THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Vietnam War premieres on PBS America, in the UK
Director Lynn Novick discusses her latest documentary collaboration with Ken Burns
The Full 18 hour version of US Documentary The Vietnam War, from the Award Winning duo Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres Wednesdays from 9pm starting tonight (April 11th) on PBS America (Freeview 94, Freesat 155, Virgin 276 & Sky 534) in the UK. During a busy London visit, Lynn was able to give us some insight into the documentary making process, speaking to veterans on all sides of the conflict, and responding to the Vietnam War today.
Congratulations Lynn on your BAFTA nomination for your latest documentary, The Vietnam War. How did the project get started?
Thank you! The Vietnam War is like a festering wound. It’s something we as a nation have never really dealt with. It’s like some kind of national trauma we’ve tried to ignore or shut the door on and you can’t do that.
Ken and I made the decision to tell this story back in 2007. As a nation, we have been getting increasingly polarized and divided since then, and it just kept on seeming more and more relevant, prescient and urgent. The cynicism, bitterness, recrimination, mistrust and lack of faith in ourselves – all these things you can trace back to the Vietnam War and the unravelling that happened as a result of it.
What did the Vietnam War mean for you when you started, and did your perception change during the documentary's development?
We wanted to understand what really happened, to put ourselves through the experience of reliving it with more information and more compassion for the people we don’t agree with. We wanted to lance the boil, to open up this festering wound and let it aerate and let some of the toxicity out so that it can begin to heal.
Is the 'Hollywood' representation of the Vietnam War fair? How did you want to portray the conflict?
We wanted to tell the human story of the war from many different angles at the same time, something that had never been done before. And the structure of our narrative is delicately created – it’s extraordinarily complex to shift perspective constantly. What this means, I think, is that you’re never really in your comfort zone.
What was it like speaking to the veterans of the war on all three sides?
It's almost hard to find the words to describe what it's like to be present when people are opening themselves up to share deep and difficult experiences, sometimes for the first time. There were many occasions when I was just left speechless with what someone had told me. John Musgrave, in particular, whose narrative’s woven through the entire series. After that interview, I had to lie down for the day. I couldn’t even talk.
Do you think the series has helped redress the balance of the veterans’ contribution and what they went through?
That has been so gratifying. We’ve heard a great deal from veterans, saying ‘Thanks for telling our story, it's never been told.’ The film did go a long way to at least helping our country understand what it was like to be a soldier in that war, and to rebuild some bridges that had been burnt.
It was also extremely important for those who protested the war to feel that their voices were equally significant. One of the really important themes of the series is ‘What does it mean to be a patriot?’ and I think we’ve started a conversation on that too.
The music is an integral part of the series. Was it hard getting the rights to the songs that defined the era?
We felt from the beginning we couldn’t do justice to that time without the music, as the music is a character, essentially. Our producer, Sarah Botstein, took the lead on figuring out how we could get all that into the film. The way to do it was to go to each artist and say to them, “Your music is part of the story, it’s not just background. But it’s a documentary so everybody’s going to get the same low rate.” Once The Beatles and the Rolling Stones agreed, everyone else was fine.
The Vietnam War premieres Wednesdays on PBS America, starting tonight (April 11). You can watch PBS America via Freeview channel 94, Freesat channel 155, or if you have Virgin Cable it's channel 276, or via Sky it's channel 534.