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?

 

Here’s A Real Horror Film! “Inside Job” Details The Financial Meltdown

NYSE
Image by brian glanz via Flickr

Go see this movie. Right now!

“Inside Job” is a film that is so utterly horrifying, so enraging, so depressing that you can’t leave the theater unmoved.

Nor can you shrug it off as “just a movie.”

This amazing documentary, all two hours of talking heads and graphs, is a totally compelling explanation of how the recession came to be, and the men who so skilfully engineered it, raking in billions as they did.

Writes Felix Salmon, of Reuters:

No financial journalist could have made this film: we were all far too close to the people and events depicted in it, which turn out to have really needed an outsider’s perspective. This is surely the first and last piece of financial journalism that Ferguson will ever make and it’s much more effective for it.

As Bob Mondello says on NPR:

“pretty much any 30 seconds of interview footage in Inside Job will make you want to throttle the nearest banker, broker or economic analyst.”

'Beetle Queen Takes Tokyo': A Bug-Obsessed Woman's Documentary On This Week In NYC

Loved the passion for insects from Jessica Oreck, a young woman animal keeper at the Museum of Natural History, whose first documentary opens this week in Manhattan at Film Forum.

She’ll even show up Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 and 8:20 with live beetles. Apparently (?), Japan is mad for beetles, one collector paying $90,000 for a rare specimen.

I heard her interviewed yesterday on one of my favorite radio shows, The Leonard Lopate Show, and her unlikely enthusiasm for creepy crawlies was lovely. If a woman could be said to be the patron saint of insects, she’s in the running.

Here’s a short video of her and photos of her apartment, with lots of tiny, cool things carefully curated within it like a mini-museum, with an interview with her, from one of my favorite websites, apartmenttherapy.com.

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

Animal husbandry
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.

Journalists, (Believe It Or Not), Have Feelings Too, says A New Documentary

News Reporter
Image by besfort z via Flickr

Journalists have feelings too. That’s the message of a new 36-minute documentary discussed today in the Los Angeles Times.

The film, “Breaking News, Breaking Down” focuses on the toll that reporting dark or terrifying stories can take on the men and women who gather that material, who pride themselves on doing whatever it takes to get it, toughing it out, and crying, if and when they do, much later and alone.

I’ve lived through this, as have many writers, photographers and cameramen I know. War, 9/11, poverty, crime. Hard stories exact a price. The Dart Center is there to help.

I’ll be blogging about this in an upcoming J-Day.