The Creation of the Unprecedented PBS Series "The Vietnam War"
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Huffington Post, AlterNet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: email@example.com.
Filming at a Cemetery in Vietnam
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“Only an honest accounting of our history will allow us to chart a new path in the world. The past is always speaking to us if we only listen.” – Christian Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, yet this brutal conflict continues to haunt America and affect our foreign policy, our culture, and our national identity. The failed war divided America, creating deep political divisions that continue today, another fractious moment of polarization and widening ideological fissures.
The United States lost more than 58,000 troops and was left with a nation politically torn asunder. The war also left as many as three million Vietnamese dead including many civilians, as well as killing nearly one million Laotians and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Millions more were wounded and displaced. And these countries were devastated by the machinery of modern, industrialized war, by the bullets and bombs and chemicals and the savage workings of modern, large-scale military operations.
Our intervention in a civil war in Vietnam illuminates a policy of armed intervention in foreign affairs and where that policy led. As the war ground on, the American government kept many wartime policy decisions secret from the public. While citizens argued the merits of the war at home, military actions led to the dislocation and destruction of civilians in the war zone.
The catastrophic war left the idea of American exceptionalism in tatters as many came to see the conflict as unnecessary and immoral, undermining the basic belief that the United States is the greatest force for good in the world. Others still see the war as a noble effort to protect American interests.
To deepen understanding of this complicated, divisive, and painful period in our past and to clarify its legacy, renowned filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a new documentary series for PBS, The Vietnam War. This unprecedented ten-part, 18-hour series explores the history and the meaning of the war from all sides—American as well as South and North Vietnamese, as it first immerses viewers in the French colonial period beginning more than a century ago, then through our war (1961-1975) and onto its fraught aftermath.
As with their past critically acclaimed collaborations, Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick did extensive original research guided by a panel of esteemed historians and other advisers. They drew on dozens of interviews in America and Vietnam to explore the personal perspectives of people involved at all levels of the war: American and Vietnamese soldiers and their families; officials in America and Vietnam; antiwar protestors; civilian survivors; and many others. Even as the film presents the historical underpinnings of the war and the rationale that got us into Vietnam and kept us there for so many years, it plunges viewers into the chaos and intensity of combat and shares intimate and unsettling moments that illustrate the horrific human consequences of modern war for soldiers and civilians alike.
After viewing the series, acclaimed Seattle author and historian Knute Berger commented: “For those who think America is in an unprecedented time of violence and division, “The Vietnam War” will be a sobering reminder that we’ve been here before and that things have been and can get, much worse. It was a crisis for our country, and millions of Vietnamese died as did nearly 60,000 Americans. We came through it, but not unscathed.”
Ms. Novick, the co-director of the Vietnam series, generously discussed the creation of this widely anticipated television event by telephone from New York City.
Ms. Novick is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. She has been co-director with Ken Burns for more than 25 years, and together they have been responsible for the most critically acclaimed documentary films that have aired on PBS including Prohibition (2011); The Tenth Inning (2010); The War (2007); Jazz (2001); Frank Lloyd Wright (1994); and Baseball (1994).
Ms. Novick came to Florentine Films in 1989 to work on Burns’s landmark 1990 series, The Civil War, as associate producer for post-production. She previously served as researcher and associate producer for Bill Moyers on two PBS series: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth and A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers. She is now co-directing Ernest Hemingway, a two-part biography of the writer slated for broadcast in 2019, as well as a feature-length documentary exploring the personal and intellectual transformation of incarcerated men and women in a highly-successful prison education program.
Robin Lindley: I’m a baby boomer and lived through the Vietnam War as a teenager and young adult. You’re much younger. How did the war affect you growing up?
Lynn Novick: I was born in 1962. My entire childhood was over-determined or directly affected by the fact that the Vietnam war was happening, so in my childhood memories, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Vietnam war.
I grew up in New York City. My parents are in their eighties now so they were not directly affected by having to make choices about whether to serve or not. At that time, they were married with children before the war heated up.
I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam, but I definitely was aware that there was this epic and difficult event going on and that the country was in a crisis that became more and more distressing. For me, it caused profound questioning—the questions that the film raises. What are the limits of American power? What does it mean to be a patriot? Do we always do the right thing? Those were questions that were presented by growing up in that time.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that perspective. Your Vietnam film project has been a massive undertaking. What sparked the documentary? When did you and Ken Burns embark on the film and what is your role in terms of this film?
Lynn Novick: I’ll answer that second question first. Ken and I are the equal creators and authors of this film. We are the co-directors. We’ve been collaborating and co-directing documentaries for more than 20 years. We make a film together. We make all of the important decisions about what the film will be about; how we’ll tell the story; the story we’ll tell; who we’ll hire to work with us. Our writer is Geoffrey Ward. Our senior producer is Sarah Botstein. We have our editors and advisors. We make all of those decisions together. In the edit room particularly we work very closely, hand-in-hand, to shape the film and tell the story we think needs to be told.
At the beginning, all we really knew was that we’d tackle the Vietnam war. The genesis of the project was that we both had been quite obsessed with this event and were trying to find a way to tackle it. When we first started working together, it was too recent. I came to work at Florentine Films in 1989. The Vietnam War ended just 14 years earlier. Ken and his brother Ric were finishing up their series on the Civil War, and I was helping on the administrative end of that.
Ken said for a while that he never wanted to touch war again. It was just too difficult, painful, and wrenching. But he did change his mind. Many World War II veterans were dying every day. In 2000, it was around one thousand veterans a day. We thought that history was slipping through our fingers so we decided to look at the Second World War, which we did in The War. We were finishing that project in 2006, and we had been talking about the Vietnam War for a long time and many more years had passed. And we had the experience of working with living veterans and getting them to open up and tell us their stories. Ken turned to me and said, “Okay, I think we’re going to have to do Vietnam now.” And I said, “Absolutely. Of course. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. Let’s do it.”
Then it became the question of why are we doing it besides the fact that we think it’s important and interesting. What was the story going to look like? And honestly, we didn’t know.
We turned to a process of discovery to find out a lot of things we thought were true were not and to wrestle with complicated, unsettled narratives on the Vietnam War.
We had several organizing principles going into it. We didn’t know how it would turn out. One was that we wanted to keep an open mind and an open heart and hear from regular people about how the war affected real people. We wanted to understand the leadership challenges and the decisions that were made in Washington as well as Saigon. We wanted to avail ourselves of new scholarship and there had been a great deal. And we did not want to make the mistake that so many Americans make when talking about Vietnam, which is that most of the time, we talk only about ourselves. So it was extraordinarily important to us that the we find a way to understand and represent the Vietnamese perspectives.
There are many sides to the Vietnam War in Vietnam, and multiple sides to it here. So it was a mosaic we tried to put together and to include as many perspectives and experiences as possible, and then make it into a coherent narrative that made sense and rang true. We didn’t know how it would turn out. We had no idea.
Robin Lindley: I’m sure there were many surprises. There was an award-winning documentary series, Vietnam: A Television History from the early 1980s. How do you see your film compared to that series?
Lynn Novick: We knew the people who worked on that series and Ken and I saw that wonderful series when it came out. It was extraordinary for its time, but it was made within a few years of the war ending in 1982 or 1983 so it has more of a journalistic perspective. The war had just ended [in 1975] when they started working on it so it tends to be a top down story of the leadership and policies and not much about the experiences of ordinary people. That’s one way our film is different.
And so much time has passed. Since then, the Berlin Wall came down. Vietnam went through its own agonizing postwar period from a planned economy and to extreme privation and rethinking that and going to a market economy. It’s a different country today and the way the Vietnamese think about the war and talk about it has evolved.
In addition, it was important for us to represent and give voice to the Vietnamese who fought on the losing side, who lost their country. Many of them came to this country because they didn’t feel they could stay in Communist Vietnam. So those voices needed to be heard.
And for Americans, for your generation, there’s a lot of inner conflict and mixed feelings and unresolved questions. How we think about those has evolved significantly since 1982 as well. Have we learned the lessons? What lessons have we learned? How do we conduct ourselves in the world? What has happened to our society? These are the questions that never get answers for, and you’d have different answers for them today.
There’s also a lot of material that has been de-classified. One of the revelations for us was listening to audiotapes of the presidents most responsible for this war: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Those tapes increasingly became available in the last 20 years. More material has been cataloged, organized, and digitized and made accessible, and scholars have been through it. We were able to sift through the work with some of our advisors of private presidential conversations that present a story of the war that did not exist before we started.
Suffice it to say, I don’t think anyone has ever told this story in a documentary film the way we have been able to tell it right now.
Robin Lindley: The tapes and other recent material you uncovered will be new to most viewers.
Lynn Novick: It was all new to us. We think it will be new to everybody but the most dedicated experts on presidential history. The educated, well-informed general public may know these tapes exist, may have seen some transcripts or heard some excerpts, but we give you an opportunity to hear these conversations in context: the tone of voice and the way they describe the situation they’re faced with and who’s on the call and what they say and what we know is really happening and what they’re saying publicly and what they’re saying privately and their general attitude.
You’re in intimate moments with these larger than life figures. It both humanizes them and there’s the possibility of being more greatly disillusioned. Maybe they are great men walking on a grand stage but they are also driven by the things all of us are driven by. They just happen to have enormous amounts of power.
The tapes are so revelatory. Even though we’re not going to break any news, and there’s not a tape in the film that a historian hasn’t heard, but to the audience, it will feel very new. There’s are tapes of Nixon and Kissinger, Johnson and Rusk, Johnson and Bundy, Johnson and Eisenhower, Johnson and Everett Dirksen. And you have Kennedy making a Dictaphone recording in the aftermath of an important decision and you hear his second thoughts.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process with such a massive process? How did you begin research and decide on major themes and directions to take the film?
Lynn Novick: It’s an iterative process. It’s overwhelming with a subject like this because there is so much material. You could get lost. You could drown. So one of the things Ken and I do right at the beginning on every project is to identify the scholars who are the most respected and most thoughtful and the chief thinkers on the subject. We did that here and our advisors helped us focus on the seminal books to read, where the best scholarship is being done, who to talk to.
We started with a panel of informed and thoughtful experts. Even with ten years working on this, we could never achieve the level of expertise they have over a lifetime doing nothing but Vietnam. That was extraordinarily helpful and they guided us the whole way through.
And by shoe leather, word of mouth, and our own digging, and following our own instincts, and asking different people the right questions, we gravitated toward people we thought we could potentially interview. We talked to probably a thousand people and interviewed a hundred in America and Vietnam of which 79 are in the film. We had to do research on the story of each interviewee and then decide [who to include].
That process is directed by us and what we think is important, but we’re also open to suggestion. I’ll give you an example. We got in touch with Joe Galloway, a reporter who covered the war. He suggested I talk with another veteran named Phil Brady who was a Marine and was there in 1964-65 working with South Vietnamese Marines. He told us about a South Vietnamese Marine he thought we should talk to, Tran Ngoc Toan, and he’s in the film.
Turns out that Brady and Toan were involved in a battle called Binh Gia at the end of 1964. It was not a battle we were familiar with and I don’t think most Americans are. Turns out to be an important turning point of the war for the Vietnamese. And just by happenstance Joe Galloway who recommended Phil Brady who recommended Toan were at this important battle we hadn’t heard of at the beginning of our process. Because they had such compelling testimony, when we went to Vietnam we looked for a Viet Cong soldier who had also been at the battle and we found Nguyen Van Tong.
You’ll see in the third episode the battle of Binh Gia, a major scene in the film. It’s one of the places where we were able to triangulate the war from three different sides. We got home movie footage from an American who worked with Phil Brady. We were able to get photographs from each of the people involved and from the North Vietnamese archive. We put together a story about this battle that has never been told this way.
So one thing led to another and archivally we could fill out with images from the event, and help understand the larger context of the war. That was a year-long process of putting that battle scene together. And that’s just one scene out of many.
Robin Lindley: That’s a remarkable way to examine a historic event. In addition to film and still photos, you also use a lot of music from the period.
Lynn Novick: We do. It was important to us. We think the music is archivally and historically as important as the footage and the pictures and the testimony of the people. The music is an artifact that helps us understand the feeling of the time and the complexities of what our country went through.
Sarah Botstein, our producer, worked extraordinarily hard over many years to build relationships with the artists who created this music and their estates and record companies. They include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, etc., and they were all willing to give us access to their greatest recordings. Everybody agreed to the same quite modest rates, and everybody wanted to be a part of this project.
We were able to assemble more than 120 pieces of music that populate the series in chronological order. We play the music when it came out so you have the chance to hear the music in its proper context.
Robin Lindley: There’s a complaint that some documentaries rely on stock footage that doesn’t match a film’s narrative. You and Ken have a reputation for taking pains to match contemporaneous material with the story you tell.
Lynn Novick: We try hard. Ken and I rely on our team, and it’s our incredible producers who are responsible for that. They are the ones who collect the raw material—the footage, the stills. and the music—and organize it into databases and create high-resolution files. So when we want to do the scene on the battle of Binh Gia, our editor will open a file on the computer and say, “Here’s 50 pictures from the battle. Here’s 20 clips from home movies” and other works that are appropriate for this moment. Our producers also had to get permission to use this material and to remind us of the things that are great that we forgot about or didn’t know we had.
It’s a team effort in every possible way. Ken and I wouldn’t be able to stand here and say anything about the film—good, bad or otherwise—if it weren’t for their hard work.
Robin Lindley: How large is your team on a project like this?
Lynn Novick: It’s pretty small actually. Ken, Sarah Botstein and I are producers. Then we have three co-producers—one in Vietnam—and three associate producers and two production assistants.
Robin Lindley: I envisioned a cast of thousands for this huge undertaking.
Lynn Novick: We don’t have that, but that’s one of the reasons our films take so many years to make. We don’t divide up by episode with ten producers and each one doing an episode. We have a small team that works on everything. And our writer Geoffrey Ward writes the script for the entire film. We feel extraordinarily lucky to work with him. He’s brilliant. Technically, he’s a wonderful writer who is able to find just the right word and to absorb a complicated story and intertwine and make sense of an enormously complex event from many different perspectives. We could not do this without Geoff Ward. It wouldn’t be possible.
Robin Lindley: So your producers all work on the many threads that run through the entire series and that makes it easier for you to keep track of each theme.
Lynn Novick: Exactly. You’ll see that characters recur. So you might meet someone in episode three who comes back in episodes five and six and back in episode eight. Story lines are not contained in one episode so it would make no sense to interview someone just for one episode. We don’t work that way. We find the people, collect their stories, and then sprinkle them throughout the series where they make scene.
We love people with stories that evolve over time and that means they make repeat appearances through the series. That links the whole series together.
Robin Lindley: Who were some of your historian advisors?
Lynn Novick: I’ll name a few. Ed Miller, a professor at Dartmouth, has been extraordinarily helpful. And Greg Daddis who taught at West Point. And we worked with a professor who was at the Army General Command at Leavenworth, Roger Spiller, who passed away recently. He was an extraordinary human being and historian. He worked on the documentary about the Second World War and was instrumental on Vietnam. Neil Foley at SMU was extremely helpful, as were Peter Mazlowski at University of Nebraska, Mai Elliott and her husband, David Elliott.
Robin Lindley: You uncovered classified information and presidential tapes that most people may not be know of. Were there discoveries in your research that surprised you or struck you as fresh?
Lynn Novick: We were able to get access to a treasure trove of translated documents from both sides in Vietnam, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of man named Merle Pribbenow. He is an independent scholar, fluent in Vietnamese, and has collected and translated after action reports, military analysis, biographies of key figures in Hanoi, just an incredible collection, and he made all of it available to us.
Robin Lindley: What kind of information did the government keep from the public about the war? It seems that secrecy was crucial to continuation of the war.
Lynn Novick: That is such an important point. It’s hard to know where to begin. Every president, from Eisenhower to Ford, failed to tell the American public the truth about the war – how it was going, what was at stake, what we were up to over there, the list goes on. There is also the incontrovertible fact that the military was not exactly proactive about investigating and holding individuals accountable for war crimes. My Lai, for example, was covered up for months. Whether the public would have supported the war for as long as it did if the government had been less secretive and more honest is a very good question. I tend to think not.
Robin Lindley: You make a special effort in this series to cover the Vietnamese perspective of the war. Of course, the United States intervened in a civil war there so you dealt with two opposing Vietnamese forces. How did your research work in terms of the Vietnamese story?
Lynn Novick: We thought from the beginning that we weren’t just going to tell the story of Americans in Vietnam. We wanted to represent as many different views as possible. We didn’t know quite what that would look like.
We started off with how to make our way in Vietnam. We had to understand the place, the people, who to talk to, how to get permission, all of it. We were very fortunate to get in touch with Tom Vallely. He’s at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a veteran of the war. He has spent his professional life in politics and international development working in Vietnam and Southeast Asia on governance and political and democratic development. He was the essential person, working behind the scenes, in advancing our process of globalization, collaborating with John Kerry and Bob Kerrey and John McCain. At Harvard, he established and ran programs to educate Vietnamese government and private sector officials.
He has strong ties to Vietnam and opened many doors for us, including introducing us to a Ho Dang Hoa, our Vietnamese co-producer who helped us tremendously in many ways. He identified people who might be interviewed and people who could work with the government to gain access to the archives and he did a lot of the archival research for us there because we don’t speak Vietnamese so we couldn’t go into an archive and even understand the catalog. Over time, he was able to locate for us materials including photographs and footage that rarely leave the country. I think you’ll see the war through fresh eyes because of the tremendous work he did for us.
So the relationships we had with witnesses who testified for us throughout the film would not have happened without Hoa. We were very lucky to get in touch also with an American named Ben Wilkinson, a consultant producer, who has lived in Vietnam since the time we were in Vietnam. He helped people understand what we were doing and explained the project so we could ask the right questions.
Robin Lindley: What was the role of the Vietnam government in your production? Was it helpful?
Lynn Novick: They were very helpful and very hands off. Once we explained what we wanted to do, to tell the human story of the war from all sides, the officials we spoke with said, “That’s great. We’d love to help you.” They helped with logistical support in getting equipment into and around the country and with transportation and that kind of thing. Basically, we could talk to anyone that we wanted to and ask them anything we wanted. There was no government interference in any of that.
For example, there’s a building in an old French military compound in Hanoi where the Politburo met during the war, and we were able to go in there and get access to the actual room where the leaders met. We brought an old military map and lights and set up the table in the Politburo the way it would have looked during the war. We had photographs so we knew what it looked like. The archivist there brought out the items that the leaders of the Politburo used, such as Le Duan’s eyeglasses, notebooks, teacups and ashtrays. We “dressed the set” to make it look just like it did when the Politburo met during the war, and we did a shoot there, which no one had ever done.
Robin Lindley: The award-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen has stressed many of the ironies of the war in his work. In his non-fiction book Nothing Ever Dies, he discusses America’s “weaponized memory” of the war and the irony that the losing side in the conflict, the U.S., tells the story of the war for the world, which eclipses the perspective of the winners, the Vietnamese.
Lynn Novick: I’m very aware of his work and thankful for his perspective. I think he is helping a different audience think about the war in a different way. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s a very important voice. He has said that when talking about the Vietnam War, we Americans are too often just talking about ourselves. He’s not wrong in that, and for Americans who want to understand the war, to leave out the voices of the Vietnamese is an exercise in futility.
His extraordinary novel The Sympathizer came out when we were editing and Nothing Ever Dies came out after we were long done. One thing that struck me in the introduction to that book was how he talks about whatever side you’re on, wars are fought twice, on the battlefield and in our memory.
We’re still fighting the Vietnam War in our memory and fighting over how we remember it and how we make sense of it. We have the same arguments recurrently. Obviously, the argument is not just American. It needs to be fully dimensional and Vietnamese who fought on the winning side and on the losing side need to be a part of this conversation. It’s also important, as he points out, to consider the ethics of remembering and that we’ll never understand the war if we don’t acknowledge who we are. It’s not just that we have humanity on our side and inhumanity on the other side or that we have humanity on the other side and inhumanity on our side. Whether you’re South Vietnamese or North Vietnamese or American, there’s humanity and inhumanity in all of us.
Robin Lindley: Viet Thanh Nguyen also writes about how we spread the American story of the war through Hollywood images around the world, and the Vietnamese don’t have a similar industry to share their story. Do you deal with how the story has been told in film and literature?
Lynn Novick: We don’t, not directly. That’s outside the purview of the project. We had our hands full making our documentary, trying to tell the true story of the war, what happened. Ken, Sarah, Geoff and I, we’re all familiar with the Hollywood movies, of course. Some of them are powerful works of fiction, and have indeed had a powerful resonance not just in America but around the world. Viet is right that American movies don’t often represent any Vietnamese perspectives. But we don’t address that issue directly in our film.
Robin Lindley: Your film may be an antidote in a way too.
Lynn Novick: Perhaps. It will be challenging in really good ways to those narratives that Hollywood has come up with. That’s not to say there aren’t some absolutely brilliant films about the Vietnam War, but they only tell parts of the story.
Robin Lindley: Race has been a theme and a concern in virtually every documentary you and Ken have made. With the Vietnam period, you have a several levels of racial issues. You have African Americans in the United States challenging segregation as the Civil Rights Movement is at its peak. And then you have the story of Americans fighting for Asians and against Asians in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Lynn Novick: You’re correct. It’s impossible to examine American history without race being at the center of that conversation, as we see today. It’s true now and it was during the Vietnam War. The questions of civil rights and equality and the democracy we are supposed to be fighting for are embedded in the film in many ways—through archival materials such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church, reactions to his assassination, and of course through our own interviews with African Americans as well as Hispanic Americans and Asian–Americans. We raise questions about fighting with and against Asians and our lack of consideration for their humanity throughout the film.
Robin Lindley: And you deal with the events of the Civil Rights Movement at the time of the war.
Lynn Novick: Yes. We deal with how the Civil Rights Movement was involved and what happened in the American military in Vietnam. Questions come up about how African Americans in particular feel about the war and how they’re treated by the military and what they were fighting for. It’s a powerful part of the story.
Robin Lindley: This history will be especially valuable for younger people. And you also talked with many women who were involved in the war such as American nurses and the women who fought for the North.
Lynn Novick: Yes. The way we have told this story is as much about women as it is about men. We have extraordinarily powerful testimony of a nurse. We also hear from many families affected by the war and the women who had to make all kinds of choices during that time. Whether or not to protest. What to do with the choices that their brothers or parents had to make. And the question of what does a citizen do for her country, a democracy, when it’s involved in the war which this became. There are many women in the film and their stories are equally as important as the combat veterans.
And in Vietnam, and especially with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, there were women fighting on the front lines. They drove trucks down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and carried weapons and supplies and planted mines, and also suffered losses in their families. We interviewed a woman who joined the Viet Minh when she was a teenager, all eight of her brothers died fighting the French and the Americans; and her mother was killed by the French. She married another revolutionary soldier, had two sons with him. They, too, joined the Viet Cong. In 1975, just a few months before the war ended, they were both killed on the same day. She has been given the designation “hero mother. “
One of the most important witnesses in the film is a woman named Duong Von Mai Elliott. She grew up in Hanoi, where her father was a high-ranking official in the French colonial regime. They moved to Saigon after the country was divided in 1954. She eventually married an American political scientist (our advisor, David Elliott), and came to the United States with him. She represents in many ways what the whole country of Vietnam went through. One of her older sisters joined the Viet Minh to fight the French in the 1940s, and remained loyal to the revolution when the Americans got involved in the war. So, Mai’s family was divided.
Mai was able to go back to Vietnam in the 1990s and see her sister again, after 40 years. Her parents never saw her sister again. So Mai is able to see the war from many perspectives, North and South Vietnamese. She helped us open the conversation about what the war meant for families, for women, and for children like her sisters. The film is as much about that as it is about what it’s like to be a soldier doing the fighting, the killing and the dying.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing a sense of the themes of the film. There’s resonance now of the war and how we handled it. The Vietnam era, as you note in the film, was probably the most divisive period in our history since the Civil War. We are increasingly divided as a nation now. How do see the resonance now of your film and what do you hope viewers take from it?
Lynn Novick: We find ourselves absorbed with making these connections but be mindful of the fact that when we started working on the film in 2006, we didn’t have any idea of what our world would look like today. We locked the picture in the fall of 2015, long before the 2016 election. We didn’t know our film would come out at this particular moment, but here we are.
We think it’s instructive for audiences and certainly for us to see that our country has been through terribly divisive times before. What we are seeing now is disturbing to many people, but we think that our film sheds light on how the seeds of our current disunion and cynicism about our institutions were sown during the Vietnam era.
What we have had screenings and people of many different perspectives talk about the war and we see conversations across many different divides.
We hope the film will open people up to listen to each other in a different way and to recognize their own humanity and inhumanity and that of other people with whom they disagree. With a civil discourse, we might find a way to get to a different place. If we don’t find a way to talk about what happened during the Vietnam War, we won’t ever get there.
Robin Lindley: The film sounds unprecedented in many ways from what you’ve described. I appreciate the work that you and Ken and your crew put into this monumental effort.
Lynn Novick: Thank you. It’s been an incredible privilege. It’s been the project of a lifetime for me. Ken would probably say that too, although we both jump in with both feet with any project we work on. This project we feel has been the best and the most challenging. This one used up everything we had in the best possible ways.
We just feel honored to have had the chance to tell this story. We’re really looking forward to our country a new conversation.
We also look forward to a lot of other countries also seeing the film. We’ve made an international version with ten one-hour episodes. It will be shown in at least 43 countries this fall and next spring.
The film will be streaming here in Vietnamese on the PBS website. We subtitled the entire film. And it will not be blocked in Vietnam so the people of Vietnam can see the film as well.
Robin Lindley: You’ve just returned from Vietnam, Lynn. What was the response to the screening of the series there? What did you learn during your trip that you’d like readers and viewers of the series to know?
Going back to Vietnam to share the film with people there – the people whom we interviewed, as well as film critics, writers, historians, and many younger Vietnamese who came to screenings in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, was a profound experience. It became clear very quickly that they had never seen the war the way we have shown it because the human dimensions of the epic tragedy have been so abstracted there. We were enormously gratified by the reactions, and sensed a tremendous interest in the film among all ages. If I may, I’d like to share a few comments.
Many veterans told us that they were struck by the realism, the honesty, the authenticity of the film, that they have never seen it depicted this way. One woman said, “I was scared so much of the time during the war; it was absolutely terrible, the violence, destruction. You really did justice to the human suffering, the misery. Seeing so many different people’s interviews, it’s very fair.”
A highly decorated combat veteran said, “The honesty with which you depicted the war really affected me. I am moved very deeply, very emotional.
When I think of our dead, I grieve for them. But it would be egotistical and self-centered for us Vietnamese to grieve only for our own dead. The dead on the other side, the Americans, they were also the sons of regular people, and we need to grieve for them as well. It is vitally important to educate the future generations about what happened, American and Vietnamese, and other countries where the film will be shown. To understand that decisions made by leaders have horrible human consequences.”
Nguyen Ngoc, an elderly veteran of the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese Army who is a greatly revered teacher and writer, was the first person in Vietnam to see the entire series. He participated in a screening in Ho Chi Minh City, and had a lot to say,
“When I first watched the film, it gave me much greater respect for America and Americans. I came to understand so much more about the United States, about Americans and about just how conflicted and how traumatized the United States is by this war.
“I used to ask myself: ‘How come the United States after 40 years still can’t get over the Vietnam War?’ I considered it a weakness. Actually now, having seen this film, I believe that the way in which the United States hasn’t ever really been able to leave the Vietnam War behind is actually a great strength. It’s a nation that’s always asking itself about its own history, questioning its past and asking questions about what it’s done and why it did it.
“I really hope that we Vietnamese can make a film like this and that we can start asking ourselves those same kinds of very difficult questions about our own history and about the two great wars of our modern history. I think the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese nation urgently needs that.”
The entire series is now available on pbs.org/the Vietnam war in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The site is open in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Vietnamese have seen it already. We cannot wait to discover how people there and here are reacting to it.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments on your groundbreaking documentary Lynn, and congratulations on the work that you and Ken and your team have done in its creation.
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