Let me tell you, it ain’t easy being an American lately. So far, it has been a year of headlines. First, the fallen Confederate statues spurred protests and the senseless killings in Charlottesville. Then, Harvey and Irma came for an unwelcome visit. Puerto Rico didn’t get a chance to meet the President, then the massacre in Las Vegas took place. Amid all that, a television event, rolled out in mid-September on PBS by the master of modern-day Americana portraiture, Ken Burns, and his sidekick, Lynn Novick, punched me in the gut. What a year we’ve had, filled with division and conflict. And it ain’t over yet.
The PBS Vietnam War Television Series’ aim was to generate discussion about the war with diverse viewpoints, according to Burns and Novick. Generate discussion it did. Like the war itself, there were many sides to the discussion. Some lauded Burns and Novick as master historians and storytellers. Some called it skewing facts and misrepresentation. But diversity is still in question. My comment here is not so much about the series. Rather, it is an observation on the practice of the media industry itself, and the people behind this series and other documentaries that pertain to the many Vietnamese Americans like me. My point-of-view is that of a filmmaker of color and an American.
Last year, a local PBS station contacted me and asked if I knew any stories about the Vietnamese in the Orange County or Los Angeles area because they were preparing for Ken Burns’ series on the Vietnam War. I pitched my film, Nothing Left to Lose, to the programmer.
It’s a story about how a group of Vietnamese refugees, who lived in hiding in Thailand for 25 years, was able to resettle in Canada through the efforts of the Vietnamese Overseas community. She liked the idea. At that time, we needed financial support to finish the film. She did mention that they were working on a budget. But, she wasn’t sure whether they would have one. The station wrote me a letter of interest. They would be the presenting station for the film. After several months, she came back and told me that they didn’t have the money to help out with finishing the film. But, they were still interested in presenting the film if I could finish it in time for Ken Burns’ series premiere. Then, in early 2017, we received funding from CPB (Corporate for Public Broadcasting), through the Center for Asian American Media, to complete the film. The station then came back and told me that I would have to pony up a fee equal to the amount that I had received from CPB, in order for them to be the representing station. We were barely finishing the film by the skin of our teeth; where would I get the money for them to put their logo on my film? We finished our film in August, just in time for the Vietnam War series. PBS stations across the country are airing it. The withdrawn PBS station chose to rerun the series instead.
What I’m getting at is the systematic exclusion of diverse voices in the public media space by the gatekeepers, and specifically, the production team of this series. The entire production that spanned 10 years and cost $30 million was done in near secrecy, like the bombing campaign Nixon conducted in Cambodia. The Vietnamese community was kept out of the loop. Instead, Burns and Novick hand-picked their experts to get their soundbites. In the first episode, the script criticized the French colonial rule in Indochina as being disconnected from the people that they conquered. Peter Coyotes, the narrator said:
“Most did not even bother to learn the language spoken by their subjects. Instead they installed a series of puppet emperors and employed a network of French speaking Vietnamese officials, mandarins willing to carry out their wishes.”
It seems as though Burns and Novick also installed their own versions of mandarins in the production, through the so-called program advisors. These advisors are not connected to the larger Vietnamese American community. They are simply cultural brokers that provide insight to interested parties. In the business, we call them fixers or minders. For almost the entire series, Burns and Novick relied on Duong Van Mai Elliot, a former RAND Corp employee and a novelist, as a reference book for Vietnamese history. Elliot’s claim to fame was her memoir, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Ironically, her great grandfather was a mandarin and a member of the imperial court; her father was a government official under French rule. She came from an elite Vietnamese family and studied at Georgetown University. She wouldn’t have the perspective of 99% of other Vietnamese. For the filmmaking style Burn and Novick employed, “extractive filmmaking,” it is an approach that is not too far from the colonial days. In Whose Story?: Five Doc-Makers on (Avoiding) Extractive Filmmaking, written by Lauren Wissot, appeared in IDA Magazine on September 28, 2017, filmmaker Pamela Yates who coined the term said:
It struck me that when people come from the outside and ‘take’ — whether it’s anthropologists, academics, artists, journalists or filmmakers — and never consider collaborating with the protagonists or replenishing what’s been taken, it’s exactly the same practice as extractive industries (mining, hydroelectric or industrial agriculture) — multinational companies who steal the wealth from below the land, never share the proceeds, and in the process destroy the environment.
Again, another major setback is delivered to the folks on the wrong side, like me, with the launch of a television event like The Vietnam War. As a community that is still searching for its own identity after displacement and conflict, works like Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, Frontline’s Terror in Little Saigon and the Vietnam War Series have profound effects on the community. They instill negative images of us as helpless victims, while minimizing the contributions by the Vietnamese American community to this country. It steals our own sovereignty to present our true stories in public media. While the Vietnam War TV Series was lauded as an American experience, the questions that need to be reexamined are: Who is American and who is NOT? Which side is RIGHT and which is WRONG?