Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fog of War

Moments ago I finished watching Fog of War, a documentary about Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War that Matt recommended during our conversation last night.  It was fascinating and had a lot of great quotes in it about his leadership during the war.  

I knew nothing of this film until last night, and went to rent it immediately.  It has been incredibly helpful to look at how another approached a similar subject matter (ours will focus more on the Montagnard-American relationship than the Vietnam War), and how the story was crafted without any narration.  McNamara himself acts as the narrator, which is how I am approaching our film.  I prefer to have the interviewees be the voices, but we will see how that works out once we get the rough cut prepared.

More to come later.

Week in Review

So much happens in a week, it's getting difficult to keep up! Let's see how succinctly I can capture the past week's events, thoughts and revelations.
"We almost never think of the present, and when we do, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future."
- Pascal
Wednesday, July 2
Filmed two interviews with the help of Chris Moore. He was critical in getting the equipment set up at Surry's house. It took us a good two hours to clear one of the bedrooms upstairs, set up all the lights, and test the camera angles and audio. Having him there to help was a huge relief, and I'm terribly grateful for his help. It made focusing on the interviews much easier.

The interviews went well, too. We talked at great length about the Montagnards who fled to the jungles after the war ended. Because they fought with the Americans, when South Vietnam fell to communism, the Montagnard leaders were in great trouble. After 10 years of living in the jungle, they "surrendered" their arms and became political refugees in order to come to the States. They made it clear to me that they didn't want to become refugees. They simply want their own land and independence once again.

Thursday, July 3
Another vacation day devoted to filmmaking. I had three or four meetings scheduled. In the morning, I met a young man named Lap who is studying linguistic anthropology and is creating a dictionary of his language. Very cool! I must say, that seems like a huge, very exciting challenge. He offered me a lot of great insight on the Montagnards, conducting interviews and what to expect when scheduling the conversations. His help has been incredible, and I can't thank him enough. He even helped me buy a CD of Montagnard music, which I have been enjoying very much.

After the breakfast meeting, I headed over to Surry's for another interview with a man named Chris who served in the Mike Force during Vietnam. It was a very interesting interview, and I am looking forward to reviewing the tapes.

The more I interview people, the more I understand. And the more comfortable I become with conducting the interviews and asking what I would normally think are dumb questions. But I was raised to believe that there is no 'dumb question' because if you don't know the answer, you'll never find out. In this case, I am asking the same questions to hear different opinions and it is a fascinating process.

The third meeting of the day was at the Apple store, where I finally learned how to export the tapes as MP3s. What a break through! FINALLY! I'm very excited about this, and am anxious to get the tapes to the transcription agency so that we can get that process moving forward immediately. That was a great meeting in more ways than one, as it also revealed some of the critical filmmaking mistakes I've been making.

"It’s only by failing consistently that you’re really going to learn to succeed, and I mean to succeed in a superficial way, but I mean succeed as an artist…in understanding the truth of your work, and being able to implement that truth in your work."
- Stanley Tucci

But, I am staying positive about that. My background in still photography and design is coming in handy every day. But I am still learning this new medium, and so there are a lot of critical things to know that I am learning the hard way. In fact, last night there were some excellent conversations that taught me a lot...but more on that later.

Friday, July 4
Independence Day! I took the day off to relax and spend time with friends. It was quite possibly one of the most relaxing days I have had in quite some time. We played games, watched movies, shot off fireworks, ate a lot of great food and fell asleep to the comedic rants of Eddie Izzard. I marked it as a much needed day of rest. There are many cliche connections between Independence Day and this project, but I will save you from that heavy-handedness.

Saturday, July 5
In the morning, I kept the slow pace going. I feel it's important to find that balance, as one can get sick easily if the immune system is not able to keep up the fast pace. I don't like being sick, so I am doing my best to keep balanced since the amount of time I'm spending on the film has increased dramatically over the past month. This is by my own choice, of course, but I am trying to keep that Lifeguard mentality that you cannot help others if you are in danger yourself. I mean, being sick isn't being in danger, but you get the point, I hope.

I've already written a bit about what happened Saturday night in Greensboro. It was an unforgettable evening, filled with good music and dance. I am also looking forward to reviewing this footage. And I hope to get more like it so that we can craft this story in an interesting manner.

Sunday, July 6
The morning meeting over coffee with Betzi was canceled. I had hoped she could help me talk about event planning, for screening the film once it's completed. My full time job has taught me the importance of planning ahead in this department, and I do not want to wait before putting some minor effort (at least right now) into this stage of the project. After all, why create a film if you aren't willing to do the work to be sure people see it, right?

But, for various reasons, we canceled our meeting. It was for the best, honestly, as I need to stay focused on completing this stage of the project anyway: finishing interviews, digitizing tapes, transcribing the interviews, and editing the film together. Those steps are pretty monumental right now, so we can always return to the event planning at a later date.

That afternoon, Doc and I met to talk about editing the footage. He helped me get the project set up and we talked about a lot of the logistics. He's offered to be the main editor, for which I am so incredibly grateful! The day left me with a huge sense of relief, knowing that a trusted partner has just joined the 'team' to help make this thing come to life. He shared some Film 101 knowledge with me about formats, proportions, and work flow.

His expertise will help us save time and money in putting the project in motion, which refers me to what I talked about a few posts ago: looking for people that will go to war with you. It's terribly important to build that army of folks that understand what you're trying to do, and can help you make it better.

"My advice [to people who want to get into film] is to find people your own age who are incredibly talented...because they gravitate to action. Talented people ultimately find something to do. So you create circles of talent...The real alliances are with the people you came up with...if you don't loose them when you begin to get work, if you stay true to each other, those are the people who will go to war with you."
- Lynda Obst, director
The rest of the evening was spent focusing on improv, which was a welcomed break as well. Improv is so close to filmmaking in so many ways, that it helps me wrap my head around this project even more. The team I get together with each Sunday practices a form called the Harold, which is not too different than a film itself. There are elements that make the film work, and the way the scenes are edited together--the ebb and flow, the heightening of emotions, the characters--these are all tools that relate to filmmaking, and I find myself even more grateful for that training.

Two of my friends ate dinner with me after practice and let me tell them more about the project. With each layer of information I shared, their eyes grew bigger. Like me, they found it difficult to believe that things like genocide were still happening in the year 2008.

I have sources that have told me during the Vietnam War there were about 2-3 million Montagnards in Vietnam and presently only about 700,000 are there. Each person who has shared this with me starts to break their relatively detached demeanor. True compassion and hurt shows through. I have more research to do in order to confirm these numbers, but having heard it so many times I would find it hard to be false.

Monday, July 7
Back to work. It was a long day after having been out for vacation, and for other various reasons. The day weakened my spirit a bit, so that evening I didn't accomplish much other than research by means of watching I, Robot to clear my mind. It worked. I found myself thinking about characters, editing and such.

Tuesday, July 8
Last night I feel like I moved forward a lot. I met with another editor named Matt, who studied film at NCSU. He asked a lot of great questions and our conversation was a good one. We have decided that I will work with Doc as long as he is available to edit, and then Matt will help me put the pieces together. After the meeting with Matt at my house, I went to Doc's to pick up the camera and we had a great conversation, too. He shared even more of his expertise with me, about film composition and lighting.

Doc shares a lot of my values, I think. We talked about how few people recognize that opportunity often looks more like hard work than anything glorious. I think that's very true.
"You miss 100 percent of the shots you didn't take."
- Wayne Gretsky
When you see someone on Good Morning America, joyfully talking about their accomplishment, it is easy to assume that they snapped their fingers to get to that point. But, what most people fail to see is the blood, sweat and tears that went into the journey that brought the accomplishment.

I once heard an interviewer ask an actor why he had become an overnight success. The actor smiled, pausing to take in the question. I like to think he was trying to filter his response so that he didn't simply say, "No one is an overnight success!" Instead he politely replied that others might think he was an overnight success, but in reality he had been doing the same thing for years. It was only recently that he was starting to get attention for it.

Moral of the story? Focus on quality. Focus on learning. Focus on doing what you do best so that you can be a better version of yourself. And when it's your turn to get that infamous 15 minutes of fame, you'll know that when the lights fade and you become yesterday's news, you still have your integrity and honor. Because you are still you, and you haven't let something so silly as fame change you.

I don't mean to go on a soap box here, it's more like a rambling of thoughts. America makes fame seem so delicious, so worth the struggle to achieve it. I feel quite the opposite, actually. It terrifies me. Sure, it'd be great to walk down a red carpet once in my life, but I would much rather trade that for a life time of sharing stories that impact people in a positive way.

But enough of the philosophy, here; there is much work to be done and a dwindling amount of time in which to complete it. My to do list continues to grow, and my clock continues to count down to my next appointment.

Wednesday, July 9
Today. I've taken another vacation day. If you've read this far, bless ya! This is a long post, driven by the dark coffee and raw sugar I consumed an hour ago.

The day today is going to be dedicated to getting my thoughts and plans in order. Capturing the many racing thoughts that have been in my mind over the past week, so that I might share them with others in order to move this project forward in a timely fashion.

Last night during my conversation with Doc, I blurted out that I loved the research process. And I didn't remember that until last night! How did I forget that? I do love the research. Diving into something new, totally ignorant of the subject matter, open and ready to receive new information. I find that chaotic space to be so blissful.
"Chaotic space is about the randomness of life. It is about experiencing the experience as it happens, rather than having the experience with an eye to the next one...So in chaotic space all sorts of things happen randomly that impact you. It isn't the 'things' that happen, it's how you use, apply and live them that is the real impact. They come into your life, you decide or choose what you do with them."
- Nicola Phillips
Last night I had another epiphany, too. That this dream of being a filmmaker might just be possible! Why had I doubted that for so long? It is easy to let one's fear become the very thing that freezes you.
"Thinking the unthinkable; making mistakes; paradoxically these are the things that increase not decrease our personal power. Power is the ability to influence and influence is the manifestation of power. Under pressure there are times when we discover that our belief in ourselves is more fragile than we wish. By the same token some situations can surprise us and allow us to see how much influence we really have."
- Nicola Phillips
That's all for now folks. More to come later, I am sure.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Will to Fight

Each of us has our own battles. For some, it is the constant battle to end our own addictions. For others, it is battling one’s way to climb the corporate ladder. Still, for others it is a daily battle to manage one’s time. There are an infinite number of battles one can fight, and very few of them are original. We humans have been fighting the same battles for thousands of years.

Today I found myself in a weakened state, not wanting to battle forces that disagreed with my own beliefs. I found myself counting the number of times I had gone to battle, trying to win a war that feels incredibly hopeless. I found myself counting my allies, and seeking out those whom I knew I could trust to confide in. I found myself feeling incredibly weakened and alone, save for one person who completely understood.

And tonight, as I reflect on the day I realize how silly my battle was in reality. It was so minor in comparison to the battles that have been recounted to me over the past few months. As this project moves forward, and as I fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, my comprehension of the Montagnard-American compassion grows.

In the past week, I have been told countless stories of bravery, battles, challenges and victories. My past week has felt more like fiction than fact. As each story unfolds, and with each new contact I meet, I feel more and more like I have entered another world.

Saturday night I drove to Greensboro to film a Montagnard cultural event. I got there at about 5:30pm, entering the China King Restaurant weighed down with our equipment. People led me to the back of the restaurant where a man met me, and confirmed that I was, in fact, in the right place. Then, almost immediately I saw the warm smile of Surry’s friend who had been our host on June 13. Seconds later I saw another warm smile, and another, and another. For feeling like an outsider because of the language barrier, I was surrounded by friends and warm smiles.

Included here is a photo of a gift they gave me, too. It seems every time I meet with someone to talk about this project, I am given a gift! And each time, I wish that I had something to give in exchange. Then it occurred to me the other day that the big thank you will quite possibly be the film itself. By sharing these circumstances with others who—like me—didn’t know anything about Montagnard culture or very little about the negative outcomes of the end of the Vietnam War, we will be able to hopefully make some small impact.

But I am very careful not to make any promises, as so many American promises have been broken already. At the very least, we will be able to finish the interviews and start sharing them with others. And this audio and visual record will help document history—a history of a people and their land, culture and belief systems. A history of a people who—like Americans—have been fighting for their freedom for many, many years.