War is a nasty, fear-filled experience. Virtually no one escapes its trauma—not the civilians who find themselves in harm’s way, not the soldiers hunkered down and terrified on the battlefield, not the families far away who sit and wait for news of their loved ones. And wars do not end with the last shot fired. The hatred and divisiveness reverberate decades and even centuries after the event.
Documentary filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns learned the enduring quality of war’s horror when they created their latest masterpiece, the 18-hour PBS series, The Vietnam War, first aired last September. “It was perpetually devastating for all of us who worked on it,” Novick said this week in a telephone interview. “We could all see the parallels to what is happening now.”
She will discuss the making of the series and the insights she drew from it when she appears at Kent School Sunday, April 22, from 2 to 4PM. The program is sponsored by the Kent Memorial Library.
Novick, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker, has for nearly 30 years directed and produced films about American history and culture, many of them in collaboration with Ken Burns.
She first worked with Burns in 1989 as he neared the end of production of his epic 1990 series about the Civil War. “I was only tangentially concerned with The Civil War,” she said. “I didn’t have any creative input into that although I watched it many, many times in post-production.”
Burns was impressed with his new colleague and, since the early 1990s, she has been one of his principal collaborators. Together they have created some of the most respected and top-rated documentaries aired on PBS, including Prohibition, Baseball, Jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, The War a seven part exploration of ordinary Americans’ experiences in World War II, and most recently, Vietnam.
Novick said she has discovered there is a certain commonality to the experience of war. “In The War and Vietnam we see lot of similarities in the experience of combat and what it does to people and the way the public increasingly bears the brunt of war. Those things are eternal.”
But other things are different. “World War II was extremely traumatic for those involved in it and for those who lost someone or suffered traumatic injuries,” she said. “And it was severely traumatic for Japanese citizens who were interned and the African-American soldiers fighting for a country that did not value them. But it was also a time when the country came together in a shared idealism.
“Fast forward to Vietnam and we have all the same traumas with an overlay of a national cataclysm in that country was being torn apart,” she continued. “There were layers on layers of toxic effect in the country because it became so divisive. That makes it more difficult to work through. Americans see World War II as a positive time—unless you were African-American or Japanese. Vietnam is the opposite. It was a rending of the body politic. Until then we thought of ourselves as the good guys; thought our leaders were right—now it is all very different.”
The changes have come fast and furious in the five decades since America committed itself to the Vietnamese conflict. “Vietnam was a terrible time for our country,” Novick said. “There were failures of leadership on an epic scale. We were on a bad path but it was also an exciting and profound time for our country. It was the first time the people protested a war while it was happening, exercising their rights of democratic speech and holding our leaders accountable. That’s democracy in action and there’s a lot of be proud of there.”
In presenting the complex story, Novick said the filmmakers “tried not to make anyone wrong—the soldier who went and thought he was doing his patriotic duty or the ones who stayed home.” The series features interviews with 79 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war or opposed it, as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both sides.
Novick is pleased that the series provoked conversations. “I’m especially looking forward to the Kent event,” she said, where there will be a question and answer session after her presentation. “There have been fascinating conversations since the documentary has been out. In general, the reaction has been, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ It’s an immersive experience with a lot of information.”
The Vietnam War has received widespread critical acclaim and has been seen by nearly 40 million viewers in the United States as well as millions more around the globe. And most of those who tuned in watched entire episodes and came back for more, she reported.
Working on a film that covers a major historical event or movement requires perspective. “Our knee-jerk reaction is 25 years must pass before you have some sense of what happened and what it means,” she said. “That said, it’s a pretty flexible time frame. The war ended in 1975, we started in 2007, 30 years later. Whatever moment we begin a project, that influences our perspective. For instance, it’s not possible to understand what is going on in Afghanistan until the war is over or it has been resolved in some way.”
Novick is currently directing College Behind Bars—that’s a working title—a contemporary documentary about men and women imprisoned in New York State for serious crimes, struggling to earn degrees in a rigorous liberal arts college program – the Bard Prison Initiative. The film is slated to air on PBS next year.
Further, Novick and Burns are collaborating on a biography of Ernest Hemingway and are developing a series about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. “The Vietnam series got us interested in Lyndon Johnson and a series on his presidency,” she said. “We are using Johnson’s tapes of his telephone messages (declassified in 2006), which we are super excited about.”
The Kent presentation will take place in the Mattison Auditorium at Kent School, One Macedonia Road. Registration is required at kentmemoriallibrary.org or at Kent Memorial Library. Tickets are $20 per person and there are no refunds. The program is expected to be fully booked.
The Vietnam War book ($60) & DVDs is available to pre-purchase when registering at the library or online: Book: $60 & DVDs ($99.95). April 10th is the deadline for purchases and they can be picked up at the presentation. Novick will sign them if desired. Indicate the number of book(s) and/or DVD(s).