The CultureMap Interview
Acclaimed filmmakers explore Vietnam War in groundbreaking 10-part series with Houston ties
After working together on award-winning examinations of the Civil War and World War II, acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick weren't ready to tackle another military conflict. But something about the Vietnam conflict kept drawing them in.
"If you want to understand America, it's hard to not take a look at Vietnam to figure out where we are right now," Novick said.
"The most important thing that happened in the second half of the 20th century is the Vietnam War," Burns agreed. "It has made us, for good or for ill, who we are."
Now the filmmakers have trained their sights on the southeast Asian nation's long and tortured history in a 10-part, 18-hour documentary series, The Vietnam War, premiering Sunday (September 17) on Houston Public Media TV 8 and PBS stations across the country. Episodes 2 through 5 will follow Monday through Thursday (September 17-22) and episodes 6 through 10 will run September 24-28. All episodes will begin at 7 pm.
The epic series feature interviews from nearly 80 witnesses, including many Americans for and against the war as well as well as Vietnamese fighters and civilians from both sides. It also includes rarely seen digitally re-mastered archival footage, photographs, historic television broadcasts, home movies, audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, and more than 100 iconic musical recordings.
A few months ago, Burns and Novick stopped in Houston to talk about the making of the intense documentary and showed selected clips to an audience at the University of Houston. During an interview beforehand with CultureMap, they explained that some of the important filming for the series took place in Houston, which has a large Vietnamese community, many of whom fled their homeland as South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese fighters.
"We know that the Vietnamese community is extraordinarily important here and it was very important for us to tell the story of the Vietnamese on the side that lost the war and lost their country," Novick said. "And there are many people here in that category."
The Houston connection
Through a journalist friend who introduced them to an adviser to American troops in Vietnam, they met Tran Ngoc Toan, a courageous South Vietnamese army officer who now lives in Houston. He received a standing ovation when introduced by Burns at the screening.
"When you see Tran Ngoc Toan and see his story, you will go, 'why did we ever say that the South Vietnamese were this ineffective, terrible fighting force that weren't patriotic and didn't love their country,' " Burns said. "He is featured prominently in one scene, but he comes back again and again and again in our film."
"I remember just driving to his house (in Houston) and driving past Little Saigon and seeing this entire Vietnamese community here, I had not realized how significant it was before we came," Novick said.
No political agenda
Burns, 64, was eligible for the draft in the early 1970s when there was a lottery system, but his number was so high (313) that he was never in danger of being sent to Vietnam. His father, a professor at the University of Michigan, was against the war, but Burns didn't take part in marches and didn't have a strong point of view about it.
"We did not come in with any kind of political agenda here," Burns said. "We've permitted lots of disparate points of views to coexist in the film. I think that's one of the things we are the most proud. So it will expand what you think you know about Vietnam, I hope exponentially. But at the same time I hope that every one of the people who participated in the film will feel like they were heard."
Novick, in her mid-50s, was a child at that time, but recalls, "As I grew up, it was an extraordinarily sore subject. People would get very upset very quickly, whatever side they were on. And it seemed to be raw and burning and sort of awful, so I guess I was always interested in finding out why."
"Basically what everyone decided to do is, 'Let's not talk about it.' But not talking about it means not learning about it," Burns said. "And if you want to know a little bit about why we're so divided right now, you can go back and unpack the Vietnam war and get at the seeds of what was planted."
"It's not the civil war, in which we killed 750,000 of ourselves over this issue, but it has the same kind of flavor of division. And a lot of people's views of Vietnam are informed by their own politics now, regardless of what they felt back then."
The great escape
As an escape from the intensity of the six-year project, Burns said he does crossword puzzles and follows baseball, a sport he loves so much that it was the subject of his highly-praised 9-part series, Baseball, in 1994, with a 10th installment in 2010.
Novick runs five to six miles a day. "That's the only way I can stay sane," she said. "I'm not sure I would be able to do it otherwise."
Houston Public Media has also produced some local shows to accompany the series, including Saigon Stories with television journalist Lily Jang (September 18 at 8:30 pm) , Peace Meals (Sept. 21 at 8:30 pm), and Getting Here: Journeys From Vietnam, featuring designer Chloe Dao (September 24 at 8:30 pm).