President Obama is making his first visit to Vietnam this week. Earlier today, he made a forceful case for human rights in the region during a historic speech in Hanoi. Needless to say, the relationship between the United States and Vietnam has a long and tortured past. Available today on VOD and various digital platforms, Soren Sorensen’s thoughtful and moving documentary, My Father’s Vietnam, provides a very personal window into the human bonds forged and shattered by the war. Set against the backdrop of stunning never-before-seen photographs and 8mm footage of the Vietnam War, the film tells the story of three soldiers — talented, inspiring friends with so much to look forward to in their lives — one only of whom made it home alive. Soren grew up knowing very little of his father Peter’s wartime experience, but he was struck as a child by the pencil rubbings his father took during a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, of two people who were very close to him: Loring Bailey, Jr., and Glenn Rickert.
Interviews with the filmmaker’s father and the friends and family members of these two men he served with give voice to the countless individuals who continue to carry the psychological burdens of a war that ended over 40 years ago. My Father’s Vietnam will encourage viewers to broach the subjects of service and sacrifice with the veterans in their lives. The powerful film won the Soldiers and Sacrifice Grand Prize at the 2015 Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Best Picture Documentary at the 2016 Flagler Film Festival in Palm Coast, Florida. I spoke to Soren Sorensen about this emotional film which would be perfect viewing over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
Danny Miller: It’s interesting that you didn’t know many details about your father’s experience in Vietnam since, unlike many veterans, he doesn’t come off in the film as someone who is reluctant to share his own experiences. He’s incredibly articulate and forthcoming.
Soren Sorensen: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that he was emotionally unavailable or closed off when my sister and I were growing up — it just wasn’t something that we talked about. He may have answered specific questions if we had them, but that’s it. I certainly never sat down with him and heard an authoritative account of his time over there until I started working on this film.
It’s very moving when he admits that he felt like a different person when he came back from Vietnam.
I think that when anyone goes through that kind of trauma, they come out the other side as a changed person. But we weren’t really conscious of that growing up, he was just the dad we always knew. Definitely an introvert, though. As my mother jokes in the film, she’d talk about herself whether you asked her anything or not, but my dad was the opposite. I think I inherited much more of my mother’s personality type, which is a good thing if you want to make documentaries!
What impressed me so much about this film is that I really felt connected to the two friends your father lost during the war: Loring (Ring) Bailey, Jr. and Glenn Rickert. They seem like such amazing guys and getting to know them through these stories makes their loss all the more painful, even for people who never knew them.
Yeah, the real inspiration for this film came from our visits to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington when I was a kid. I may not have had a lot of information about my dad’s service but seeing him make those pencil rubbings of the names Loring Bailey, Jr. and Glenn Rickert really stuck in my head for a long time. Those rubbings from the wall were definitely my entry point.
Here is an exclusive clip of Peter Sorensen talking about the abrupt transition he made from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Army’s Public Information Office during his time in Vietnam:
When I started the project, the film was going to be more of an oral history for my family, I didn’t have the idea yet that it would become a feature-length documentary. But it was around then that I started watching a lot of documentaries. My Director of Photography, Dan Akiba, who’s a good friend, turned me on to a lot of filmmakers during that period — people like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Alan Berliner, the Maysles Brothers, all of them helped me get very interested in documentary cinema. But I still had no idea that ten years later I’d be sitting here talking about my own film.
It’s one thing to interview your own family members, but to ask others to talk at length about what has to be the worst experience in their lives must have been challenging. The people in the film who knew Loring and Glenn are so moving. As is Loring’s wife Maris’s absence from the film.
Yes, as I mention, Maris said that “the years since his death have done little to soften my heartache and anger over his loss” but she did put me in touch with her brother, Rik Carlson, who is such an important part of the documentary. And Maris has been very supportive and is thrilled that her husband’s writings are now getting out there. Rik recently published a collection of the letters that Loring wrote home during the war and they are just great — he was a fabulous writer and his humor is so wry. The book is called Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War. I feel so lucky that all of these people said yes to what I was doing. I’m still in contact with Rik and John Wilson who served with Loring Bailey and was standing a few yards away from him when he was killed, I count them both as good friends now.
It was so fascinating to hear both from Loring’s father, Loring, Sr., and Rik Carlson. They seemed to be on such opposite sides of the spectrum politically and they so perfectly represent the polarization of the different generations at that time.
Loring, Sr., and his wife, Dorothy, have died since we shot the film, but Loring, Sr. loved to talk about his son. Dorothy had a much harder time with it. She did not want to revisit those feelings at all — Loring, Jr. was their only child and it was such an enormous loss — but at the end of my sitdown with Loring, Sr., Dorothy took both of my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “This was a good day.” I’ll never forget that. We were all very emotional. The crazy thing about Loring, Sr. and Rik Carlson is that neither of them were as extreme as the other one thought. Hearing from both of them really made me think a lot about the gulf that often forms between people who think they’re more different from each other than they really are.
Right. And we’re just as polarized today as we ever were — we tend to forget the things that we have in common with other people.
Yes. Obviously Loring, Sr. and Rik shared a deep love and a lot of grief for Loring, Jr.
It was very moving to hear from Glenn Rickert’s wife, Margie, and his son who he sadly never got to know. That story of the Vietnamese baby they were about to adopt before Glenn was killed was heartbreaking. I realize that baby is now in her 40s, but do you think there’s any possibility of locating her?
There may well be a paper trail or some way to locate Lan. In the film, Margie says it’s a source of guilt. But, of course, she has nothing to feel guilty about. That’s the challenging thing about guilt — it’s chronic and insidious. Guilt feeds the same sense of ambiguity that my father and many other veterans feel about serving. The guilt and ambiguity extend to the immediate family members of those who served, both living and dead. Humans feel things we have no control over, whether it’s depression or jealousy or rage or, in this case, guilt. It’s not uncommon and it can be as debilitating as chronic physical pain, if not more. Unresolved, as it is in the film, the adoption story perfectly highlights the theme of ambiguity throughout the film, the unanswered questions John Wilson talks about. No film ties up all the loose ends about any given subject. A person watching my film might reasonably criticize it for eschewing the suffering of the Vietnamese in favor of just another American narrative. But I tell my film students that one of the most important tools in making a no-budget documentary is access or proximity. I told the story I had access to.
Your film is such a human story — so much more so than a straight documentary about the facts of the Vietnam War. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about how much background to include about those turbulent times?
When I decided to make a film about this subject, it was important to me that it not be a retread of the many great documentaries that already exist about the conflict. We do mention a few historical points in the film in order to situate what was going on in the lives of these three men, but I was far more interested in sharing more personal details about them and their wartime experiences. Barbara Sonneborn’s remarkable documentary Regret to Inform influenced my work as did Tracy Droz Tragos’ Be Good, Smile Pretty. I prefer documentaries that put very personal spins on a larger subject.
I imagine that the film provokes a lot of fascinating discussion at screenings. Have you shown it to a lot of veterans?
Yes. We had a great crowd at our world premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Providence, and we won a Best Documentary Award at the Flagler Film Festival in Florida. We had a lot of veterans at both screenings and there were a lot of emotions at the Q&As, a lot of people who wanted to talk to my dad. The veterans there were really appreciative of the tone of the film even though I can imagine that it would be difficult for people to listen to some of these stories when they’ve experienced something similar. Of course, my dad would be the first person to tell you that his story is not that unique or exceptional. You don’t have to look very far to find many stories like this but the opportunities to share them publicly can be few and far between. I’m glad that the film is encouraging people to talk about their experiences. My main hope for the film is that it touches people emotionally.