A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.

 

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It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.

 

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And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.

 

Do you know much about this war?

 

Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?

 

A gorgeous new doc: The Eagle Huntress

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine being 13  — and wanting to do something that only men have ever done.

Imagine having to climb a terrifyingly steep cliff to capture an eaglet from its nest.

Imagine living in a landscape of such beauty it defies description.

A new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, must be one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see, filmed in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and focused on Aisholpan, a young girl — who daubs her nails with purple polish, who lugs cans of fresh milk from her family’s cows, who lives five nights a week in a dormitory at her school.

Her grandfather and father have long been champion golden eagle-hunters, a sport that requires each hunter to find, capture and train a young eagle to hunt on command. An annual competition, complete with scorecards and stopwatch-wielding judges, determines who gets bragging rights as the best. The event draws men of all ages, and she is the only female.

Imagine the pressure!

Aisholpan is a joy to watch, everything you’d expect of a 13-year-old — and much more. She’s calm, determined, easy-going and brave.

No Ipads or cellphones for her; technology for these ger-dwelling nomads consists of a transistor radio and a portable solar panel.

Her quest to find, train and work with her eagle makes a terrific story, and an unlikely but likeable young heroine, with many obstacles along the way. While the film’s main focus is on the annual competition, it also shows her and her father trudging for miles in bitter cold and through snow so deep their rugged horses struggle to move, determined to have her eagle hunt, capture and kill a fox.

The cinematography is astounding, using everything from a GoPro to drones.

I’ve been wanting to visit Mongolia for years, ever since I did some film research on it. Now I’m even more curious.

Here’s a transcript of an NPR interview with the film’s director, Oxford educated Otto Bell.

Where the shit-kicking gene comes from

Français : Plaquette avec la Palme d'or.
Français : Plaquette avec la Palme d’or. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the coolest email this week, from the programmer for the Vancouver Film Festival it’s on today at 12:20 for those of you who live there — asking about my Dad, Ron Kelly, whose early films about that city in the 1960s are being honored. (It’s where I was born.)

One of them, about violent youths, was never broadcast by the CBC because of its content. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. He’s alive and healthy at 83, just back from Turkey and heading off to Chicago then Asia in the next month.

In 1962, he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for “The Tearaways”, another film about misspent youth, this time British, which the BBC also refused to air. Love it!

So when I spend my career looking for tough topics others shy away from, I have a role model for it in him. (My mother also worked as a radio, TV and print reporter, once smuggling tapes of the Chicago 8 trial north to the CBC.) I grew up watching my parents make a nice living digging under intellectual rocks going “Ooooh, look!

If we have a family motto, it might be epater le bourgeoisie.

It never really occurred to me to think otherwise, that being polite and obedient and deferring to authority was normal behavior, as it is for many people. I’m hardly a 24/7 hellion, and I’m conventional enough to have a mortgage — but I’m usually most attracted to stories that will piss someone off.

My first book is about women and guns in the U.S. , my second, about low-wage labor in the U.S, which so annoyed my former employer, The North Face, that they banned it.

When someone starts yelling “There’s no story here!” as one federal flack did in 2005, I know I’m on the right track; here’s that story, which I broke nationally in the Daily News, about the 6,000 children detained annually by the Department of Homeland Security.

I think far too much “journalism” today is lightweight crap meant to please advertisers and amuse readers, instead of telling truth to power.

I think the world is filled with tough, difficult stories that need to be well-told.

I think many people are too scared to piss off the wealthy who increasingly own our democracies.

My husband, a lovely, gentle man who has worked in the same place for almost 30 years, is pretty much my polar opposite in this regard. He’s a PK, a preacher’s kid, and PKs are typically raised in a bubble of high expectations, docile/polite behavior and the need to get along with everyone. He learned it from his Dad.

But Jose has also has done his share of mixing it up, as a news and sports photographer for The New York Times, telling amazing and difficult stories, like covering the end of the Bosnian War. The way he managed to get a photo of General Manuel Noriega is so insanely inventive it makes me think he missed his calling as a spook. His sangfroid on 9/11 also helped the Times win a Pulizter.

People who go into hard news journalism tend to like poking sharp objects at things. In that respect, it’s a terrific field for a woman like me, who’s nosy, pushy and rarely satisfied with pat answers. It rewards brass-balled women, otherwise generally socialized to “be nice.”

I’d rather have front page above the fold, thanks.

Are you a shit-disturber?

Where did you learn to be one?

'Sweetgrass' — New Documentary Looks At The Life Of Cowboys

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Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a movie I really want to see, a portrait — which took eight years to complete – of professional cowboys.

Writes Manohla Dargis in today’s New York Times:

Made by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the movie largely involves the enormous effort, along with the unintentional humor and grim realities, involved in driving some 3,000 sensationally noisy sheep (how do they sleep?) up a mountain for summer pasture. Although the filmmakers shot for a number of years (taking eight in total to finish it), most of the material in the final movie was shot in 2001, when a Montanan rancher named Lawrence Allested became the last person to take his sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains on a federal grazing permit. Primarily in south-central Montana just north of Yellowstone, with a bit spilling into Wyoming, this wilderness area encompasses nearly a million acres and, to judge from the movie, looks like paradise.

It is and it isn’t, depending on the roaring wind, the grazing sheep, the herding dogs and the two singing, cursing hired hands — John Ahern and Pat Connolly — who watch over this often-less-than-peaceable kingdom for a long stretch. Shot in classic observational documentary style, without any on- or off-camera narration to guide you, “Sweetgrass” opens as winter is giving way to spring and the sheep are still at the ranch, being shorn for their wool and giving birth to the year’s lambs. It can be brutal if also caring work. In one scene, a man roughly throws newborn lambs around, trying to gauge which orphan a ewe will accept; in another, a different man puts a fresh lambskin on an orphan, trying to fool the dead lamb’s mother into adopting the new animal.

One of journalism’s greatest joys, for me anyway, is the opportunity to meet people from every walk — or ride — of life. While researching my book about women and guns in 2002, I was welcomed into the home of Doris and Bill McClellan, a house surrounded by thousands of acres of land, a dot on a highway between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. I was interviewing Doris because, alone that day, every day, miles from help, she’d been attacked by a rabid bobcat that she’d shot  — while it was hanging from her right arm. “I could feel the blood squishing in my shoes,” she told me. “I went back to the house, put on my lipstick and dialed 911.”

Bill, then past 70, was a working cowboy. He got up in the morning, strapped on his worn leather chaps, saddled up and rode away.

I felt like I’d met a unicorn, so mythic and unlikely it was to meet this gentle, modest man living a life centuries-old.

One of my greatest fantasies — sue me for my tenderfoot madness — is to one day develop decent enough riding skills to work, even for a day, doing this sort of work. The 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain” , starring Heath Ledger, remains one of my favorites for its rare portrayal of this rough, difficult job.