The American War Crew: A Conversation with Daniel Chein

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon I sat down to chat with Daniel Chein, editor and producer on Veteran Documentary Corps’ first feature length film The American War. Currently working towards his Masters of Fine Arts at San Francisco State University, Chein has previously edited a few shorts for VDC and has made several of his own documentaries. Thoughtful, articulate and patient, Daniel is well-versed in the art of storytelling. We talked about making documentaries, American identity and capturing the essence of the Vietnam War.

daniel_chein_2 (1).jpgSophie Clement: So tell me a bit about yourself, how did you get in to the process of filmmaking?

Daniel Chein: I came into filmmaking by way of anthropology actually, I studied anthropology as an undergrad and took a couple of filmmaking classes in my last year and it wasn’t until that last year where I really found an outlet that allowed me to express both my creative and critical insights… after that, I decided to pursue filmmaking.

SC: I watched quite a few of your films on Vimeo and it’s interesting that you say you come from an anthropological background because I think that shows quite a lot in your films. How do you go about picking something you want to create a film about?

DC: Filmmaking is a lot of work and what I’m trying to do is use a little more intention when deciding what projects to really engage because I think there’s a story in everything… with the project I’m currently working on… there was a specific approach to storytelling I was interested in and I sort of found the right situation and people to make that come together.

Okay, cool. How long does it typically take you to make a film, from start to finish?

The films that I’ve made so far are all short films and they have ranged anywhere from a quick project, maybe taking a couple of months, to something that takes a lot longer to develop and execute… the film that I’m currently working on for my thesis, Sonsplitter, I’ve been working on since the spring of 2016 so it’s coming up two years for a short film.

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Wow, so it’s a full on process?

Filmmaking requires a lot of patience and… in the case of my an ability to step away and come back without becoming too disconnected from it. I think every film has its own set of challenges and for Sonsplitter it’s really been a test of patience.

Awesome, so is that how you became involved with The American War?

I heard about The American War and that there was an opportunity that I might be able to edit it, I reached out to Daniel and we talked about the project and pretty soon we started working on it.

So is this the first feature length film that you’ve edited?

It is not, I’ve edited two feature films prior, both documentaries, so I came in with some experience. One of the challenges with this film is that the film is in a different language than my native tongue so working with subtitles and picking up on the nuances of characters who are from a different culture or are speaking a different language, and have a different set of life experiences than me, is an interesting process.

Yeah, it must be challenging.

As an editor you want to try to find ways of relating to these subjects and to tell their story… I feel like I know them even though we’ve never met.

Cool, so how does that work when the subjects are speaking in a different language? Do you have to get the subtitles straightaway for all of the footage or?

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The way it worked for The American War, our producer Trang worked with the team to translate and to determine what was worth translating… In my experience one minute of footage could easily take three times as long, four times as long to translate, so, it’s very time consuming. And even then trying to boil something down to the essence of what someone is trying to say… you really need a translator who’s able to pick up on the nuances, so Trang was great.

You’re also listed as a producer on the film, is that correct? What does a producer do?

A producer can do many things, but in my case I’ve really brought in a few key components to the project, one being our illustrator… and the music, the music was another big component of the film that I helped to secure the rights to and negotiate for and to ultimately use in the edit. Also just sort of managing this post-production workflow is part of my role as a producer, but more generally I think producers can serve in different ways. They help to raise money, they can help to promote the film, they could be brought on just to help facilitate a smooth production in Vietnam. They can wear many hats… For documentary it’s a credit that can mean a lot of different things depending on the type of film that’s being made.

So have you always worked in documentary?

Some of my films are more experimental, but I think my approach has been informed by the documentary film making practice, more so than fiction, although I do incorporate some elements of fiction into my work as well.

What draws you to documentary versus fiction film?

There’s a kind of innate spontaneity in the documentary process that forced me to rely a lot on my intuition… there’s a tension in documentary where you’re trying to control the story that you’re trying to tell and yet at the same time there’s so much that’s outside of your control operating within that space is appeals to me.

I suppose that’s the inherent quality of working with real people, it’s never quite going to end up how you expected.

I’ve met so many great people working in documentary, as collaborators but also subjects or participants. It’s expanded my perspective and something that I’m really drawn towards.

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What about the editing process do you like the most?

The magic of editing it’s kind of an intuitive process for me so it’s hard to breakdown. There is a way of working with the material and playing with it… like a sculptor with clay or a painter with paint… trying to see what speaks to me, what ideas and what themes, what storyline emerges, I find that interesting.

How much do you work with the director of the film, Daniel Bernardi? Is he quite involved in the editing process?

I think he really trusted me with the material but also I think he needed a certain kind of critical distance… Having trusted me as an editor, I was able to work with the material and then, when it was ready, approach him and say, from the material that I have to work with, this is what I came up with. And then later in the process, Daniel became much more involved getting more into the details and lately, at this point, we’ve been working together to try to get it exactly where it needs to be.

What do you think is the importance of telling a story like this? It seems to me to be an unusual take on something – even the title of the film, The American War, it seems to be a little bit of a play on the perception of that war itself. The film is marketed to an American audience, is that correct?

I would say that from Daniel’s intent, The American War is geared towards an American audience, but also an audience that might not understand that particular conflict from a veteran’s point of view, and particularly a veteran that would have been considered our enemy. I think that enough time has passed to where there’s space to have this kind of conversation, where Daniel as an American vet, even though he didn’t serve in the Vietnam War, is able to go to Vietnam and try to talk about what that experience was like for them.

Do you think it [the film] is intended to be provocative at all?

I think that, I would say, from my point of view, it is going to be provocative to some people but I don’t think there’s an outright intent to provoke. I think that people have different associations with that war that if you were sympathetic to the cause or you were opposed to it, you’re going to have, a different take on the film.

Did you find that you had to do a lot of research into the history of this event?

I did. Even though my parents emigrated here after the Vietnam War was over, growing up as an American in the U.S., my life was influenced by the Vietnam War in ways that I can’t really explain. There was still so much about it that I didn’t really understand, and I wouldn’t even go as far to say that I understand it even now, but there’s aspects of it that I feel I understand very well.  and I did have to do a certain amount of research yes, everything from you know the timeline, to the statistics, places that are being referenced and even the pulse of the American perception… all that stuff, I had to figure out.

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Interesting, because it was fairly divisive, was it not? It seems to me that it is quite ingrained in American identity, the Vietnam War.

Well, it’s interesting because I ask people who lived through Vietnam, “America seems to be going through a very difficult chapter now, how does it compare to the state of the union back in the Vietnam era?”, and I get different responses actually, some people feel like it was even more divisive during the Vietnam era and some people feel like it’s more divisive now. It’s definitely something that has profound influence on the American identity and what it means to be American today.

I think it’s fascinating and it will be an interesting climate to have the film released in.

Keep up with Daniel here: http://www.danielchein.com/

 

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Tran Hong Hanh

Tran Hong Hanh is a knowledgeable and thoughtful man whose input as a producer during film production proved invaluable. Here he has written a few words about leading The American War film crew through the Phu Quoc Prison and explains to us, the audience, some of the history of the Vietnam War.

It was after dusk when we arrived on Phu Quoc Island. As the plane was descending, I looked out the window and caught zillion lights from the city, just as glistening as the reflection of the starry sky on the ocean surface. This was my second time visiting Phu Quoc, and my first time with my family. Phu Quoc Island welcomed us with a “locally” generous deal of rising wind. In the middle of an incredibly pleasant sound of the ocean, the coconut leaves, scooter exhausts, and scattered local street cries, I felt mixed feelings in me. I was relieved to see the beauty of such a pristine island yet anxious for what I was going to show my family in the next day – Phu Quoc Prison.

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First thing in the morning, we rented scooters and headed to the well-known Phu Quoc Prison. The ride was marvelous. Everywhere our eyesight reached, the scenes were captivating lush green and mountain landscapes. It felt like a stone’s throw when we reached the prison. Here is a quick overview about Phu Quoc Prison – it was built in the Indochina War by the French colonists and was originally designed to jail Vietnamese revolutionists who were considered dangerous to the colonist government. After the Geneva Accords were signed, French returned most prisoners here to North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, more prisons were built and reinforced across Vietnam, including Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Danang, Can Tho, Quy Nhon, etc. Phu Quoc prison, hence, became a P.O.W. camp under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam for detention of captured Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

Picture2Phu Quoc prison covers an area of 40,000 square metres, divided by 12 zones, and housed more than 400 detention areas. There were four subdivisions named A,B,C, and D in each zone, each surrounded by half a dozen rows of barbed wire and stacks of mines. Guarding towers with machine-guns, constant patrols, and additional security during nightfall made Phu Quoc prison virtually impenetrable. The prison was manned by two thousand ROV staffs and wardens and about fifty American advisors. Each battalion of military police and each detention area was supervised by a corporal-rank American advisor. Overseeing Phu Quoc Prison was a ROV commander whose ranks were either lieutenant-colonel, a captain, or a warrant officer. There was always an American lieutenant-colonel and an American major sitting in the commander committee.

Picture3As we walked into the prison area, another world opened up in front of us, where ocean sound, rising wind and friendly local accents faded behind. In each subdivision, there were 9 rooms for prisoners and 2 others for interrogation, punishment or solitary confinement. The 36 square-meters prisoner room was built to house 50 people but actually had 100 to 120, sometimes 180 people. We walked by each subdivision to see the montages of tortures, trembled by the most poignant examples for the sheer brutality against human lives. Corporal punishment used included electric shock, waterboarding, hanging prisoners upside-down, nails driven into fingers, feet and head, thrusting burning metal to prisoner’s flesh, pouring boiling water onto the prisoner’s body, burning prisoners in a big wok, tightening prisoners in sacks and pouring burning coal onto them, burning prisoners alive, burying prisoners alive, and hurting prisoners with pounder, sticks and rod, pulling teeth.

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Wardens could sentence prisoners to death en masse by firing guns at them at once or using poison. Misery and pain inflicted on communist prisoners also included the well-known “tiger cage”, a cramped cage covered by barbed wire where prisoners were kept inside for days and nights. Huynh Duc – a subject in our documentary film The American War – was kept in one of these each time he plotted an escape. Beating was constant. With the systematic tortures and the worst living conditions, between June 1967 to March 1973, 4,860 prisoners were killed in Phu Quoc prison. Thirty-one times escapes were plotted, including prisoners digging trench four seperate times to get out, seven instances of rioting and fighting against the wardens and thwarting guns to escape, as well as the fourteen times prisoners escaped by climbing the walls and six times when prisoners just scattered and escaped successfully.

After walking around for a while, I was getting ready to leave. On my way out, I caught my youngest daughter standing quietly next to an old woman. The lady was telling my daughter about her annual visit to this place as her brother and sister-in-law died here. We didn’t have anything to say. Our minds were beset, and our hearts were heavy. The war, which we thought to have ended way back now laid out in our memory, explicitly more than ever.

Translated by Trang Tran

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Carolina Gratianne

Associate Director of Veteran Documentary Corps and a filmmaker in her own right, Carolina Gratianne is undeniably an ideas person. With an eye for detail and knack for problem solving, Carolina worked as a producer for The American War. We talked about the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking, new perspectives and the importance of veteran narratives.

So tell me how you got involved in filmmaking!

The short answer is that I’ve always been interested in it. When I was nine, I decided to make a short film for my mom as a birthday gift. It was me directing, editing and producing the whole thing on the family video camera while my brother and sister were the actors. In college, one of my professors was advising me on potential careers that I would be good at. We were making a list of pros and cons and she randomly said, “What about filmmaking?” I vividly remember walking away from that meeting having made up my mind about doing film. I was eighteen so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.

Tell me a little bit about your job at Veteran Documentary Corps?

Daniel is the Director and I’m the Associate Director/Production Manager. I do a bit of everything, from the day to day activities to producing. I also do tasks like managing interns and doing my part in running the center.

And how do you like that compared to filmmaking? Do you prefer behind-the-scenes production work?

The cool thing about this job is that I’ve been able to do both. I recently directed a short film for VDC so I’ve done my own creative work. At the same time, I’ve done a lot of the pragmatic, day-to-day tasks such as budgeting. That kind of work is necessary. Without people working to get the permits and do the budget and set everything up, things wouldn’t get done. So I’ve kind of gotten the best of both worlds.

So you’re the most important person on the team!

I wouldn’t say I am, but in general, producers play an important role. They get the money, they make stuff happen, and then they just let people be creative.

And you enjoy being a producer?

I do. I also enjoy being a director, I’m kind of straddling both. Long term, it would be ideal to produce my own films. In the meantime, I’m happy to produce anything that’s VDC.

Did you enjoy the process of being a producer on The American War? Do you think it was a different experience from producing the shorts?

Working on this film was really rewarding. The process of seeing something you worked on go  from pre-production through production and then come to life in post is very satisfying. With The American War, there was that moment in post when all looked at each other and said, “Wow, we really have something here”. We didn’t realize how special it was until we saw it. It was an awesome feeling.

So you’ve been working on The American War since it’s inception?

I started working at VDC at the brink of the film’s starting process so I was involved in pre-production. I was responsible for getting everything they needed to go on the trip, from equipment, to visas, to flights. By the end of pre-production, I’d visited the Vietnam Consulate so many times that they recognized me by face! In the back of my mind, I was aware that things had to get done and the whole team was depending on it. Not just the team, but also the people who were already signed up to be interviewed in Vietnam. There is a lot at stake sometimes. Filmmaking can be very intense.

Do you have a preference between documentary and narrative film?

I don’t really, I enjoy both of them for different reasons. I think that fiction work lets you go to places that you wouldn’t be able to go in documentary; however, documentary has evolved so much. Beforehand, documentary was stereotyped as over-informative and a bit monotone and one-dimensional. Now, you can get so creative with it that you can really engage your audience with information without it feeling like just numbers and stats or research.

Do you think it’s important for a film like this to be told in a documentary format, as opposed to a narrative piece?

When people go to see documentaries they look at them through a lens of “truth” and that’s important when telling a story that hasn’t been the mainstream, American perspective. The Vietnamese have their perspective, and it’s important that it is shared on an international level. If this was a fiction piece of work people could write it off as “inaccurate”. However, this film interviews veterans. It’s a first person account mixed with actual war footage that we acquired from the Vietnam Film Institute. It’s a film that’s not only researched, but is being told through people who lived it. That’s really hard to refute.

I like that the film is subversive.

Yeah, absolutely, and it’s not about saying that the mainstream narrative is wrong. It’s just that there are always two perspectives and two truths and two sides. In a way this film is coming in and saying we’re not going to let you forget that there’s another perspective. There’s something really cool about the documentary form because it allows people to speak truth to power or speak truth in places that haven’t been before.

How do you think American audiences are going to react to this film?

That’s a hard question because it’s hard to gauge how invested a group of people are gonna be in a film. There are amazing films that for whatever reason don’t connect with audiences. However, this is a film that’s going to stand the test of time. Regardless of whether or not it connects now, it will connect at some point. If you’re interested in politics, if you’re interested in history, if you’re interested in humanity, if you’re interested in understanding why people have gone to war and the effects of war, this is a film for you. I think right now we’re in an era where people are understanding the significance of knowing the past so that we don’t repeat those same mistakes. Also, people are more open to documentaries these days. Before, documentaries were more for academia, but now we have Netflix doing original documentaries and people are invested. I can’t predict the future, but now seems like a good time for this film to be released.

So, where do you see yourself in the future, in terms of filmmaking?

Making films that are interesting to me. Here at VDC, we tell stories about veterans, and the more that we tell stories about veterans, the more I see the necessity of it, and it’s something that I can be really proud of. When we’ve shared these films, like when we’ve done screening, people really connect to them. Veterans are so embedded in our culture and society, and we need to pay attention to how we’re treating them. It’s so important for us as a society to understand how they feel when they come back from deployment, this organization helps facilitate that conversation. If we make these films for people to watch, maybe, just maybe, there can be a better understanding of this thing that is really hard to understand. If I can continue doing something like this in the future, then I’ll be happy.

 

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Andrés Gallegos

Andrés Gallegos is a romantic, a man who understands the rules but doesn’t necessarily stick to them, a passionate cinematographer and lifelong artist. Having just completed his Masters in Direction at San Francisco State University, Gallegos has worked as Director of Photography on many of his own short films, as well as in collaboration with other film-makers. I sat down with Andrés to talk about the keys to being a good cinematographer, empathy in documentary and the Chilean perspective.

AG-WEbsite-Diptic_Cam-op_square_Small-v4_536.jpgSophie Clement: Hi Andrés, I’ve just been watching your portfolio on Vimeo and it is beautiful. Do you have any inspirations or people that you admire?

Andrés Gallegos: Well, as a cinematographer you’re basically working for the vision of the director, right, and in that dynamic, you’re basically coming up with ideas and visual references to give them to the director and start having a conversation about that. But of course, I have my own inspiration, which are some photographers, cinematographers, or even painters that I use to inform my cinematography.

SC: Tell me your top three inspirations.

AG: I’m a big fan of the work of Vittorio Storaro… He is an Italian cinematographer who went to the U.S., and he has been working with important directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen… but there are so many cinematographers these days that are really good and they are doing really interesting stuff. For example, Emmanuel Lubezki from Mexico, he is really pushing the boundaries of cinematography, like creating new technology to create images… or [Hoyte van Hoytema], he has worked with Spike Jonze and Christopher Nolan now, he is from Europe, he is also someone that I admire. These are thenew cinematographers in the industry, but people that I use as a reference are more old school cinematographers like Raoul Coutard, Carlo di Palma… those guys were creating new language in cinematography in really early times when cinematic language was developing. For me, those guys are a good inspiration. But of course I admire the work of people from my country, I love how those filmmakers incorporate political themes to their creative decisions.

Do you find that because there are so many cinematographers, it’s difficult to have your own voice in that space?

It is, it’s hard, it takes more than talent. Because, as you said, there are so many filmmakers that are doing really nice and beautiful images, and who doesn’t want to have the “best” image right?. But when we talk about the best image and the most beautiful image, for me, I think we’re in problematic territory. Standardizing or normalizing the idea of what is good, it is not always healthy. But, because filmmaking is it also an industry, the concepts of the “best image” will be always present, creating trends, sometimes based on things not related to pure creativity, like the market itself. Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.36.06 AM.pngI think, in order to have your own voice, you need to avoid that territory. You need to really understand your creative process, and how to use the cinematic tools in order to create a piece of art. And cinema as an art form is not something distant from being complex; it has so many layers that work together in one single piece. That is why, as a DP, you need to understand what is the meaning behind camera movements, focal lengths, sensor sizes, lighting ratios, color, narrative structures, dramaturgy, characters, culture, history, and more. Also, there is a “social/anthropological” input, you need to learn about the culture, and the history, that you are going to shoot. You need to understand that you are creating a visual representation, usually, of the life of someone, and that it is usually an allegory of a community, country or region.

I think that’s the thing, if we talk about cinematography as art then it’s important to remember that art is subjective and there is no right and wrong… I can see how it would be an all-encompassing process in which you have to think about a lot of different elements.

Yes, you need to immerse in the project in order to find your own voice… but if you want to have the best looking image, that’s not your voice, that’s kind of the “industry standard” and that could be problematic… sometimes, not tasteful.

I think the most you can bring to the table in having that creative dialogue with the director, production designer, or the actors, in a collective way; I think from a visual perspective… the creation will be more consistent.

And what is your experience, working with different directors?

Well, documentary is different from fiction. From my experience, each director has a different approach for a documentary. In docs some directors could go like, we’re gonna do some interviews at this location and then we’re gonna capture some b-roll, and that’s it. Some other directors could go more narrative style, so we’re gonna stage some of the scenes. So there is a variety of different scenarios as a documentary cinematographer that you can work on, but the key thing for having a good day on a documentary film set is to prep the most you can… if you prep your day and what you know well what you are going to be doing at specific times of the day, what’s gonna be the light at a specific time of day, what needs to happen at certain time of the day… you have to plan in advance and put all factors on the table, the weather, the character, the political situation… it’s all about preparation and anticipation.

What does an average day on set look like for you?

To answer the question, it’s really hard to say what an average documentary day is like because you always have the option that things could happen and you’re not always going to get what you want. Maybe you’re going to get something you’re not expecting and that works for the film… because basically, you’re not working with actors, you’re working with people in a kind of collaboration method so it’s hard to say, and that’s why I like it, I really enjoy making documentaries because of that, because you’re working with “reality” and with the authenticity of the subjects. They’re not actors representing someone else, they’re real people and that is wonderful to experience. It is a privilege for me engaging with these people and having the access their life, and to tell their stories.

So how did you get into cinematography? What made you decide to be a cinematographer?

I am from a humble family in Chile, but I was lucky enough to have a camera at home. My father bought that camera when he migrated to the U.S. to work and he got the camera here [in America] and took it there to Chile. So when I was born the camera was already there. Eventually, when the years passed, my father bought another camera, and then a digital camera, so I always had access to a camera through my childhood. I was a creative child, I was drawing, painting, I remember making sculptures, etc…Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.25.48 AM.pngI was definitely into a creative field. I went for audio-visual degree when I was seventeen, the youngest of the whole cohort. I remember the first week of class, photography class… it opened my mind. I really started to learn how to use a camera, how to use lenses, how to see the world, and the most important thing: how to frame. Two months after that first class I decided, you know what, I want be a DP [Director of Photography]… that role had everything I wanted, creation in terms of visuals, working with light and colors, and the camera, that was always important for me. So from seventeen I have been shooting as a cinematographer all the projects I could have access to.

And how old are you now?

I’m thirty-one.

Wow so then, fourteen years!

Fourteen years shooting. Yep, time flies.

Do you find that your decision has changed since then? Do you ever think about doing something different?

So, after I graduated from my BA… my goal was to do my Masters in Cinematography but… I started applying and I didn’t get in, I was applying to really tough and competitive schools and I was not getting in, until I realized, you know what, I’ve been shooting for a good amount of years, I don’t think I need to learn my Masters in Cinematography. I need to bring something else to the table. So I thought maybe sociology, or anthropology, or even philosophy because I felt that I needed to get more knowledge in order to inform my practice. The bad thing of doing that is that would stop me from shooting for a good four years… so, I pulled back a bit and decided I’m not going to do my Masters in Cinematography, I’m going to do my Masters in Cinema as a Director. Why? Because basically a cinematographer works for the vision of the director and if I learnt what the directors want and what they are trying to achieve as an artist, then it will be really easy for me as a cinematographer to bring things to the table to help him or her achieve their goal. So, I went for that here at SF State, a Masters in Directing, and also because this program has a really strong theory input, and I was looking for that. And also the American educational system, what I like is that you can choose your own classes. In Latin America, or at least at the school where I was, we didn’t have that. For example, as a part of my education here, I had an oil painting class and that was kind of a revelation for me. Learning to paint with oil, working with pigments and the glazing technique, was mind-blowing.

I would say that from watching the little bit of your work that I have, the way that you’ve used color and light is very clever and reminiscent of a painter. It’s interesting that you say all these things have informed you and that you think theory is important in relation to creativity because I think there’s a divide between intellectual and creative and further we go on the more important it is to marry those two together and realize that they’re not necessarily two sides of a coin. You don’t have to be creative or intellectual, you can be both and then that produces better work.

Exactly, I think the beauty happens in between those two… You were asking me how difficult it is to get a voice right? Well, a voice is definitely related to the intellectual aspect of creativity as well, you need to understand your discipline in a deeper level and I mean in a theoretical level as well. Cinema is so complex that you need to be able to understand the most of it in order to make a statement or have a voice.

Seems like the key to success!

Yeah, the key is in the mix.

So if we’re talking about cinematography and directing then, do you have quite a close working relationship with (director) Daniel Bernardi on The American War?

We start working together on The American War which has been a really long process, we started pre-production September 2016… and since then we have been working as a collective team on all the processes like editing, sub-titling, color correction and sound mix. We have been involved as a team for most of the time. Also this last year, I worked for VDC, I was one of the directors and cinematographers that made three short films. That was a really wonderful experience; I basically had the access to tell these really touching stories.

Speaking of touching stories, The American War seems to me to be a story that hasn’t been told yet, especially not by American film-makers. How did it feel, leading up to shooting the film?

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There was always excitement. I had this interview with Daniel and he said, “Andrés, I’m going to do a film about the Vietnam War, but from the Vietnamese perspective” and to me that was the click that got me interested… For me, I see it as a really strong act of empathy. In a conflict, war situation, people use the term “enemy” right, because you’re one side or the other, yet how would it be to be in the shoes of the other? So for me, it was like a gift to be part of this project.

And how were the people reacting on set?

Well, in terms of the subjects reacting to this American crew and an American director, coming to Vietnam, they were really open and receptive to this project. And I would say that Trang, the producer, she did an amazing job looking for those subjects… it is a really sensitive topic and she did a great job in finding people who had enough sensibility to want to tell their stories on camera. With that being said, the vibe or the mood on set was really special because we were in that area that the documentary becomes a therapy in a way. Art can be therapeutic, in terms of it can help and heal some wounds that you have in your life and we were doing the same thing… we’re going to talk about those traumatic episodes of their lives. It was a really intimate and fragile environment and we had an enormous amount of respect in every question that we asked, we took a lot of care, for their sake and also for the sake of the American audience.

What do you hope the American audiences take from the film?

I don’t think the American audience is expecting this type of film, so it will be really interesting to see people reacting to these stories. As an audience member, we usually don’t do the exercise of thinking of what happens after the war. So I think it will be surprising for the American audience.

Is that where the idea for the title came from?

The title is brilliant; it’s the act of empathy in the title. The American War is what the Vietnamese people called it.

So it’s an acknowledgment that the film is taking notice of the Vietnamese position?

Exactly, it’s positioning the audience in a new perspective.

As someone who is not American, do you think that brings a different perspective to the way you have interacted with this material? Do you think it has changed the way you process the story?

I think it has a different perspective, being from outside the U.S. and having an outsider’s perspective on the Vietnamese-American war. I think it adds a little neutrality in terms of having a biased view on the topic, which also is helpful for documentaries. It is more just showing a situation and making a statement on that situation, which in this case is war. So I think being from a foreign country adds to that.

It seems to me that there is a pretty diverse team working on this film!

Yep, that is all San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here for my education. It is so diverse and there are many approaches and points of view on different topics so it’s an amazing place to engage with film-makers and artists.

Check out Andrés’ work here: http://www.andres-gallegos.com/

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Warren Haack

A rebel at heart, Warren Haack is a former professor of Cinema at SFSU, an anti-war protestor and a lover of good music. Having freshly escaped the rain, we sat down to chat about his experience on-set in Vietnam during the filming The American War and his memories of the social climate of the 1960’s in San Francisco.

5170913b23af6.image.jpgSophie Clement: So how did you get in to film, what was your journey?

Warren Haack: Well, I was a musician, I still am a musician, but it was in the 60s and I wasn’t very pleased with the club owners and the night life and breathing smoke and stuff… I came to SF State in the 60s to major in business and I hated it. I was supposed to take over my father’s business and it was not for me, I was flunking out and I had a friend who said “Hey Warren, there’s this class where all you do is watch film and then you write a paper and you get an A” so I took it and it changed my life and I became a film major. Because of my musical background, I got involved in sound instead of, say, cinematography. Then after I graduated I ran a recording studio downtown for 10 years; it was for an educational publishing company that made media for classrooms. That folded and I went surfing for a couple of years, so to speak, and then got a job here [at San Francisco State University] in Cinema.

SC: Wow, sounds like an interesting background.

WH: Yeah it is. Through the years I’ve done documentary films, although I did one narrative piece and it put me in the hospital, I got appendicitis from the stress so I’ll never do that again… Documentary film, in a way, is harder than narrative because it’s not tangible, unlike narrative where you’re working from a script, you have a shot list, you have a set and it’s kind of rote but with documentary you go out in the field, you have some ideas, you go start interviewing people and it usually doesn’t end up the way that you think, so then you have to… stick with your plan and not have a film or realize what’s going on and change it. And then even when you start editing you still don’t know what the film’s going to be about because it kind of reveals itself. So you sometimes have to be ready to change horses in midstream and come up with a new idea.

Do you like that about it?

I love that about it! Sometimes it really works out well – I did one film where it was just like every turn in the road was a new surprise that made it better – and then I’ve done some films where it’s just like, I don’t know with the grace of God how I’m going to get through this, this is just insane, what am I doing, you know. And then there’s some things that you never finish… I think it was James Broughton that used to say “You never really finish a film, you just abandon it” when it’s time to put it out there.

So do you also direct as well as doing sound design?

Well I do documentary film, which involves a certain kind of direction where you go out and interview people… so I guess you could say that I do. I think of directing more in terms of narrative, but yeah. I went to Cuba, I went back about six times on my own and shot a feature there about the music and dance because it was so outrageous, and that was the kind of thing where I literally got on the plane and I said, I have no idea what I’m going to find and what I’m going to do but I’m going back with my camera and I started making friends and shooting… and then I just went back, and back, and back, and ended up with a picture.

That’s cool! And it seems to me from everyone I’ve talked to so far that that’s how documentary happens – you meet someone, you go somewhere, you see something and you think, there’s more to this.

Exactly, you get a door open. And it’s really important in documentary to give back to the people that you take from and I’ve been talking to [Daniel] Bernardi about this and I really want to complete this whole thing by going back to Vietnam and seeing these people and thanking them again.

Warren 1.png

So were you on set in Vietnam?

Oh yeah, I did the on-location sound.

And how was that?

It was a blast! I’d never been to Asia before. And we had Trang [the producer] along who was the person… who arranged everything. It was wonderful, it was really interesting. And this is why the film [The American War] is such an important film, because, even as a war protester in the sixties I had no idea what really went on, how much they were tortured, how bad it was and the kinds of things they did to win the war. I mean, the woman that was in charge of the “Longhair Women” who built the Ho Chi Minh trail; 400 women built the trail, that’s incredible! A thousand mile long trail through jungle and over mountains and stuff, how wonderful.

Did you enjoy experiencing things from a different perspective?

You know, being older I connected with people like Vo, who is my age, and the Longhair army woman is my age and we talked a bit about backpacking and stuff. I showed her my pack and she was interested in the new technology of packing because she had to carry twice her weight on her back in a basket, but she said “Oh no, not for me, I can’t lift it anymore”.

So the film is going to be shown in Vietnam then?

I hope so; I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be. I mean that’s one of Daniel’s most important aspirations is to have it accepted by the community that it came from.

And how did you end up being involved in this project?

Well I’ve known Bernardi since he was chair here [at San Francisco State University]… so we were talking one day and he said to me, “Warren, I’ve got three vets lined up in Vietnam that I wanna go interview; you wanna go and do sound?” and I said sure, so I got thinking and I said, “Daniel, you’re missing an opportunity. Don’t go over there and make three short films, let’s make a feature”. So it turned into a much bigger project and then Trang and her Dad, he was finding people at the last minute because there was one person that the government wouldn’t let us interview because he was subversive and then there was another person who actually died between the first time we were going and then the second time when we actually did go.

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.31.43 AM.png

Finding people was interesting; we went out to scout the Hoi An prison at night because we wanted to go film it during the day with another interviewee… well we went there and the guard, Huynh, who was in charge of the prison, was drunk and he came at us and said something like “These goddamn Americans come here and they just want to steal everything”… then the next day when we went back we had the official government person with us and his tune was completely different. And so then we started talking to him [Huynh] on the side and asked him if he’d like to be interviewed and that’s how we met him. And that’s an example of how documentaries evolve.

And do you think this is an important story?

Of course it is, it’s a very important story, to challenge the status quo of the American military is really important. I’m anti-war and anything that can stop war or slow it down is important… it’s what’s ruining the world… and the Western philosophy of divide and conquer and kill and exploit, its time in the sun is over, it’s time for something else. So if this film can help bring out the other side and help some people. In any filmmaking experience there’s preaching to the choir, well that’s good but doesn’t change anything, then there’s the hard edge, the hard Right or the Republicans or whatever, you might get to some of them and then there’s the middle of the road. This film is not going to appeal to the lazy, uneducated American, (and unfortunately that’s becoming more and more the norm in this country), because this film requires you to sit there and read subtitles and use your mind. So hopefully it will get on educational television, I sure hope so. I know it will get on television in Europe, Germany and Asia, they’re going to snap it up. What happens in America, who knows.

So tell me Warren, you were the right age to have been part of the armed forces during the Vietnam War, is that right?

Yes, I was the only person in my family who got drafted but I flunked my physical so I got out. They had a lottery every week.

And were you anti-war prior to being drafted?

Well, in my heart I’m anti-war… there were weekly protests… they don’t have protests here anymore like they had during the Vietnam War, there were mass protests in the city and in Oakland… a lot of it started in the Universities and then spread to downtown. Marches blocking the streets, all non-violent although some of it got bad when people started blocking railroad tracks going out of the Naval supply stations and the train ran over them. So it didn’t always turn out well, but it was a certain time, the sixties, it was the worst and the best. The worst was the war but what came out of it, in terms of culture, was the best – music, the bands, the dancing. The creative arts that came out of the sixties I think was a result of the oppression of that time, of the war, the contrast of the bad and the good.

Speaking of creative arts and anti-war protesting, you made a student film/documentary during that time called Selective Service System in which a young man intentionally shoots himself in the foot to avoid carrying out his service in the U.S. Army. The subject Dan Lovejoy, approached you about making this film, is that correct?

Yes he was also a student, a friend of mine who I’d known for some time. He wanted me to film this particular episode…

207735-selective-service-system-0-230-0-345-crop.jpgAnd it’s all real? He really shot himself?

Yeah it is, and there’s a lot of people who watch it and say “how did you get that effect?” because they just don’t want to acknowledge that someone would do this, but through history people have cut off their hands, they’ve shot themselves, they’ve done all kinds of things to avoid going to war. So I took pause on agreeing to do this but I realized that if I didn’t shoot it somebody else would because he was a man that was gonna do what he was gonna do so I agreed to do it.

Well he obviously had a very strong conviction about it!

Both of his parents were in the army so he was an army brat and his name had come up, for the draft.

And was this incident a secret? In the film the origins of the injury are kept quiet from the police and the ambulance crew… After the event, did he then come out and say, “I did this on purpose”?

No, not until afterwards. This is what I wish we could have filmed: when the ambulance arrived with a policeman, they wanted to know why the serial number had been filed off the rifle and they said “Until you answer that we’re not going to administer any first aid” and I was little concerned that he was bleeding but they said that he could lie there and bleed for another twenty minutes and it’d be no problem. And he didn’t anticipate hitting an artery.

For you, being there and filming that graphic scene, what was your experience?

I had never seen someone get shot before, or even an animal. I had the Eclair camera which holds 400 feet, which is thirteen minutes, so my instructions were, once it starts, don’t turn it off and I really wasn’t prepared for what I was seeing and that’s why the camera kept moving around because I would take my eye off the camera to look over there and see what was going on.

I think it takes a lot of guts to be a cameraman in that situation and record the details!

It brings up another issue in terms of filmmaking, probably more for news than for cinema, but at what point do you say no and put down the camera and help this person? In 1970, people were less inured to violence than they are now so it created quite a reputation and for me the making of The American War after the making of Selective Service System kind of completes this 50 year circle that started out with me as a war protester making a subversive anti-war film and actually Sam Green who did the Weather Underground called it “one of the most subversive shorts ever made”… then coming around to making The American War which is subversive in that it tells a truth that is not the mainstream truth. So when I saw the woman have a seizure in Danang when we were filming and I flashed back to Dan [Lovejoy] lying on the floor bleeding I realized wow, what a metaphor for a connection here, for me.

So the general mood of the everyday citizen toward the Vietnam War at that time was one of dissent?

Warren 2.pngThis is what I told the people that we interviewed [in Vietnam]: there were millions of anti-war protesters here, I mean it was a huge thing and they probably didn’t know it over there, just as we didn’t know how bad the war was and the atrocities that went on until I got involved in making this film… For a long time, films about war more glorified war than criticized it, like a lot of the major Hollywood films, but now that has turned around too. The Hurt Locker, which is really hard to watch – that doesn’t glorify war… finally the establishment has come around to making films telling the truth about the horrors of war.

Where do you think that glorification of war comes from? What do you think that’s about?

It’s about ego. Look at the Hollywood factory, the myth factory and the times, the sixties and the seventies, I mean look at the politicians, they never told the truth. Who’s kidding who? It’s part of the way the media works… broadcast is made to keep you dumb and make you buy stuff you don’t need and cinema is to empower you to wake up and take control of your life and think about the world. Those are two completely different philosophies and that’s why you can’t put them together. And that philosophy of broadcast is perhaps something that helped motivate the thinking behind the films that glorify war.

Check out Warren’s work here: https://vimeo.com/user34289944

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Trang Tran

Trang Tran_003 (1).jpg“Amazing” is a word often used when talking to fellow crew members about our next interviewee, Trang Tran. A first-time film producer, Vietnam native Trang provided the vital connection between the American crew and their Vietnamese subjects. We chatted about the responsibilities of an on-set producer, the delicate process of interviewing veterans and the art of bridging two cultures and worlds.

Hi Trang, I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you about your role in the making of this film! Tell me a bit about your background – how did you become involved in film?

I am not a filmmaker by trade: I have a degree in International Relations from Vietnam and then I went to Oregon and did a graduate degree in Public Policy and then I received a job offer from the University of Alaska to become a policy researcher. Daniel [Bernardi] and I are friends, I think we met each other five years ago when he went to Vietnam on a U.S. Navy mission… He really wanted to come back to Vietnam in the role of a filmmaker… so I think two years ago he started talking about it more often, but I thought I was just going to be his assistant to get everything ready but I was also going home during that time so he was asking me “What if you become a producer?” so he kind of transitioned me in to the role that way.

Was it an experience that you enjoyed?

Yes definitely, it was one of the most wonderful projects I’ve done.

What does a producer do?

Many pieces but the most important part of my job was to build and grow connections: between the director and the subjects, between team members and the story, between the film with the on-going themes in Vietnam. Upon the arrival of the crew, there were a lot of conversations about the potential subjects. I communicated with my associates who were in Vietnam at the time and presented to the crew the stories of the North Vietnamese soldiers-veterans who we were going to interview and make films about. My job was to provide the information and raw materials for my artist coworkers to impart in the flick. Logistics is another part of the job, getting everything ready so the team is all set for their creative work. Last but not least, I was responsible for securing the agreement/permit from the national and local authority for the crew to travel to and around Vietnam and document the country in their cameras.

image002.jpgAnd your father was quite involved as well?

Yes, because during the time we were prepping for the trip I was still here in Alaska… so there was a lot of work from my father in terms of networking, communicating with the subjects and securing the shooting dates with them. He was also there to introduce us to the subject and their families, and helped with production on set.

What did you find challenging about being a producer?

My job was definitely not a difficult one, compared to others in the team. But to pick out the most challenging note, it was to get people opened up about their personal stories. Unlike what one might think about encountering people who fought in such a war, I personally didn’t feel any particle of that war when I stepped into any of the subject’s home, no military certificate, no war medals (until we asked to see them!). Then I realized years have passed and they must have navigated back to the normality of their civilian life, just like every other Vietnamese.  Most subjects opened their doors for us because they thought this could make a great memory about them for their children and grandchildren when they pass away. However, all of them had this sense of privacy and were not accustomed to revealing their heart-wrenching memories with anyone, not to mention the foreigners whom they have just known for a couple hours. For every single subject, we had to spend quality time for mutual knowing. Then when the camera was rolling, we had to ask the question in different ways to hopefully entice candid moments and revealing details that I guess were buried quite deep down. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Can you tell me what a typical day looked like for you during the production of this film?

It was intense ! The crew spent 20 days in Vietnam and the agenda was to finish all shootings, translation and subtitles in that timeframe.  That was really ambitious ! But we worked pretty hard so when the crew left Vietnam, we had all the shots we needed and 60-70% of translation and subtitles were in place. I can easily recall a day when I showed up at the van at 7am, spent the whole day out on set, and the whole evening to do translation and subtitles.

So having grown up in Vietnam, was the Vietnam War something that was talked about often?

Yes and no. I had the feeling that the Vietnam War was mentioned everywhere but it was not an in-depth topic, and it did not catch much of our generation’s attention. It was everywhere in our history books, in songs, and our literature classes always had this primary section featuring poets and writers from the 1945-1975 period. And every year there would be a formal celebrations on April 30th as Independence Day and July 27th as Memorial Day. We generally acknowledge the context and spirit of the Vietnam War from those sources. Still, most of us younger generations know very little about it.

How does your personal background and connection to Vietnam help to produce a film marketed to American audiences?

It’s not difficult to find a person like me walking on any random street of Vietnam. I was born, raised and educated in Vietnam. My father works for the local government, my mother runs our family business and my sister is attending college in Vietnam. My home is in Danang. I think my origin and background was an indispensable factor allowing me to do a good job of welcoming the team to the country and convey to them what it’s like to be an ordinary Viet family, and what the most elemental manners and traditions are that every Vietnamese is born with and carry. For our film, I knew we were looking at only these six people’s little worlds, which might or might not mirror everybody else’s worlds. So during the editing, we always stayed close to the details we witnessed and interacted with when we were onset in Vietnam. I can testify to each of every second in the film for its truthfulness and authenticity. I think that attests to something the American audiences haven’t necessarily seen in a documentary about the so- called “enemy”.

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.24.20 AM.pngAnd did you and your father find it hard to find veterans of the war?

Not really, but that took quite some time. My father reads a lot about the Vietnam War and in his job he interacts quite regularly with the veterans. So with his help, identifying interesting subjects became quite convenient. When Daniel expressed to me about his interests to make films about female veterans, or prisoners of war, or guerilla, or veterans who nowadays are continuing their work in supporting other vets, I would discuss those ideas with my father. He would then do some networking and research to find out candidates. I think it took us about five to six months to eventually lock dates with the subjects.

So when you were present in the interviews with these people, were you at all surprised about what they were saying, in terms of their personal experiences?

I feel the events in their stories weren’t surprising because I had read about them… However, I loved the way these people shared their stories. It was humble, authentic yet full of emotions. Most interestingly, their personalities were lively and so different from each other. Listening to them, I appreciated and admired what they have been through much more than when I was just reading about them. It was more personal getting to know them that way.  

Was it hard getting the people you interviewed to open up and talk about their past?

In my view, the Vietnamese people are not the best when it comes to expressing emotions or personal thoughts and it has to be really hard for these veterans to condense their lives into the question-answer type of storytelling… They would describe details of their roles in the war pretty smoothly, but when we was looking for a deeper level of emotion, it got harder. These people were trained to be so optimistic… Any time we asked if there was sadness or despair or trauma, they would just firstly gave us a “No”. Or some of them would walk through “injuries” and “death” quickly. I was making a wild guess that maybe propaganda during the war have let them to that optimistic spirit. So we had to work a little bit on that.

And so during the interview process were you translating as well?

Yes. Since Daniel and I had worked together in the past, we figured I would be his translator during the production. He’s very professional and thoughtful which had made my translation job much easier. Also, he knew the way to make the person in front of him feel comfortable to share, even though they do not speak any common language.

Did you have a theme in mind behind your work?

The general theme I had for the film was about the personal experience and perspectives of the war with the Americans from the North Vietnamese soldier-veterans who lived it. I knew what we were going to do in the most basic level but I think many many new things have evolved as each production day went by.  

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.40.33 AM.pngWhat is the significance of the title ‘The American War’?

It is actually a shortcut of the translation for how the Vietnamese refer to the so-called “Vietnam War”. In Vietnam, we refer it to “the war against America” or “the war against the United States”. There were more than one wars in that war, and this title is a way to emphasize the point of view of people appeared in the film.

Finally, what do you hope audiences get out of this film?

The process of making The American War has been a wonderful learning experience for me. Like many young Vietnamese who were born in the 80s and 90s, it was not my choice for a long time to pay attention to the war we had against the United States. My understanding about the so-called “heroes of the country” stayed where I closed the history textbook. After 4 years living in the U.S, I encountered and noticed for many times the ambiguity the general public have about Vietnam as a country. So working on The American War was firstly to offer myself a chance to go home and learn about a generation I grew up knowing but didn’t connect; and secondly to give out to the American public another multitude of perspectives and human experiences that were deliberately omitted from the public awareness. There are so many different unheard stories beneath the word “Vietnam”, some of them will be told in The American War.

The American War Crew: A Conversation with Daniel Bernardi

Daniel-BernardiDr. Daniel Bernardi is a man of many talents, a person who is known for his drive and commitment to sharing important ideas and stories. An experienced filmmaker, a father to three sons, and a veteran himself, Daniel is a man who is passionate about using the art of cinema as a way of rehabilitation for veterans and the audience alike. I had the chance to ask Daniel a few questions about The American War and his own experience as a war veteran.

SC: How did you come up with the idea for the film?

DB: After successfully producing roughly 25 short films on 25 different veterans, I knew it was time for Veteran Documentary Corp to begin making feature-length documentaries to tell deeper, more developed stories of the veteran experience. I selected Vietcong veterans as the subject of our first feature for a couple reasons.  First, despite the fact that many Americans have seen stories or read about the Vietnam War, the story of the Vietcong veteran has not been told — at least not for American audiences. Why did the Vietnamese fight? What was their experience of, for example, Agent Orange or South Vietnamese torture? What was it like being Veterans in a county that includes veterans from the “other” side (e.g., South Vietnamese soldiers)? Second and equally important, I wanted to address experiences shared by veterans across time and country. The experience of war is more universal than era or nation might otherwise suggest.

What drives you to tell the stories of veterans?

As a veteran of the Iraq War and twenty-year Navy Reserve officer, I have some understanding of what it means to serve in uniform and to survive war. And yet I have found it difficult to verbally express myself, to tell my story to others that don’t share that experience. It’s not easy explaining my choices, why I serve or what I experienced in Iraq, with family, friends and colleagues. So I turned to making films on veterans — and working with civilians to do so — to help traverse that challenge.  These films reveal the compelling and diverse story of veteran experience, irrespective of war or nation, to include both challenges (PTSD, social stigma, loss of friends) and opportunities (leadership skills, humor, resilience). I tell these stories because veteran stories are unique, interesting and important.Officer1

What effect does your personal experience of war have in the telling of these stories?

At first, it is what drove me to tell these stories.  Fresh off three deployment — Iraq, Indonesia and Oceania — I accepted the position of Chair of the Department of Cinema at San Francisco State University.  I began working with student veterans as a kind of mentoring-thing, and came to see that, though they were all much younger than I was, we were dealing with similar challenges.  How do we accept and grapple with our military experiences while also working against stereotypes of us as dupes, war mongers or wounded warriors? Since I had cameras and talented students all around me, I figured I’d use the tools of cinema to work against the stereotypes of veterans while also helping my fellow veterans tell their stories in a way that would prove healing for them.

What’s your favourite part of the filmmaking process?

Being on a set, in a foreign country, working with talented people to capture moving images of compelling people — all while cars, scooters, and kids are running here and there.  

What do you hope the audience gains from watching The American War?

I hope they see the “hearts and minds” mission of the Vietnam War from the point of view of the North Vietnamese.  Why did they fight so hard? Why were they willing to die en masse in service of their country? It wasn’t for communism, though the subjects of our film are all committed communist.  And while people do put their lives on the line for political ideologies, masses of people don’t. Masses are willing to die — and kill — for community, family and freedom. As the story of The American War unfolds on screen, I also hope audiences will also experience the major events of the war — escalation of troops, TET Offensive, My Lai Massacre, Agent Orange, torture — with fresh eyes and ears.

image002So tell me, what was the most profound or touching part of the journey to making The American War?

Working with a Chilean cinematographer with a unique eye, a 1960s anti-war protester committed to social change, a brilliant Vietnamese producer, an exceptionally talented editor, and host of thoughtful Vietnamese veterans, family members and officials — all willing to let a U.S. Navy Reservist and fellow veteran tell the story of war and its aftermath.  In particular, my fellow filmmakers and veterans alike demonstrated profound generosity and trust in someone that they could have easily saw as either “client” or “enemy.”

Finally, what did you find challenging about creating this film?

As documentary filmmakers, we have to be honest throughout the storytelling process.  Yet as documentary filmmakers dealing with war that “ended” before some of the crew were even born, we had to recreate the experience of war.  How do you create an experiential film in a language not yours while remaining faithful — honest — to the stories your subjects tell you? We used beautifully shot b-roll, North Vietnamese archival footage, some of it clearly propaganda, animated illustrations, a dynamic editing styles and sound design to help tell the story our veterans told us on and off camera.  Getting that right took a great deal of discussion, debate (sometimes pointed debate), and time. We had to be willing to go down dead ends. We had to be willing to let the best idea — the most honest idea — win. And we had to do all that while keeping our subjects — their hearts and minds — in focus.

You can keep up with Daniel’s work. and the release of the film, through the VDC blog.