War Stories

When the year was young, the hot topic was Monica, not Kosovo. So at the Sundance Film Festival in January, war was the furthest thing from most people’s minds — unless they happened to catch Regret to Inform,Rabbit in the Moon, or Return with Honor,three documentaries dealing with war and its aftermath.

Ten years in the making, Regret to Inform looks at Vietnam from the perspective of war widows. Part diary film, part talking heads oral history, it weaves together the personal story of photographer-turned-filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn, her translator, Xuan Ngoc Evans, and a dozen other war widows from both Vietnam and the United States. Nominated for an Academy Award, Regret to Inform captured the Sundance award for documentary directing, and will air on PBS as a P.O.V. special in the fall.

Return with Honor, by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, focuses on the experience of the American fighter pilots held as P.O.W.s in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The producers are self-distributing the film, which starts rolling out into theaters this month.

Rabbit in the Moon deals with World War II as manifested in this country–in the Japanese internment camps. Like Regret to Inform, the film is a hybrid, blending oral histories of camp survivors with the personal stories of its makers, sisters Emiko and Chizuko Omori, who were children in the camps. After being hired in 1968 as the first woman news cameraperson in San Francisco, Emiko went on to become a leading cinematographer in the independent film world. At Sundance this year, she was given the Documentary Cinematography Award for her work on both Rabbit in the Moon and Regret to Inform. On July 6, Rabbit in the Moon will air on P.O.V.

During Sundance, The Independent invited these filmmakers to participate in a free-ranging discussion of women and war, documentary funding, editing techniques, and other matters. While Mock and Sanders had already left town, we were able to round up Sonneborn and Xuan Ngoc Evans, Emiko and Chizuko Omori, as well as Regret to Inform editor Lucy Massie Phenix (whose credits include The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter and Winter Soldier), and Rabbit in the Moon editor Pat Jackson (The English Patient,The Godfather,Apocalypse Now).

There was an interesting story in the Village Voice called "World War II chic." The author, Richard goldstein, looks at Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, among other things, and concludes that these works are a rebuke to sixties’ protests and morality, amd play upon what he calls ‘boomer guilt.’ Did you sense this current when you were working on your filmsand feel as though you were swimming against the tide?

Barbara Sonneborn: I definitely felt like the minority when I started Regret to Inform. WWII was the ‘heroic’ war. The Vietnam War–we had enormous support from veterans in the Bay area, but the idea of really looking at what we did to the other side was completely unheard of and made a lot of people uncomfortable.

Emiko Omori: I don’t think about the tide, because if I did, I would have drowned a number of years ago. Being a women cinematographer–that was against the tide right there. So yeah, I knew we were going up against the tide, but we had so many great organizations around: the local state humanities councils, NAATA, our small granting groups and agencies within the Bay Area, like the Pioneer Fund.

Was it difficult to convince funders that there’s an interested audience? After all, WWII was something from the history books back when I was coming of age in the seventies, and today Vietnam is just as remote in time.

Emiko Omori: We had to overcome some things right up front. One is, a lot of funders thought they’d already covered this topic. Another is, it wasn’t one of these searing, current topics of importance; it wasn’t drugs or urban violence or things like that. And it wasn’t about an "exciting” part of the war–a battle. It was a story outside of the war, about a small minority group. Our topic was about the violation of civil and human rights. And that’s what we always needed to bring up, that is wasn’t about the same old stuff.

Sonneborn: When I first started funding, most people felt this war is over, it’s in the past. Platoon had been out, so the Vietnam War had been covered. Then as we went further and there was a little more reflection in the nineties, funding got better. But I also think that a lot of people don’t want to jump in at the beginning, because they don’t think the film is going to be made and they don’t want their money to go there.

Lucy Massie Phenix: During the war, I was working on a film about the war called Winter Soldier. Then it was definitely not the thing to do. So it’s very interesting, the question of too far away versus too close. There’s always an excuse for one or the other.

How did you finance that film?
Phenix: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland. They gave us raw footage, and everybody worked for nothing, because it was a time when we could do that, and we had to stop the war. Anyway, there was just no funding for films that had to do with stopping wars. It seems like war is a very controversial topic.

I was struck that there are only three documentaries at Sundance touching on any aspect of any war. Whereas at the Amsterdam Forum, there were so many films about the Holocaust that the commissioning editors complained about "Holocaust fatigue.” WWII is still very much alive in Europe, and broadcasters are funding these projects.

What are your thoughts on this difference? And did any of you try to get funding from Europe?
Phenix: We have not been in war; we don’t even know war in this country. That’s obvious. The war here was in the internment camps; that’s the way the war was lived here. It’s very interesting that this country has not owned up to the fact that we had our own–as you said in the film, it’s a version of the Holocaust in this country. It’s not the same thing, but it definitely needs to be seen, and it hasn’t been.

Sonneborn: Look at civil rights issues in the history of this country. The Native American issue, the issue of slavery, and the issue of the internment of Japanese people–three of the biggest violations of civil rights that have happened. And going over to other countries and violating their civil rights. It’s very hard to get funding for films about that.

All of you also had to overcome the silence of your subjects. As Barbara points out in Regret to Inform, there weren’t support groups for war widows; people were isolated and nonvocal. And there were many reasons Japanese Americans did not want to talk publicly about their experience in the internment camps. So, first, how did you find your subjects? And second, how did you get them to open old wounds and talk in a way that would be deep and real, yet sensitive to their feelings?

Sonneborn: I met only one other widow before starting this project, and that was in the seventies in art school. We fell into each other’s arms and it made me feel a lot less crazy, because my anger was so enormous. But when I started doing the project and began looking for widows, we sent out a couple thousand flyers to women’s health organizations, veterans organizations, schools, doctors, gynecologists, and so on. And I don’t think we found one person that way.

Then the Gulf War broke out on January 17, 1991, which was just when we were doing our outreach. I was so disturbed by the war, I went to a protest and there were over 100,000 people. The next Saturday, there was any even bigger protest, with about 250,000 people. I made a sign and put my husband’s picture on that sign, the date of his birth–1943–and the date of his death– 1968. And I put "New World Order Means Nonviolent Solutions.” Then I took the flag that was on my husband’s casket, put it around my shoulders, and went off to protest the war. I wasn’t really thinking about publicity at all. I was so profoundly perturbed at killing more people. But I got some press. Carol Ivy at our local ABC station was particularly sympathetic and did one of those longer pieces. Also, I met a lot of veterans. As a result, I found about 20 women in the Bay Area. Then over the course of publicity and getting into veteran’s newspapers, I spoke to in the range of 200 women on the telephone and at events and did preproduction interviews with them.

Did you find the same kind of reluctance to talk from the women in Vietnam?

Sonneborn: The women in Vietnam self-selected. In America, I’d call them and some would be dying to talk, and others would say, "I really can’t go there.” In Vietnam, we actually we did interview some who were reluctant to speak. But we had written to the Women’s Union of Vietnam–11 million members out of a population of 69 million–and began interviewing at the women’s union in Hanoi. Our sponsors would go into the next town, seek women out, then we would come in the next day, and Xuan would translate. It wasn’t like we were able to do preproduction interviews. But women said to me throughout the process, "This has taken a great weight off my chest. Now I can go on with my life.” And the film has become the container for my story.

In both Emiko’s case and mine, we were not journalists coming after a story. We had both gone through the story we were investigating. And that really opened people’s hearts.

Xuan Ngoc Evans: And for the Vietnamese war widows, there was a hunger for peace. Every women, after the interview, they would take me by the hand, look me in the eye and say, "Please, promise me my voice will be heard by American people.” They just desperately wanted to share this information.

Emiko Omori: I was there shooting this–Xuan talking to these women, who were enemies, mind you; she’s from the South, they’re from the North. They embraced us. To them, it wasn’t a war of them and us; it was "Let’s not have war.” They didn’t want anybody to go through what they went through.

Going to Vietnam, for the first time I saw that women suffered differently. In any situation where the women are bearing children; they’re going through physical things. They don’t have guns; they’ve not had the propaganda beaten into them. They’re simply trying to live, trying to feed their babies, the old people.

The other thing that struck me in Vietnam was, for some of these women, to survive was worse that to die. Their country was so ruined, and hardly any of them had married again–because there weren’t any men to marry. The women had aged; they looked so much older than us. The stress of surviving and having lost your children, your parents, your village, your everything–this was inconceivable, certainly for a person like me.

This, then, actually filtered into [Rabbit in the Moon]. We were looking for particular kinds of women’s issues. A lot of women went into the camps pregnant. One woman told a funny story about the lack of privacy–you know, how did you make love? She was a newlywed. So you chuckle over this concept. But then she gives birth to a not very healthy baby, because her nutrition was so bad. And that’s still going on; her daughter is still full of allergies and this and that. I think that all the pain goes down through generations. In Vietnam, too, it was a physical coming down–this physical thing that’s passed on and going to go on for generations.

Evans: For me, I try to find a way to justify it. I don’t know if I will find it. Vietnamese women are religious–they’re Buddhist. We believe in being a good person, so after you’ve died and are reborn, you have a better life. Most of these women who were effected by Agent Orange carry these babies–deformed babies, really gross looking babies–but we’re not educated, so we don’t know what happened to our bodies that made us have this baby. So we’re thinking maybe in our previous life, we have done something bad and are being punished with this baby. Can you imagine what that does to a human spirit? I think about it often: I’m a really bad person; I’m being punished. But it wasn’t that; this chemical Agent Orange did it. But we didn’t know.

What about the interviewees in Rabbit in the Moon? Were they reluctant to come forward?

Chizuko Omori: I hope this came through in the film, but while we were in the internment camps, there was this big division of who’s loyal and who’s disloyal. That was convenient, because anybody who protested, they called ‘troublemakers.’ Maybe it had nothing to do with politics they were protesting– the food, or any number of things. After the war, that stigma of disloyalty stuck to a lot of people. They weren’t necessarily silent, but there was just no organized way to give voice to this dissent.

So being active in redress, you know, the people who are in our film are our friends. It wasn’t like we had to go out looking for people. In fact, it was hard to choose, because there are thousands of stories.

Emiko Omori: [to Chizuko] I don’t think we had as big a choice as we think we did. These were people who had come forward during redress. They were willing. We had some people who agreed and didn’t do it, or asked to be withdrawn. There’s been a silence of this side of the story for 50 years. There’s still some fear in our community about being known as a disloyal person.

But they’re getting old. I think they feel compelled to say some things now. Part of that came from the commission hearings that went around the country in 1980-81. Finally people were beginning to come out. Even though we tried to get a few people–women in particular–and they were still reluctant.

Phenix: What you’re saying is that, the people who spoke were looking for a way to speak. There are probably a lot of other people who will find a voice in the film. Like in Rosie the Riveter, people came out of the woodwork at screenings, women who had worked in factories. But they didn’t come out ’til they saw the film.

Let’s talk about the tone of your films. Both combine a personal voice with other elements–interviews, historical footage, factual information. I’m wondering how the balance between the personal and the historical evolved in the course of the seven to 10 years spent working on these films. Did the projects start out as personal diary films, then, as time went by, you brought in more voices and your own dropped away?

Sonneborn: I went through a number of incarnations in my head, but I always knew I wanted to be like the guide. I never wanted it to be my story, I wanted it to be the story of women on both sides of the conflict. I was a tool to that end, however we would use me.

Initially, I thought, how could I not deal with the politics? Do I need to have interviews with McNamara? Should I try to get Kissinger? Do I need to use that footage? But I knew from the beginning I didn’t want the historians–those typical historian-driven documentaries.

Yet you credit a long list of scholars. Looking only at the credits, I wouldn’t have known what to expect, because there’s that, but you also list people like Daniel Reeves, who’s a video artist.

Sonneborn: The balance evolved over time. It was a real blessing to go to the California Humanities Council to begin with, and to begin speaking with scholars. People said to me, "Oh, they’re going to really influence your interviews. You’ll always have to be this, that, and the other.” That could be nothing further from the truth. As bearish as those grants were to write, the grants from the California Council on the Humanities, the Arizona Humanities Council, and the Mississippi Council–I really learned something about the Native American culture in terms of war, the southern war culture, war in general. I could never begin to know all those things.

But the film evolved. My editors–first Jennifer [Chinlund] and Vivien [Hillgrove], [and then] Lucy [Massie Phenix]–helped me be very clear about what a mistake it would be to bring the historians in and that other kind of footage; that we just needed to keep it from the personal point of view.

I first began to shoot with Daniel Reeves, who was just a very enlightening person to work with. When we finished the American interviews and were thinking about shooting in Vietnam, I felt like I had gone to the edge of the water with the men who had fought the war, and I need to cross the water with women. Because we’ve had the stories from the men, and we will continue to have them. And they must be had. But we had nothing from the women at that point. I felt all the wonderful energy that these vets were loaning me, it was pushing the story. And it was going to be their story, because their stories were so enormous and needed telling. So I needed to keep going inside myself to find what the true story of the women was.

Phenix: A lot had gone on before I came on. Editing is always a process of leaving out, but somehow incorporating what you’ve left out. Really making what you have close to the bone, but never having it leave out some of the deep concerns that you want to hold onto in the material. Making everything that’s there speak deeper.

In this case, Barbara’s narrative voice was changing all the way up to the very end, even in the mix. It’s true, the voice of the guide–it got so that Barbara was telling less and less of her own personal stories.

Your films are very different in terms of the assumptions you could make about viewers’ prior knowledge. Vietnam is a known subject; the Japanese internment camps are not, particularly not the level of detail you provide.

Chizuko Omori: That’s been a problem. Some people who know a lot about it say, "(Sigh) Why’d you have to start from the beginning?” We have to! We learned a tremendous amount; we didn’t know it either! In a sense, a lot of it was in the books. But you know, books written in a very scholarly way for other scholars are not the same as getting information out to people.

Phenix: Giving people the experience. You gave that in your film. The way you feel it and smell it…

Sonneborn: The wind and the dust.

Emiko Omori: Rabbit didn’t start out as personal. We had to be dragged in. We were going to make it a straight documentary, but in the course of talking with friends about [our time in the internment camp], they’d say, "That has to be in the film!” It’s that whole thing of feeling like your experience is not as profound as other people’s experience.

In the course of this time, there was another wonderful film which went through the same process, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, where [editor] Jennifer Chinlund dragged [director] Deborah Kaufman into it. Personally, none of us wants to be in our films; that’s why weren’t not in the front; we’re in the back, right? Although I have never been afraid to say it’s my voice. So I was willing to go that far. But anyway, it got to be where you’re sitting in the editing room, chit-chatting, and [she sucks in her breath], "That’s it! Write it down!” So then we started having our PowerBook there. Once you’re in it, we tried to make it the best we could.

I call this, for lack of a better word, a memoir documentary or documentary memoir. It’s one of the hardest structures to work with. I think this is a wonderful direction, which Chris Marker has been working with for many years–a kind of personal view, but a very knowledgeable view of that world. My other influences are Erol Morris and Alan Berliner.

[At this point, Sonneborn and Phenix have to rush off to another festival screening, while Pat Jackson, editor of Rabbit in the Moon, joins the group.]

Emiko, where did your archival footage come from? There was only one familiar shot–the Selinas footage. Otherwise I didn’t recognize anything.

Pat Jackson: (laughing) This is a refrain the Emiko sang from the beginning.

Emiko Omori: [mimicking herself] "We’ve seen those images a hundred times! Get those out of here.”That was an awareness we had. I don’t know why, but if you see the same old thing, you start to tune out, as though you’re not going to learn anything new.

The footage mostly came from the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, which released two compilation tapes of archival home movies. One is called Moving Memories. They’re wonderful images of what life was like before the war. The other is called Something Strong Within, which were home movies taken of life in camp in a way that wasn’t the horrible set-up of stuff you get from the government. There’s footage in the National Archives, but it’s very stilted.

We also attempted to use what you’d always seen, but put it into a different context. So there was that one shot that’s a very common image–people getting off the bus.

That worked so effectively in the film–to duplicate a shot with different voiceovers–the government’s, then your own. The meaning shifted 180 degrees.

Emiko Omori: Two of my inspirations: Chris Marker in Letter from Siberia, where he takes an image and narrates it three different ways: one from the government point of view, one from the worker point of view, and one from, I don’t know, some other point of view. It’s hilarious and startling. So this is what I had in mind, as well as an essay written by John Berger about the public image and the private image. When you have what he calls a public image, that is taken by a stranger and has no context, and you can write anything you want or put it into any context you want. That’s what I thought had been happening to our images in the camps. They were all public images, until the private images came along. And then the private image is one that has a context. The person who took it had a relationship with the person they’re taking it of. So there’s a dialogue going on. I love it when they look and the camera and smile and laugh, because there is somebody familiar taking that picture.

So when I was working with these ideas, I came to where that little boy gets off the bus. I’d always noticed that he looked sideways [at the camera], and I thought, who is he looking at? Clearly, he’s looking at some strange person, and he’s wondering what’s going on and feeling like his privacy is being invaded.

It accumulated this way: I seemed to be picking many images about children, cause I was a child in there. Just like in the Vietnam footage, they looked through the women and children–the other experience you don’t see. So I think we all did this: we combed through things for tiny moments that were missed by other people.

It reminds me of Jay Rosenblatt’s marvelous film, Human Remains. When you’re dealing with dictators, as he did, you’ve already seen so much of the existing footage. So he tried to find footage people hadn’t seen, which wasn’t always possible, or to take a detail and zoom in on it, manipulate it in some way, so it looked fresh or unfamiliar.

Emiko Omori: So you could see it for the first time.

Jackson: Sometime just slowing down this stuff allowed you to notice subtleties that you don’t have time to notice when somebody just walks through the frame. It give you time to contemplate the relationship, like of people having their luggage searched. It just makes you analyze what’s going on in a way that real time doesn’t.

Even with the home movie stuff–to take down the barriers between the us-and-them quality, so that it became the human experience. It was very, very personal, but so personal that anybody could relate to what was going on. There was endless sand papering away of words or things that made you feel the division between yourself and the people you were watching.

Emiko Omori: Pat really acted for me as an editor should, especially if I got too angry. Tone is so important. We didn’t want to put people off; we wanted to draw them in and say, "Now listen to this story.” Not pointing the finger, not saying you were responsible, not saying all white people are bad.

Jackson: Keeping out anything that could distance you from identifying with the people in that story.

Emiko Omori: And she was really very good at it. Cause you know, I’m writing from anger.

Jackson: Then you the audience are allowed to be angry on behalf of the people. Like when the camera pans down [a newspaper] and it says the riot at the internment camp was because the pro-Axis Japanese were celebrating the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. If Emiko had said that, that would have diminished the pleasure of our response

And there are other moments, like when Frank [Emi], the draft resistance organizer whose store was sold for $15,000, tells that story that it was bought by the next buyer at $100,000. He manages to tell that story with the most remarkable amount of neutrality in capitalist America that I can imagine.

Chizuko Omori: And [Pat] was very clear that that story had to be in there, because this says it in a nutshell.

Jackson: Your hard work has built this thing from the ground up, and someone else makes $95,000. That is the most fundamental wrong in America. Forget being interned; losing your capital!

Emiko Omori: This, again, has been told many times in many documentaries. It would be something like, "We lost a lot. We lot everything.”And I had to say, well, what did we lose? Instead of historians saying, they lost 50 jillion worth of 1940 dollars or something, Pat was right; this was a story that you get.

Jackson: And thank you, Frank, for not being bitter when you said it.

Emiko Omori: Another inspiration for me was a wonderful writer of the Holocaust, Primo Levi. I was struck by was the way he talks about things in a very even-handed way. His anger came out in his poetry, not in his writing. To tell a chilling incident in a very matter of fact way, there’s something more chilling about it. That was always in the back of my mind.

Much of the footage you shot for both films, Emiko, is visually exquisite: lush Vietnamese rice paddies, barren dessert landscapes with Japanese grave markers, flocks of birds wheeling overhead…

Evans: The story is so intense, so emotional, Emiko really worked to make [the images] calm, so that when the message comes out, it takes you by the heart.

Jackson: We developed what we called wallpaper images, where sometime, if you were talking about specific kinds of information or experiences, it was important to the audience to have an image that didn’t require a lot of energy to figure out what was going on. They weren’t always "beauty shots.” Sometimes there were wide shots in camp where there were just people walking. You didn’t have to figure out what they’re doing. So on some level, it was soothing to the eye. You’d be absorbing the image [while] being able to assimilate something that may be pretty complicated on the audio level.

Emiko Omori: I wanted to place these stories in the landscape today. I wanted it to be as though you are out there and you were going, "Gosh, there used to be this camp here, a riot here, people were killed here.” I wanted it to say, "it’s not in the past.”

This is something I’ve taken from Waldo Salt, that wonderful screenwriter. When he was writing Midnight Cowboy, he doesn’t call thinking about the past a ‘flashback;’ they’re called ‘flash presents’ because they’re with us. It’s not like that memory was back then; it’s right here. The one thing that was true of Vietnam, is true of this: these people are not speaking of something in the past. They are speaking of something that is so present, so immediate, that when they tell it, our tenses kept getting mixed up.

When Waldo Salt said this, I thought, that’s it! We are who we are and who we have been.

About :

Patricia Thomson is the former editor-in-chief of The Independent.