Now available for pre-order on iTunes and Vudu, My Father’s Vietnam centers on the experiences of three men who served in the Vietnam War. Director Soren Sorensen initially started the project to learn more about his own father’s (Peter Sorensen) experiences in the military, and what evolved over last decade turned into something much larger than originally intended. Hollywood Outbreak talked to Soren Sorensen about his experiences in making My Father’s Vietnam, a subtly crafted documentary which gives voice to three brave and honorable men who served their country.
Were you an experienced filmmaker before making My Father’s Vietnam?
I never made a film before but I certainly had an interest in film for most of my life. My father used to take me to the movies and a lot of the time some of the thematic material and subject matter had to do with war, politics, or history. He also had a big collection of movie soundtracks when I was growing up. So cinema was never that far away. And when I did my undergrad, it was in film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston. But directing and or putting together a documentary never crossed my mind until 2011 when I assembled a rough cut of this film. The first conversation, the interview with my father that forms kind of the centerpiece of the film, took place in 2006. At that point I had no idea that it would turn into what it’s turned into. It’s been a long process with a lot of starts, stops and hiatuses.
When I was a kid, my father made two pencil rubbings at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. If you’re not familiar with the Vietnam Memorial, it’s a granite wall with over 58,000 names etched into a black reflective surface and you can take these pieces of paper and a pencil and rub and it reveals the name. You can take that home with you. And so my dad made these pencil rubbings of two names: Glenn D. Rickert and Loring M. Bailey Jr. That was back in the mid-80s and that sort of stayed in my head. Whenever I thought about my father serving during that war I thought of these two guys. I tried to imagine them. I knew one was a helicopter pilot and I knew one was in the infantry, a “ground pounder.”
What was it like getting to know them by interviewing their families?
It’s euphoric to put pieces together of a life that essentially never was or that was cut very, very short. You realize, at a certain point, that you’re the only person in the world with access to this information from somebody that served with them, this person’s parents, brother-in-law in the case of Loring Bailey, or this person’s spouse in the case of Glenn Rickert. You realize that you’re trafficking in very privileged and rare information and stories.
There are a million biographies about very famous people but there aren’t very many about unknown people. If you look at that wall, how many of those people do we actually know anything about? The experience of getting to know two of those people was tremendously gratifying.
Was it tough to interview your father, especially since he’s the anchor of your documentary?
It was easy because I didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe that had something to do with it. The initial conversation with my father lasted five and a half hours. I’ve since gotten a little better at interviewing people. He and I have had good, spirited political conversations for as long as I can remember. So when I approached him to do this, he didn’t really hesitate. His only hesitation was feeling it would be embarrassing for him to talk about it because I don’t think he thinks it’s extraordinary or unique. I think on some level he thinks every veteran has their stories, so what’s so special about his? As it turns out, what’s special about his is that I asked him about it, that I wanted to share it. It’s a tightrope you have to walk since you don’t want to be selfish and you don’t want to do it for self-aggrandizing purposes but you also know that it’s extraordinary. And you know it’s unique even if he doesn’t believe it to be.
A lot of people will say that our loved ones will start to talk about the war when they are ready. I think that’s sort of a way of looking at it as moving the blame away from ourselves to veterans and I think really it’s a question of when we are ready to talk to them. What happens is you have this game of chicken when two people are heading towards each other for this interaction but they sort of flinch. Or it’s never the right time or, “He’ll talk to me when he’s ready.”
I was in therapy in 2006 in New York. I felt adrift and as anybody that has had a therapist knows, therapy has a way of acting like a mirror. I said to my therapist one day, “I don’t know my father as well as I’d like to and I’ve never really talked to him about his time in Vietnam.”
The therapist said, “Why don’t you ask him?” (laughs)
It’s very simple but you need someone to say it sometimes. And the lightbulb goes off if you’re lucky. And if you’re even luckier you have a dear friend who’s a cinematographer and says, “Why don’t we shoot it? Let’s do it!” I had no preconceived idea that it would turn into a documentary that is being released tomorrow throughout North America. That part of it is surreal for me.
How have you changed as a person and a filmmaker after making My Father’s Vietnam?
This film made me a filmmaker. In 2006 or even as recent as 2011, having a rough cut of this film, I never really thought, “Now I’m a filmmaker.” I never imagined I’d be a film studies professor. Now I can say that I am both. My second film is in post-production right now and it’s about the life and music of Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa. And that will have a lengthy post-production process but it’s been shot and Omar and his management are on board with it. I have a lot of archival material to deal with and sift through.
And I teach at Rhode Island College and at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. All of that stuff is the result of this film. If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have had the knowledge how to do it, I wouldn’t have the passion for it. It sort of made my career as it is right now.
What about showing your film in different film festivals and getting feedback?
It’s tremendously gratifying and rewarding. It’s hard to put into words because you become this rare person vets share these stories with. If you think back towards the end of the film, John Wilson, who served with Loring Bailey, said nobody ever thanked him, and he had never had a conversation like that before. These are very rare and privileged interactions so when I get a chance to interact with a Vietnam veteran and he’s able to open up to me and have a moment of catharsis or have his memory jogged by something in the film, It’s a really validating feeling for me but beyond that it’s something that’s long overdue. I’m only one little part of a much bigger conversation and subject.
In your mind, what is the importance of film studies? Is it a must for up and coming filmmakers?
I wouldn’t council anyone to major in film studies unless they felt compelled to make a film. I studied music at the undergraduate level because I felt compelled to make music and now I teach film studies at the college level because I’m compelled to make films and I love teaching. But I wouldn’t try to sell the major to anybody only because it’s as useful as any other major. I find auto mechanics to be fascinating but I don’t know anything about it.
I think Malcolm Gladwell may have written about this in one of his books, I can’t remember which one. But there’s a epistemological term, the other minds problem. Gladwell’s father was a mathematician and he had this memory of looking at his father’s desk when he was a kid and just marveling at this person with whom he had this intimate relationship but he had no idea what he did for a living. He couldn’t fathom or grasp what his father did for a living. That’s what it is for me to be able to speak to a Vietnam veteran or to speak with somebody who was engaged in an activity with which I have absolutely no familiarity. To be able to organize those thoughts and present it in a way that an audience can grasp is tremendously euphoric for me. It’s a way of making sense or making order out of chaos.
Thank you so much for your time and good luck with the film.