Documentary airing on ValleyPBS April 28
Unseen footage used to show dramatic efforts to save lives
Filmmaker sees this film as a warning for modern events
Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” takes a look at the events leading up to America’s departure from the Southeast Asia country in April 1975 as efforts are made to save as many South Vietnamese as possible. The film was nominated in the Best Documentary category at this year’s Oscars.
Kennedy’s film is airing on the ValleyPBS series “American Expereince” on Tuesday, April 28. It is also being released on DVD the same day, one day shy of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Kennedy was the special guest at the ValleyPBS Society Members Annual Appreciation Dinner in March, where she talked about getting the movie made. The visit came just months after speaking to TV critics. Here are some of her comments on making “Last Days in Vietnam.”
Question: How was Vietnam discussed in the Kennedy household?
Answer: Vietnam was very much part of my consciousness from a very young age. My father, Robert Kennedy, ran his last campaign in 1968 really because he wanted us to get out of Vietnam. And I would say that was absolutely the primary reason, if not the sole reason, that he jumped into that campaign. I’ve recognized from as early as I can remember how important Vietnam is and as an experience and how seminal it is as an event in our nation’s history.
How did that help when you were approached by “American Experience” to make this documentary?
I was immediately interested. My reservation was “has this story been told too much before?” I started doing research, and I realized, wow, there is so much that I don’t actually know. Most of us don’t know the story. It’s such an extraordinary story and such an important story. And, historians, politicians, people who have studied the Vietnam War don’t know what happened, don’t know these events.
Why should we know exactly what happened?
We’re at the brink of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And so what can we learn from looking back 40 years ago at these final days in Vietnam that can apply today with what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s an enormously timely story, and there are a huge number of lessons that we can learn from these events and the sense that history is really repeating itself in many ways and that there’s huge value not just in looking back and understanding these events, but also helping to inform our decisions today.
How did you find all of the footage?
The archive was a huge priority for us in making this film, but also, an enormous challenge as well. But we made it a priority, and we had a fantastic team that went into the archive houses and found the source material. So I think there’s a lot of original footage in the film.
Didn’t you get to use some unseen film?
We had a screening of my previous film in Washington, and I had invited people who I wanted in this film to that screening. One of them worked in the Department of the Navy, the preservation unit. He said, “Well, you know, I was talking to a sailor who was on the Kirk, a few months ago, and he said he had gone up into his attic and found a box of basically undeveloped footage from the Kirk in 1975.”
How hard was it to get the unseen film?
I called Dan Lucero the next morning and told him about the project, and he was very protective of his footage. He wouldn’t FedEx it to me. So I flew him out, and we transferred the footage, and it was a treasure trove. We ended up using about 12 minutes of that footage in the film.
What does it mean to be on PBS as far as reach and impact?
I am really thrilled to be on PBS. It has had a nice theatrical life, but the reality of a theatrical life is however many theaters you’re in, you’re reaching a small number of people who actually go to the theaters relative to the huge number of people we can reach on PBS, which is in, I think, 97% of American households. So to me, that is the most exciting prospect is just reaching a large audience with this story.