Vietnam. In addition, there are more than 100 iconic musical recordings from greatest artists of the era.
I had the chance to sit down with filmmaker Lynn Novick, who collaborated with Ken Burns on his documentary series.
“What we’ve tried to do is tell the story of this extraordinary traumatic event through the eyes of ordinary people who lived through it,” Novick explained. “They come from all walks of life and all backgrounds–American and Vietnamese. You get to know people who fought in the war–Marines and Army soldiers and grunts and pilots. You also get to know people who protested the war here at home and whose families were split apart by it. You even get to know people who decided to go to Canada because they thought the war was wrong. In Vietnam, you get to know people who were civilians and soldiers on the side that won the war and also the people who lost the war.”
What was it like working with filmmaker Ken Burns once again?
“Ken and I have been working together since 1989,” she answered. “That’s been the great collaboration of my professional life. We have a wonderful way of working together to create these big epic stories. Ken is extraordinary generous. He’s very, very gifted as a storyteller. He’s very open to sharing ideas and working together. It really is a collaboration. It’s not just Ken and me. We’re the directors and we do get a lot of the credit when the films come out. We’ve had the privilege of working with a great writer, Jeff Ward, and an incredible producer, Sarah Botstein. The four of us really kind of shaped this film. Every day is a conversation about what can we do to make the film better.”
How will “The Vietnam War” be similar of different from his past works like “The Civil War”?
“More than 25 years ago Ken made a film with his brother, Rick, about the Civil War. They delved deeply into how it tore our country apart and really got into both the politics, why the war happened and the large social change that came as a result of it. That was done with mostly historians telling the story because obviously there’s nobody alive to tell you about the Civil War.
“Here in telling the story of the Vietnam War, Ken and I were able to get to know people who lived through it and were here to give you their testimony. It’s much more visceral and immediate and direct experience. On the other hand, war is war. When you go to war, you’re in a place where you’re possibly going to die or possibly kill somebody else or you might see your best friend die. It brings out the best and worst in people.”
What are some things you learned about the Vietnam War that you didn’t know before working on the documentary series?
“The answer could fill a book. Even though Ken and I thought we knew a fair amount about the Vietnam War before we started working on the film, everyday was humbling discovering how much we really didn’t know. I think we didn’t understand the dynamics of the political situation. We didn’t understand what was happening in Hanoi, Saigon and inside the White House. We didn’t understand how complicated it was for the people who lived through it and had to make choices about what to do.”
“One of the things we learned pretty early on in our process is that the Americans and the American government thought we were fighting against the North Vietnamese directed by Ho Chi Minh. It turns out starting at about 1960, Ho Chi Minh was not the most powerful person in Hanoi. By the time he died in 1969, he really wasn’t making decisions about what was going on in North Vietnam. That was a revelation to us.”
How long did it take to go from start to finish on this documentary series?
“We started thinking about this film many, many years ago. We decided we were going to do it in 2006. For a few years, we tried to get our arms around the story and figure out what we were going to do. Then, we started raising money. We started producing it in 2011. That’s more than six years. It’s been a long time.”
When can viewers expect to see the series air on PBS?
“The series will air on PBS starting on Sunday, September 17. It’s 10 parts so the first five parts will be Sunday through Thursday, the 17-21. Then, it starts up on Sunday, September 24 for five nights. Then, it will be repeated on PBS as weekly series on Tuesday nights all through October and November. It will be streamed on the PBS platform so it will be available pretty much all fall. It will also be shown in many countries all around the world.”
We’re here at the 2017 Cinetopia Film Festival. Is there a Detroit connection in the movie?
“There is no particular connection to Detroit. We’re traveling the country right now going to every market we can to show parts of the film and raise awareness that it’s coming. The reason we made the film really is because we wanted to find out what really happened in the Vietnam War. Because its been so traumatic and difficult for us as a country to talk about, we hope that we can tell the story with an open mind from all sides. We might be able to engage a different kind of conversation about this story.”
Any other final comments about the film or the war itself?
“We’re honored to be a part of this film festival. I think what’s particularly painful for Americans when we think about the Vietnam War is that we are very conflicted about why we fought it, whether it could have turned out differently, whether it was worth it and why it didn’t go the way we hoped it would. Those painful questions about the Vietnam War made it a very difficult story to tell.”
Look for “The Vietnam War” to air on PBS stations nationwide beginning on Sunday, September 17th at 8 p.m. running for five nights in a row. The second five episodes will air the following week.