Engaging the Battle for ‘Hearts and Minds’

For the years during the war and for almost a decade after, Vietnam remained an almost untouched subject in the American popular media. Extensive television coverage of men fighting in the bush provided a collective experience accompanied by newscasters’ observations, but not until the late in the 1970s did memoirs, novels, and films begin to delve deeper into the soldiers’, and the nation’s, experiences. Then came print releases of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. East-setting sun of John Wayne’s The Green Berets and the satire of Robert Altman’s MASH aside, Hollywood slowly but surely began to address the war with such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.

A theme running through many of these works is the credible voice of the soldier’s experience. By having been there, the soldier gains an authority not accessible to those who stayed in “the world,” to those who fought against American forces, or to those victimized by those forces. But this plethora of voices provides but one perspective on the horrors that occurred, and while these voices work toward one understanding, there are still many other uncertainties to contend with.

Peter Davis’s documentary Hearts and Minds was released in 1975 to much controversy after threats of lawsuits and changes in distributors. With the film, Davis, who formerly worked at CBS on the The Selling of the Pentagon, addresses three questions: “Why did we go to Vietnam?”, “What did we do there?”, and “What did the doing do to us?” Davis interviews American political leaders, American military members, Vietnamese leaders, and Vietnamese civilians to demonstrate the ideologies at work during the war, their application, and their effects on the tiny country and its venerable people. The film offers no definite answers, but it raised issues at a time when the American public was not quite ready to deal with them.

The title comes from a statement made by Lyndon B. Johnson: “[T]he ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” This statement establishes the war’s two fronts. One front is the actual combat between military forces in the name of suppressing or advancing a Communist regime. The other front is more local, more personal – it centers on the attempts to win Vietnamese citizens’ support to rally against the Vietcong. But this simple dichotomy only hints at the underlying complexities, and here is where Davis’s film begins its work.

Hearts and Minds opens with an idyllic scene of the Hung Dinh village, located northwest of Saigon. No voiceover explains the image; only a small title notes the location. Villagers work in the lush, green fields and walk among the small homes. Traditional Vietnamese music on the soundtrack adds to the calm. The shots and music create the illusion of peace – that is, until an armed American solider walks by.

Interviews, news and newsreel footage, and film clips introduce the Cold War mentality underlying U.S. politicians’ motivations for fighting in Vietnam. Much of this thinking relates to America’s growth as an international force after World War II, its vision of freedom for all, and its fear of Communist governments and their growing power. America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s when the United States financed 78 percent of the French war. French leader Georges Bidault reveals that the United States offered him two atomic bombs to help end the war, a fact never revealed in the popular press. Clark Clifford, aide to the president 1948-1950, explains the involvement as a sense of power and a vision of progress, one that ostensibly extends to all nations. Daniel Ellsberg, a former aide to the Defense Department, notes how the “covert aggression view” helped put the Vietnam War in context of World War II thinking, thus making it more justifiable to the military and to the public. In an interview with famed economist Walt Rostow, Davis, off-camera, asks, “Why do they need us?” Stuttering in surprise, Rostow first replies, “Because they were subject to, uh, military attack from the outside,” and after more stuttering, he asks, “Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?” With these early interviews, Davis questions the certainty of purpose and intentions in the conflict.

Interviews with former military personnel provide another perspective on the war. While politicians and policymakers remained in “the world,” the military served “in country,” to use period jargon. Some enjoyed the thrill of combat, some saw duty as a job, and others fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Captain Randy Floyd of Oklahoma talks about flying planes for 98 bombing missions; shots of bombs being loaded and falling, and planes taking off and landing, illustrate his comments. “It was very clean,” he says. Stan Holder, a Native American from Arizona, talks about learning the traditions of warriors in his heritage and how he saw the Marines as a way of becoming a warrior. Robert Muller shares his thrill of shooting the enemy. Former Sergeant William Marshall of Detroit talks about the napalm drops and how he used a dead body to shield himself from the poison; of 35 men, he is the only one to have survived. Edward Sowders requests amnesty during Congressional hearings about dealing with those who fled the draft.

A brief sequence reveals the soldiers’ lives both off and on the field. Soldiers wander the Saigon streets, bartering for pictures and prostitutes. Children follow them around begging for money. Two men engage with prostitutes and discuss their women throughout. On the field solders use lighters to torch a straw roof while jets fly overhead and villagers huddle together in fear. When on the front line and asked his opinion, one anonymous soldier replies, “This whole thing stinks.”

Lt. George Coker, a prisoner of war from 1966-1973, displays an unshakable patriotism as he delivers several speeches throughout the film. The first speech is in honor of his homecoming to Linden, New Jersey; the town welcomes him with a parade, a band, and a red carpet. He talks to a women’s group about how the training for war begins at home; shot of a football game and its pregame pep talk help reinforce how the soldier thinking begins early. He also talks to a group of young Catholic school students. One student asks him, “What did Vietnam look like?” Coker replies, “Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive, and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Davis also includes the Vietnamese perspective on the war and its effects. Two older Vietnamese sisters, Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, lost their other sister during a bombing raid, and Vo Thi Tu also lost her home. As Vo Thi Tu points to her ruined house, she metaphorically says, “It’s like a bird and its nest. The way things are with the house in the rubble, the bird comes home and finds no nest.” Vu Duc Vinh, an anguished father, lost both his son and his daughter in a bombing mission. He demands to know, “What have I done to Nixon so that he comes here to bomb my country?”

Napalm did almost as much damage as the bombing, and children suffered and died from its application. “The girl in the picture,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc, was severely burned it, and a photographer captured her running and screaming with other frightened members of her village. Instead of being frozen in time, Davis’s moving image fully reveals the terror on her face. Another woman carries a young boy, who has patches of charred flesh hanging off his heels. Mui Duc Giang builds coffins for the children dying from napalm and from bombs; he had lost seven children of his own.

The Vietnamese people also endured gunshots and torture. In one particularly disturbing scene a suspected Vietcong stands with his hands bound; as another man walks by, he shoots the prisoner in the head. The body falls over and blood spurts from the fatal wound. Army Intelligence Officer Barton Osborn relates an anecdote about two Vietnamese men being tortured for information and one of them being thrown out of a helicopter (Sergeant George Trendell denies the veracity of the story).

Vietnamese officials and religious figures explain their people’s perspectives on the war and the Americans. Father Chan Tin explains, “The people of North Vietnam and South Vietnam fight only for freedom, independence, and national unity.” Thich Lieu Minh, a Buddhist monk, denies that his people are the savages outsiders perceive them to be. He, too, supports the pride in his nation: “Let me respectfully tell the American people that this is their dirtiest and longest war. The Vietnamese fight only in self-defense.” It is interesting to see the representation of the two religions – the Catholicism brought with the colonizers, the French, and the traditional Buddhism – both agreeing with what their country wants.

Americans also meddled in Vietnamese politics. Ho Chi Minh wrote seven letters to the United States government seeking its help, and he visited America in 1957, only to be dead in 1962. General Nguyen Khanh, president of South Vietnam in 1964-65, plays a tape of General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964-65, asking him to resign. Nguyen did and lived in exile in France.

For the most part Davis’s style remains unobtrusive, but occasionally the camera and editing surprise us. Throughout the interviews with the veterans, Davis uses close-ups to focus on their faces. While Robert Muller talks about a battle, the camera cuts from a close-up to a three-quarter shot, which reveals for the first time that Muller sits in a wheelchair. A slow pan from his feet up shows his immobile legs, forcing us to contemplate his loss. The camera pulls back to reveal that the animated William Marshall also lost his arm.

Lingering close-ups prove just as revealing. As Randy Floyd comments that Americans never have seen such atrocities, he pauses, sighing and wiping his eyes; the camera keeps him in a tight frame. Davis, again off-camera, allows him a moment or two of silence before asking, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from all this?” Floyd replies, “I think we’re trying not to.” Another longer shot of Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu forces us to watch them cry while trying to cope with their grief.

Davis’s style and politics manifest themselves particularly well in a sequence near the film’s end. At the numerous graves at the Nation Cemetery in South Vietnam, a child cries pitifully while a woman tries to crawl into a grave. General William Westmoreland comments, “Well, the Orient doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.” A wailing child and the general’s words echo hauntingly.

Hearts and Minds shows how the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of not only the Vietnamese people, but also numerous Americans, including former soldiers and politicians. The film shows the “enemy” as human, as people, not faceless strangers. It movingly shows how war destroys lives and hopes, on both sides, and at what price? Feelings about the Vietnam War today are mixed and strong, and, looking back today, still unresolved.

‘Grizzly Man’ and the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Grizzly Man (2005) is as much about the filmmaker-subject relationship as it is about the subject himself.

The subject is Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers living among them and recording more than 100 hours of video with them and himself. Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard met their untimely deaths when they were attacked by a bear in Alaska.

The footage Treadwell left behind becomes part of the foundation for telling his story in this documentary. It shows him as enthusiastic about the bears and about interacting with them. Treadwell brings a boundless energy to his excited commentary about the bears, their relationships, and the other wildlife.

Werner Herzog develops his own relationship with Treadwell during the documentary. On the one hand, he expresses a great admiration for Treadwell’s footage and the depths of humanity that the footage offers. In the voiceover he claims he found “a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.” He admires Treadwell’s tenacity and taking shots, in one case repeating a take 50 times. He also admires the way in which some of the shots take on their own life.

Herzog builds Treadwell’s story through interviews with friends, former girlfriends, his parents, and experts. They all note his exuberance, but some of them point out darker sides of his personality as well. Not everyone thinks highly of Treadwell. One of the first interviews with Sam Egli shows him stating, “He got what he was asking for,” for Egli thought the greater tragedy rested with Amie’s death.

But the larger meditation in this piece centers on Treadwell’s ideas about bears and rejection of humanity and on Herzog’s relationship with the subject of man and nature. One juxtaposition is particularly telling here. We see Treadwell over the moon about a pile of freshly dropped bear dung. “It was inside of her,” he exclaims as he touches it. This moment segues into looking at how Treadwell almost ignores the idea of death and its function within nature. Here, Herzog asserts his own view, stating, “He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” To punctuate his point, the camera shows a close-up of the dead baby fox’s head.

“He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” — Werner Herzog

In the end of the film, Herzog reveals that he has access to Treadwell’s final tape. Earlier in the film, he listens to the tape with Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, and he tells her not to listen to it, not to watch it, but instead to destroy it. She agrees with him. In these final sequences, we see Treadwell talking before the camera, filming an extended sequence of a bear, and revealing a third shot of Amie. We see or hear nothing of his final moments, but instead we hear the coroner recounting what he heard and how he interpreted it. Any closer would have been too much.

While Treadwell’s love of bears continues up until the moments of his death, Herzog remains unconvinced of Treadwell’s deeply forged connections with them. Instead, he observes over a shot of a bear’s face, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.”

“I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.” — Werner Herzog

I’ve always maintained that any documentary about nature is as much about humanity as it is about plants, animals, and the “world outside.” Each nature film tells us something about nature just as it does about the humans making the documentary about it. Grizzly Man drives this point home not only through telling Treadwell’s story, but also through Herzog’s complex relationship with his subject.

Getting Down in the Trenches in ‘The War Room’

In 1960 presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met on national television for the first in a series of debates. This meeting proved the latter’s downfall for while Kennedy, tanned and relaxed, impressed audiences with his confidence and poise, Nixon, pale and haggard, lost credibility because of his tired appearance. Unique at the time, this coverage only just hinted at the advertising machines political campaigns would become 40 years later.

That the media manufacture presidential candidates is no secret today. The evidence is everywhere, from reports on the exorbitant costs to scandalous exposés of politicians’ private lives. Almost all of it is met with a flash of public indignation and then forgotten until the next crisis comes along. What began as a novelty has become a standard cog in the media machine.

The War Room offers an inside look at presidential image production. In the cinema verite spirit pioneered in Primary, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker follow Clinton’s campaign staff and its tireless efforts to polish the image of a less-than-squeaky-clean kid from Hope, Arkansas, into a shine worthy of public vote into the Oval Office. The film chronicles the monkey wrenches thrown into the works, including Gennifer Flowers’s allegations, draft-dodging accusations, and other mud-slinging on platform issues. It also chronicles events from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic party nomination and the bus tour, the debates, and the victory on election night in November.

The cinema verite style allows the gradual discovery of just how much chaos rules in the “war room,” a staff name for the Little Rock, Arkansas, campaign headquarters. The Gazette building, a sedate concrete edifice with the name and year 1908 etched over the entrance, belies the flurry of activity inside. Instead of the slick, well-oiled, assembly-line production, we find typical office trappings but unusual office-type behavior. Desks, chairs, phones, paper piles, and houseplants fill the room, but so do cans and cases of Budweiser beer. Staff members eat popcorn out of unused coffee filters. Shelves holding several televisions help staff monitor the media’s coverage. Signs with witty and sarcastic phrases adorn the walls, including a Clinton baseball pennant and the phrase, “The economy, stupid.”

Taking credit for this rather blunt saying is James Carville, also know as the Ragin’ Cajun and manager of the Clinton production team. With his Southern affectations, quick mind, and dazzling one-liners, Carville is fun to watch. His speeches are punctuated with “y’alls” and exaggerated vowels, and even when he watches television, his animated face hides nothing of the venom, joy, dismay, or elation he feels. He shuns the jacket-and-tie uniform in favor of jeans and T-shirts with logos for LSU and sayings such as “Carville Speed Killed … Bush.”

Carville demonstrates his commitment to Clinton through the enthusiasm he brings to every meeting involving campaign decisions. While developing a quick television spot with a committee, he insists on including George Bush’s infamous sound-bite, “read my lips,” at least three times in the voiceover. The media representative on the phone protests about the length, but eventually revisions are made and the call ended. Carville launches into a brief diatribe about uncooperative media people but returns to his sound-bite hang-up, calling the phrase “the most famous broken promise in the history of American politics.”

His zippy one-liners are not limited to the war room. On a call with a KDKA talk show he responds to a question about Mary Matalin, his girlfriend (now wife) and deputy manager of the Bush campaign, and their differences of opinion on who is the better candidate. His lengthy response sends staff members working around him into fits of quiet, barely contained, laughter. The sequence ends with another brilliant bit of wit and wisdom: “Everybody’s got an opinion. This is the most American thing you can do.”

George Stephanopoulos plays the straight man to Carville’s one-man act. The conservative media manager, Stephanopoulos almost always wears button-down shirts and slacks or ties and sport coats. He is serious and formal but no less committed to Clinton’s success than Carville. In a television segment with Sam Donaldson he defends the accusation of Clinton having a character problem, referring specifically to his draft-dodging and martial infidelities. Without raising his voice or batting an eye, Stephanopoulos redirects the focus back to education and jobs. Even on election night, with the landslide victory imminent, Stephanopoulos calmly tells the future president the hopeful results over the phone. When he hangs up, a staff member mirrors many of our thoughts when she asks, “How do you feel? Are you happy, are you scared, or are you nothing or do you want to just like cry or what?” He smiles in response: “It’s just like floating.”

While most of the footage featuring Carville and Stephanopoulos is filmed in cinema verite style, the filmmakers also step outside their observational roles. They supplement this footage with television clips and shots of newspaper headlines in order to fill in some gaps in their timeline, and in doing so, also provide an additional perspective on events: the media’s. Television shots reveal much of the dings in the candidate’s reputation. One early segment juxtaposes Gennifer Flowers’s press conference (“Did Governor Clinton use a condom?” asks one reporter) and her revelation of their affair with shots of reporters asking Clinton for comments on the accusations. Nondiegetic music, including a pop song by Deee-Lite titled “Vote, Baby, Vote,” smoothes the continuity of looking at various newspaper headlines that chart Clinton’s rise and fall at both the primary polls and the public opinion polls.

One of the few shots of Clinton reveals him without the spin doctors in a tizzy trying to prepare his image for the camera. This close-up shows the humanness of the future president in that he wears a ball cap, an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt, a geeky digital watch, and running shoes. He holds a telephone receiver in his hand and drinks coffee while discussing his high school times with a reporter. As he hangs up the phone, he remarks to his campaign staff, “I bet I said something you could take out of context.”

Highlighting these imperfections in Clinton’s image is not meant as ridicule. Instead, the film tries to show Clinton as a person without focusing too much on the man himself – it leaves the image improvement job to the war room staff. Carville handles this job with Southern grace and charm and, for good measure, a rather amusing line. In response to the draft-dodging brouhaha, he reaches for the Tums and says, “What’s the matter today? Every time somebody farts the word ‘draft,’ it’s on the front page of the paper.” When Bush cancels a debate, he quips, “We ought to be on this thing like a stink on shit.”

Richard Leacock and Robert Drew started a tradition more than 40 years ago with their film Primary. With unprecedented access to the inner campaign workings, these two filmmakers followed Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they vied for the Democratic party nomination in Wisconsin. Instead of adding voiceover, they used the cinema verite style to provide an eye-opening experience.

Like Leacock and Drew, Hegedus and Pennebaker ran a risk in using this style for their documentary – the waiting game for something to happen. In The War Room Carville delivers. During one of the final meetings of the staff, Stephanopoulos calmly introduces Carville with a thank you. Carville gets up to give one final rally cry for the troops, but a close-up reveals his chin quivering as he speaks. A tear emerges and he wipes it away, still fighting the wash of tears coming on. He finishes his speech to applause, cheers, and chants of “one more day.” His overwhelmed reaction becomes the emotional climax for the film.

The filmmakers ran a second risk in making this film: Clinton losing the election. If he had lost, according to Hegedus, “the value of a film about a losing campaign staff wasn’t going to be too salable for us. There is a risk in any story where you’re following real life and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But the voters responded and elected Clinton by a “landslide,” in Stephanopoulos’s word. The film shows how an unconventional candidate needs an unconventional team, not the mechanical efficiency seen in the slick productions made today. And by mixing the cinema verite footage with television clips, newspaper headlines, and music, Hegedus and Pennebaker create a proper form in which to showcase Carville, Stephanopoulos, and the rest of Clinton’s staff.

An Invitation to Witness in ‘Cameraperson’

Cameraperson is an audiovisual memoir of documentary camera operator Kirsten Johnson’s 25-year career. It features a pastiche of images and occasional titles, but no voiceover or staged interviews. The film results in a deep meditation on creating documentary images and sound and their ethical implications.

Cameraperson opens with a title that reads

“For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.”

The footage comes from multiple documentaries that sharp viewers may recognize, including Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), among many others. Johnson also weaves in footage from her own life, particularly with her young twins and with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

The images range from the mundane to the near suspenseful. In Missouri, Johnson sits alongside a rural road while cars swoosh by and clouds build in the sky. Multi-pronged lightning strikes and Johnson gasps, though after the thunder rumbles through, Johnson sneezes twice.

A more suspenseful moment occurs in Yemen. She and the director ride in a car with a driver while trying to get footage of the Sana’a Central Prison without getting caught by authorities. She manages a couple angled views before soldiers stop them and demand they get out of the car. Then the sequence cuts to black, leaving the outcome of that situation a mystery.

Other scenes raise questions of what not to show. In an interview with a mass rape survivior, Johnson frames the woman’s hands, using an extreme close-up on her gestures and smoking. In another interview with a young woman seeking an abortion, Johnson again frames the woman’s hands, showing her fidgeting, crossing her arms, and plucking at the holes in her jeans. These setups capture these women’s experiences while retaining their dignity and anonymity.

Another kind of vulnerability emerges in an autobiographical documentary about mental illness and suicide and the living people it affects. As the participant talks about the effects left behind, she gets frustrated and angry, throwing items and papers across the room. She begins to cry, and slides off the bed to the floor, facing away from the camera. Johnson comes around the bed with her camera in hand, still rolling, but remains at a distance, not zooming in on the woman’s face.

The images also offer a sense of surprise and discovery, sometimes in powerful ways. In reviewing the evidence in the case of James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death, people begin to pull the chain that dragged him out of a bin. Instead of waiting for the chain to be unfurled, Johnson peers into the box, showing the chain’s weight and the death that it brought.

Johnson includes images of her family, such as her twin children and their grandfather as well as footage of her now-deceased mother. In various podcast interviews Johnson talks about how her mother always took her own pictures but she rarely appeared in anyone else’s pictures. She describes how her mother would have disliked appearing in these images, but these images show the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and its effects in those suffering from it.

While the images chosen for this pastiche are compelling, the role of sound struck me even more. Documentaries frequently are quite noisy with all the voices in the talking heads and voiceover narration, not to mention added music and location sound. Cameraperson eschews talking heads, voiceover, and music, relying instead on location sound.

The result is often quiet. In some scenes, insects and birds dominate the soundtrack. A sharp wind whistles through, throwing Johnson’s mother off balance for a moment. Snow rumbles off the roof in an almost “natural” punctuation to an intense moment in the autobiograhical documentary.

In other scenes we hear Johnson’s comments and her reactions to what happens before her camera. In one scene a toddler plays with an ax, and Johnson worries whether to intervene.

A series of images shows sites of mass rapes and deaths from around the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. As the series plays, a thudding occurs on the soundtrack. The thudding continues, creating a heavy rhythm that punctuates the weight of the images and their meanings, despite their current mundane appearance. The thudding turns out to be athletes diving onto a thick gym mat.

Sometimes you desperately want to hear the right sound. One particularly difficult set of scenes comes from a Nigerian maternity ward. According to the midwife, a mother arrived carrying twins. One twin was born without incident, but the other twin remained, requiring drugs to induce further labor. The baby finally arrives, but he struggles. As the midwife tries to help him, the infant is quiet — too quiet. The midwife sucks fluid out of the baby’s lungs, uses a device to get air into his lungs, and slaps him on the backside to help him further. These sounds are sharp and clear on the soundtrack, but their relative quiet is unnerving until the baby’s cry pierces the silence. After the midwife swaddles the infant, the quiet returns, this time with low car horns beeping outside. He is too quiet for someone just arriving in this world.

For those seeking a coherent message and smooth flow among the images, Cameraperson will frustrate. But neither of those are the point. Cameraperson invites us into Johnson’s world behind the camera. That invitation brings us into the ongoing relationship among technology, operators, and participants. It is an invitation to witness, and a privileged one at that.

Lemming Lessons and a Case Study

In a leadership training session today, the facilitator showed the following cartoon:

The cartoon depicts lemmings following each other over a cliff in a mass suicide. One lemming in the back says, “I’d like to question the leadership on this move.” Another lemming next to him says, “Shut up! You’re undermining the troops!” Arguably, the questioning lemming is the leader, while the other lemming is management. (Both are necessary for effective project management, however.)

A shot from the popular Lemmings video game.

The idea of lemmings commiting mass suicide shows up elsewhere in popular culture. Lemmings the video game is perhaps the most popular. In the game, players herd their lemmings through a maze-puzzle, trying to save as many as possible, while sacrificing a few to prevent the mass suicide. The few might serve as blocks or bombs, for example, to keep the group flowing or to remove some obstacles.

Apple created a dystopian lemmings commercial for its Macintosh Office:

Apple critiques the workers who continue to use the same applications without question and suggests their doom for doing so. To say the least, the commercial did not go over well.

This amusing campaign commercial compared lemmings with a death wish to politicians and the status quo:

Unfortunately, the voters went with the lemmings on this one.

But let’s get right to the point: Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. Lemming populations vary widely over time, and earlier wild theories attempted to explain these shifts. One thought the lemmings descended from the sky during storms, and another story suggested they came down with snow. Instead, lemmings migrate to ease the problems created during population booms.

This myth of lemmings committing mass suicide started with a Disney documentary titled White Wilderness (1958), which actually won the Best Documentary Oscar. In White Wilderness, the filmmakers brought lemmings into Alberta, Canada, and staged them to look like a mass of them was jumping off a cliff into the water:

The lemmings’ plummeting toward the water is a dramatic and disturbing sequence, particularly once you know they are being pushed to create the fake story’s drama. The swelling music adds suspense to this climax. The narrator states, “All seem to survive the ordeal” (of being pushed over a cliff!) before they swim out into the sea (and most likely drown).

A Canadian television show called The Fifth Estate broke the news of the sequences being faked in 1982, but the cartoon, video game, commercial, and campaign spot all came well after this finding.

White Wilderness is a great case study in wildlife documentary and truth. It shows how people tend to trust the documentary form, particularly with the voiceover explaining its visuals. The authoritarian voiceover leaves little room for argument or interpretation. That expository mode of representation, along with the impact of the lemming “story,” created a deep cultural frame that has yet to be completely undone.

It also shows the challenges of wildlife filmmaking, particularly with making animals look interesting when much of filming wildlife involves waiting. Lemmings are cute and about the size of other rodents caged as pets, but those qualities provide little to make them a compelling story filled with drama and conflict.

It further shows taking wildlife filmmaking too far. Trying to get that right shot is one thing, but staging an entire sequence that misleads the audience about lemmings’ habits is disingenuous. That staging also resulted in killing animals, which is the greater offense behind this piece’s fictions.

Documentary and Advocacy Connections in ‘We Rise’

Documentaries can play various roles in advocacy work. In the book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez cites several examples useful for illustrating the diversity of these roles.

A documentary can evoke a wide range of emotions. Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Eleventh Hour chronicles the global destruction caused by human activity. Thought upset at seeing the film, Martinez became motivated to do something. He writes, “It felt like a huge turning point for me.”

A documentary can introduce you to new parts of the world and to the issues affecting them. For Martinez, the epic Planet Earth showed him the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, while Chasing Coral showed its devastating destruction. Martinez interviews documentary director Jeff Orlowski, who created both Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice shows the impacts of environmental changes on the melting Arctic ice cap, while Chasing Coral tries to uncover the causes for the reefs dying so quickly.

A documentary can educate about key issues and inspire further research. Martinez cites his friend’s viewing of Joe Berlinger’s Crude, which tells the story of Chevron’s refusal to clean up the oil waste and its impacts on the Amazon communities. His friend did more research into the issues, found organizations helping out, and volunteered for them.

A documentary can open mainstream media doors for other media about similar issues. Martinez interviews Adrian Grenier, who played Vincent Chase on Entourage. Grenier cites An Inconvenient Truth as helping get people to pay attention to his eco-conscious reality show Alter Eco.

A documentary also can inspire other media makers to create their own works. Grenier counts Encounters from the End of the World, by Werner Herzog, as one of his inspirations.

A documentary can tell the stories of other activists and their work. Sandra Steingraber is an environmental activist whose work and life is featured in the book and documetary Living Downstream. Martinez even appears in the short documentary Kid Warrior, which chronicles his life so far and his work as Earth Guardian Youth Director.

Documentary makers themselves can become involved in direct and indirect actions toward raising awareness about climate change. Martinez recalls Josh Fox, director of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change and Gasland, participated in an action to prevent a coal ship from leaving port.

And finally, a documentary screening can bring people together in communities to talk about issues and what they can do about them. Martinez mentions this option a couple times as part of his suggestions for what people can do to start advocating for the planet. Many documentaries do offer special rates for just those kinds of screenings.

10 Other Documentaries about the Vietnam War to Check Out

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War begins this week, though the 18-hour series is far from the first about the subject. Unlike Hollywood’s almost 15-year delay, documentary makers started trying to make sense of the war early on.

The Vietnam War has been a cultural touchstone for generations, though it resonates most with the baby boomers who served and protested and with generation X who lost family members and friends or grew up with survivors who struggled afterward.

The war long has been held up as a marker of American failure. George Bush declared in a speech before actions in Iraq and Kuwait, “I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight.” Similar refrains occurred at the start of military actions following 9/11, as each war invited armchair comparisons. Check out Robert Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam for an in-depth discussion.

Starting about 1978, Hollywood’s first films showed the war as chaotic insanity. In his book Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second, Jeremy Devine cites the four horsemen — The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and The Deerhunter — as blazing the trail for bringing the war to the big screen. But unlike World War II films, Hollywood films about the Vietnam War focused on the jungle, the combat, and the overall experience. In production and representation, Apocalypse Now best captures all of these themes, though the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides further depth than the usual behind-the-scenes production documentaries.

PBS aired a series titled Vietnam: A Television History. Broadcast in 1983 as part of the American Experience series, the 13 episodes provided a chronology of events that was well received. In 1997, PBS rebroadcast the series, this time omitting episode 2 (“The First Vietnam War”) and episode 13 (“Legacies”). The later released DVD series also excluded these episodes. These omissions drew criticism for their tampering with history, and some criticisms went so far as to call it “censorship.”

Here are 10 documentaries about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks to explore if you seek more information beyond the upcoming Burns and Novick film. Even though it covers an immense variety of perspectives, no single documentary — even at 18 hours — can give voice to everyone.

1. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

A Vietnamese man who lost his family during a bombing angrily protests the situation and its futility in Hearts and Minds.
Hearts and Minds is harrowing in its emotion and scathing in its critique. Davis juxtaposes official voices from the U.S. government with those who suffered from their decisions. One sequence features a Vietnamese funeral with families burying multiple dead, and wailing survivors, devastated with grief, attempt to climb into the graves with them. The scene is intercut with comments from General William Westmoreland, who says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Hearts and Minds struggled for distribution, particularly after former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow attempted to stop its release. Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

2. Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 2002)

In April 1975, more than 10,000 children were evacuated from Vietnam. The children were adopted around the world, including the United States. While many of the children were orphans, some, particularly biracial children with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, were given up by their families. Daughter from Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep), who was adopted and raised in Tennessee by a mother who minimized Heidi’s Vietnamese identity. As an adult Heidi receives an opportunity to return to Vietnam and reunite with her biological family. The cameras follow her to the reunion and her return to her own husband and children in Tennessee. The film makes for an interesting meditation on American identity.

3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)

If you read any of Robert McNamara’s books, you know he is a highly intelligent and accomplished man. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, wherein he examines the war’s failings. For The Fog of War, McNamara interviewed with director Errol Morris for 20 hours, which was edited down to two hours along with archival materials. Morris won his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar with this film. The Unknown Known, with Donald Rumsfeld, follows a similar pattern.

4. In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968)

Cover art image for Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig.
Emile de Antonio remains sadly underappreciated or and relatively unknown in today’s documentary popular culture. de Antonio specialized in documentaries about political issues. The Year of the Pig is a compilation film that brought together footage from interviews and archives to show the war’s origins and to critique them as well.

5. Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Michael Rubbo, 1970)

While many documentaries focus on the battlefield and the soldiers, Sad Song of Yellow Skin shows the people affected by the war off the frontlines. In particular, Michael Rubbo observes street children in Saigon, and his voiceover offers his personal commentary and observations on what he witnesses there. This film was made for the National Film Board of Canada.

6. Be Good, Smile Pretty (Tracy Droz Tragos, 2003)

Cover art from Tracy Droz Tragos’s Be Good, Smile Pretty.
Tracy Droz Tragos was three months old when her father died in an ambush during the Vietnam War. Searching online for her father’s name many years later, she found a narrative (perhaps this one) about the circumstances surrounding his death. That search and the story inspired her to seek more information about the father she knew so little about. Starting the conversation with her mother in Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos creates a deeply personal documentary in learning more about him and about the soldiers who served with him.

7. Sir! No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005)

While we most often think of war protestors as those who remained outside the military,
Sir! No Sir! examines the role of protest and subversion among military personnel during the Vietnam War. It uncovers the overlooked GI Movement, which brought the peace demonstrations to within the military. Movement members produced newspapers, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged other activities. This documentary weaves interviews with print and video archives to create a compelling story.

8. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bill Couturié, 1987)

Also a book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam uses personal letters from American soldiers and archival materials to create an on-the-ground view of the war. Celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael J. Fox contributed their voices to the project.

9. The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967)

The Anderson Platoon offers the cinematic experience of an embedded filmmaker. Pierre Schoendoerffer joined the 1st Calvary Division in 1966 and stayed with them in September and October of that year. He captured the raw events of these soldiers’ experiences, including reconnaissances, battles, and deaths, not to mention their raw fears and hopes as well. Named for platoon leader Captain Joseph B. Anderson Jr., the documentary went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967.

10. Vietnam, Long Time Coming (Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, 1998)

An athlete rests during Vietnam, Long Time Coming.
Vietnam, Long Time Coming follows a team of cyclists who enter a 16-day, 1,100-mile bike ride through Vietnam, an event organized by World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters). Veterans throughout the United States and Vietnam participated, among them many participants with differing ability levels such as blindness and missing limbs, but all athletes nonetheless. The ride provides some healing for veterans from both sides of the war as they ride together throughout the Vietnam countryside.

An Ode to the City Symphony (so to Speak)

The ferry arrives in the opening moments of Manhatta.

The most interesting periods of documentary history are the transition periods of adopting and adapting new technologies. The late 1800s saw the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph capturing and projecting moving images from the backpack-size device.

The 1930s saw the experiments with spoken words on the soundtracks. Sometimes they were recorded on location, but more likely they were recorded in a studio and dubbed in later.

Perhaps the most cited era, the 1960s saw a convergence of technologies enabling lighter, quieter cameras and synchronous sound, thus seemingly allowing access to more intimate spaces than before and capture of more spontaneous moments.

More recently, animation techniques, interactive technologies, and augmented reality technologies have proven fertile grounds for further experimentation.

One of the more intriguing eras for me was the 1920s and the experiments with editing — Dziga Vertov, in particular. His montages in Man with a Movie Camera create a precise, poetic world through image juxtaposition and pacing.

This montage style inspired others in documentary and fiction. From documentary in this era emerged the city symphony. As the name suggests, the city symphony combines images of metropolises with orchestral music toward providing a snapshot of these urban locales, which still were somewhat new even then.

Beautiful framing of this bridge in Manhatta.

Along with Man with a Movie Camera revealing multiple Russian cities, other famous city symphonies include Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Etudes sur Paris (1928), and Rien que les heures (1926). My favorite from this genre and era is Regen (Rain, 1929), by Joris Ivens. The shadowed bike against the puddle is one of the more famous documentary images.

During a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art recently, I found a piece of this documentary history tucked to the side of one of the exhibits. Showing in a tiny booth with seats for a few was Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). The about 10-minute short ran on a loop.

Manhatta is one of the first city symphonies. Its images show the modern city of Manhattan, including the skyscrapers, the city streets, the ferry, bridges, railyards, and other aspects of urban life. Some intertitles borrow from Walt Whitman, enhancing the poetic feel of the piece.

As much as Manhatta is about locations in the city, it is also about the people in the city. They crowd onto the ferry, stepping off en masse after the gate releases. Individuals walk the sidewalks of a cemetery, while others contemplate grave markers from the benches. They walk on bridges and streets. Workers build the next skyscraper, with shots starting close on them and moving further back, shrinking them against the city’s dominating skyline.

Almost everyone, even children, wears a hat. Why don’t we wear hats anymore?

A worker helping construct the next spire in the skyline.

The skyscrapers offer a sight to behold. A title reads, “High growths of iron, / slender, strong / splendidly uprising / toward clear skies.” A camera perched on a roof slowly scales down the tall skyscrapers toward the shorter buildings below. Another shot almost lovingly pans up a tall building. In most of the images, the camera remains still, thus making the few instances of camera motion even more pronounced.

These thematically organized images offer a portrait of the city that almost feels timeless. Some visual elements certainly date the images, including the cars and the clothing styles, but they almost feel like today’s city as well, with their crowds, construction, views, and activities.

Overall, Manhatta was a neat find within the museum. It was nestled in a modern exhibit that included painted walls and framed images that blended seamlessly, and, perhaps, timelessly.

11 Sites about Documentary You Should be Reading

The landscape for documentaries and writing about them has changed immensely during the last 20 years. Back then, only occasional news stories or infrequent emerging blogs wrote about them. A respected resource, DocumentaryFilms.net took off when it became a collective blog. The writers behind The Documentary Blog drew a following. Christopher Campbell ran an independent documentary blog before moving to the now-defunct Documentary Channel.

Of course, times change. News sites now regularly cover cinematic documentaries and some festival favorites. Sites about documentary fade or stop as their writers pursue other projects. The Documentary Blog’s last update appeared in January 2014. Documentaryfilms.net last saw participation in 2011.

But great writing dedicated to documentary is out there. In no particular order, here are 11 sites and blogs that cover documentary on a regular basis.

1. What (not) to Doc

What Not to Doc is from Basil Tsiokos, a festival programmer, festival director, and documentary producer. This frequently updated blog offers information about new releases and overviews of documentaries in major festivals around the world. Releases covered include multiple media and venues, such as cinemas, festivals, streaming, and broadcast.

2. Nonfics

Nonfics is dedicated to documentary reviews, interviews, and in-depth commentary. It regularly features lists of the best documentaries to check out on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nonfics is part of the Film School Rejects group. Christopher Campbell is editor and one of the key writers.

3. The NFB

The National Film Board of Canada provides a national voice in Canadian media and social issues. The NFB is particularly strong with documentaries (one semi-joke suggested documentary as Canada’s national genre), and its blog offers a section dedicated to the form. Posts often suggest documentaries about topics, such as fishing, adolescence, and Canadian rock music.

4. All These Wonderful Things

Written by A.J. Schnack, All These Wonderful Things reveals an insider’s look at documentary production, distribution, and the overall scene. Though not updated since 2011, it still contains a wealth of material and insights to explore. (And maybe citing it here will inspire some new posts…)

5. Center for Media and Social Impact

The Center for Media and Social Impact is an important group founded by Pat Aufderheide at American University. While the center supports film series and a conference, it also delves into policy and issues facing public media. The blog often addresses fair use issues, but it also gets into social change and other topics.

6. International Documentary Association

The International Documentary Association is a U.S.-based professional documentary organization that provides education, awareness, and funding. It hosts influential awards and screening series. The organization’s blog consists a weekly roundup, screening suggestions, and more. Also check out the magazine for more in-depth materials.

7. Realscreen

Realscreen is an industry news site dedicated to nonfiction media and its media institutions. In addition to talking about productions, Realscreen follows changes in media ownership (such as Discovery buying Scripps properties) and prominent people taking on new positions. Its focus on television, including reality television, distinguishes it from other documentary sites.

8. Stranger than Fiction

Though a weekly New York screening series, Stranger Than Fiction also offers a Monday Memo. The Monday Memo deftly brings together documentary news and information into a readable weekly roundup. Occasional guest posts highlight New York City events, such as question-and-answer session following an Abacus: Small Enough to Jail screening.

9. Desktop Documentaries

Desktop Documentaries boasts a wealth of information about documentary production. The multi-author blog in particular offers information about storytelling, crowdfunding, and equipment. Some posts feature writing, while others feature short videos. Post writers even engage readers in the comments.

10. Point of View Magazine

Point of View Magazine is a quarterly magazine that focuses on Canadian documentary culture. Articles and blog posts include reviews, interviews, overviews, commentary, and technology. One piece delves into Canadian documentary history, with Canadian documentary makers winning Oscars, while others highlight documentary films in the NFB’s archive.

11. POV’s Documentary Blog

POV is a 30-year-old PBS series that airs documentaries with unique, personal perspectives. Its documentary blog covers its broadcasts, but the blog also covers almost everything related to documentary, including production issues, interviews, festival overviews, and so much more. Tom Roston is the most regular writer, while multiple guests bring in other voices.

Full disclosure: I must admit some bias with this last one as my better, if infrequent, writings have appeared on POV’s blog since 2011.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.