A Local Perspective on Ken Burns' ‘The Vietnam War’
● By Jordan Venema
The Telling Stories
By Jordan Venema
Main photo courtesy of Waul McMahon
At a time when our country feels particularly divided, documentarian Ken Burns has turned his lens toward an era of American history that might offer relevant perspective and insight. His new documentary, “The Vietnam War,” debuted locally on KIXE between September 17 and 28, though it will air throughout the year. Thanks to Burns’ intimate interviewing style, he not only offers intimate glimpses into our not-so-remote past, but also reminds us of our humanity, and that we’re not so different after all.
Somewhat emulating the Burnsian style, KIXE has partnered with local sponsors to produce its own 10-part series of interviews, focusing on local veterans and people who lived in the area and later immigrated to the United States.
“We wanted a variety of perspectives of people who were involved in the war, whether they were American veterans or agents from Laos who ended up becoming US citizens,” explains Rob Keenan, KIXE’s director of programming.
Interviewees included Mey Chao-Lee, whose father and grandfather fought in Laos. She has memories of her grandfather being tortured, and later fled across the Mei-Con River into Thailand; and Mike Dahl who enlisted as a Marine, and who recently lost his son who suffered traumatic brain injury after serving in Iraq.
There is also Greg Caldwell, who enlisted after high school and served in Vietnam. He grew up too quickly, and upon returning home he found it difficult to relate to his peers; and Songkeo and Kaison Souryaseng, a couple from Laos, were married in a POW camp. He was a teacher before being recruited by the CIA. They stayed in the POW camp for nine years before escaping.
“Most of them are still really impacted by this,” says Keenan, and as difficult as it might have been to discuss former traumas, producers had to condense these 45-minute conversations into 90-second clips.
These stories first aired with “The Vietnam War,” but like the documentary, they will also air throughout the year.
“Burns’ documentaries are comprehensive, and this one goes as deep as you possibly can,” Keenan says. “It is quite a commitment.” But also a commitment he believes is worth viewers’ time.
“A lot of people from that era are still alive, and the whole cultural movement that was going on in the ‘60s has a broad appeal and a lot of interest,” he says.
The ability to air the documentary, let alone include local profiles, is thanks to local effort.
“It was a team approach,” says Michelle Slade, director of development at KIXE. “PBS across the nation always encourages you to take their content and give it a local approach, as well. And this would not be possible if we didn’t have our sponsors: Shasta College, the McConnell Foundation, Dignity Health and all our media partners.”
KIXE’s partner radio station KLXR began conducting more in-depth interviews on Lynn Fritz’s Enjoy Exceptional Living program in October, which will continue through November.
“She is going to be broadcasting extended versions of our stories,” says Slade.
KIXE is also partnering with Shasta College to offer a live panel discussion on November 7 in the Shasta College Theatre at noon.
“We met with Shasta College to see about this 10-part series, and out of that discussion developed telling local stories, and having a panel.”
The panel will be a led discussion, but will open up to audience members with a question-and-answer session.
“We will also have counselors in the audience,” Keenan says, “because if people are listening to these stories and have similar stories, there’s a potential for things to open up.”
Through these efforts, North State residents will have multiple opportunities to view their neighbors’ stories and learn about a piece of American history in a more intimate way. It’s a step in preserving history, both locally and nationally, but Slade still says, “Our dream would be to produce a longer version of this.”
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” discussion panel
November 7, noon
Shasta College Theatre, 11555 Old Oregon Trail, Redding