DSU students participate directly in the DOCUTAH Festival. In what ways are they involved?

Film students, of course, attend the Festival to work as volunteers and presenters, but their creative participation is the highlight of their studies. They are given a chance to produce a film, which is shown right alongside films which are submitted by professional filmmakers from all over the world.

Four years ago we started producing films thru DSU films with faculty, film students and staff to be used as the opening film for the festival. These are feature length docs by film department. Most of these films became part of a series we called High Desert Chronicles, which included My Father’s Highway, The Devil and the Angel, Moonshot through the Double Helix and Tuacahn: Miracle in Padre Canyon. Each of these films revealed unusual stories that one might not expect in the high desert.

The student-produced film in this year’s Festival, Dreams of the Black Echo, is somewhat of a departure. Tell us about that?

This year, because of a relationship which DSU developed with Duy Tan university in Danang, Vietnam, we sent people both ways including a month visit I made, with another DSU professor, to teach filmmaking technology. We accumulated 40 hours of footage for joint venture film about the Vietnam War, which they call the American war. What we wanted to do was create a true co-production. The Vietnam students would do half the film from the perspective of their veterans and we would do half the film here at Dixie State using our U.S. veterans as the story tellers.
Dreams of the Black Echo is not a sweeping 14-year saga but rather the story told through one event – the battle of Khe Sanh which took place January to July 1968. Everyone in film gives eyewitness testimony of what they saw and experienced in that battle.

What was the germination of the idea?

The idea grew out of the first time Duy Tan faculty came to Docutah three years ago. They had produced a film about the air war in Vietnam from their perspective: How proud they were that their ancient Soviet MIGs were holding their own against the mighty U.S. Air Force. Who knows if that was even true but, from their perspective it was, and it opened my eyes to the idea that you could do a film from two different perspectives through the prism of two different cultures and maybe it would have more truth in it than if it were coming from just one side or the other. This really is 3 to 3 ½ years in the making by the time it’s shown this year.

That seems like a pretty ambitious undertaking with many challenges

Well, of course, it was. Even when we were in Vietnam, we had to deal with the language issue. The first day I was struggling through teaching 17 non-English speaking students. However, the language barrier did not stop those students from Duy Tan. They were so dedicated to learning that they threw themselves into the production.

Still, It was brutal for about two hours. Then one student approached me. Luan came over and said pardon me but I’m an art student and don’t know if I should be here but I’m interested. I said, you are the one person who should be here because I just understood you. You are now my man. So he learned a lot about filmmaking and now that’s what he wants to do with his life, because it has been such an immersion, baptism by fire, into filmmaking. Luan is almost is the fulcrum on which the whole film turns because he came to the United States to help on this end, so you see him in both places.

You did say that half the film was edited there and half here. What kind of a challenge did that present?

I had high hopes for it and we have not been disappointed. Before this, we had full control over the shoot and the editing. With this film, I did not have visibility into what was being done over there once we left. All I knew was that they had to send us 40 minutes of completed film on the first of August to be blended with our 40 minutes of original material. That alone is a very different way to make a film, but, guess what, it succeeded in creating an interesting film with a unique perspective, not just on war but on the soldier’s experience.

The wounds of the Vietnam War are still quite raw. Were you concerned about the reaction you might get from either side?

I was careful to say to those on both sides, it is up to you; you can present your side any way you choose. I think it is safe to say, there was plenty of propaganda pumped out on both sides. What I found out when I interviewed these people is they were completely oblivious to the propaganda because they were living it on the ground.

So I think it’s an honest portrayal. Over and over you find that now, 50 years later, even from the U.S. side, most of those veterans can understand why the Vietnamese were fighting to the death on their own soil. And what was at stake for our soldiers and from our side – it’s about patriotism, it’s about making a commitment and following through on it. And then from both sides, it’s what did we get ourselves into and how do I survive. It comes down to a pretty basic shared experience. I think that is what makes the film unique. There might be some things in there that make us squirm and vice versa.

Did you have any confrontations?

In one case Luan was here and one of the U.S. veterans were having a conversation and the vet said, “I still hate the Vietnamese people.” And Luan, this young student, was right there. So I went over to him and told him if you don’t want to interview this man, you don’t have to. Luan said he was okay. He sat down and somewhere in the middle of the conversation, he asked this man, do you think you’ll ever stop hating the Vietnamese. It was a very brave thing to do – very impressive.
That is where it all comes together. We have this one kid from Vietnam, Luan, talking to the veterans on both sides. We don’t have the equivalent in Vietnam, because our DSU students were not over there. He is so good at tying it all together.

Bottom line, how does this film fit into the DOCUTAH Vision?

We always want DOCUTAH to offer our audience something unique – a window on the world, a global experience in the high desert, never sugar coated or censored, allowing the filmmakers to express their vision of the people and topics they cover. In that spirit, Dreams of the Black Echo, fulfills our mission. If you want to understand how DOCUTAH is different from your garden variety film festival, this film is a prime example.