STEVE York and Foster Wiley, the two Washington filmmakers who made "Vietnam Memorial," the moving hour-long documentary about thousands of Vietnam vets who came here last November for the dedication of the memorial, almost didn't make it at all. (It airs at 8 tonight on "Frontline," Channel 26.)
"Steve wanted to do the film," Wiley points out. "I didn't because I didn't think anybody wanted to see anything about Vietnam. The networks did a poll a while ago and nobody wanted to hear anything on Vietnam. That's why nobody else did a film, though the event got a lot of coverage."
"I had an idea that it ought to be done," adds York. "What held us back at the beginning was that we were convinced that somebody else, somebody with superior resources, was probably going to do it--CBS News or somebody. But in the last few days, I made calls to people that I knew at the networks and it didn't look like anybody was. So we really started preparing the film just a couple of days ahead of the event."
York/Wiley Productions, headquartered in Georgetown above a fish shop, is an independent film and television production company specializing in documentaries, public-affairs television and educational films. York and Wiley direct and edit films; Wiley is also a cinematographer, while York triples as a producer. Between them they have several hundred credits and dozens of awards and honors. Despite their experience, they went into the making of "Vietnam Memorial" with the innocence of amateurs and the trepidation of the underfunded.
"Part of my hesitancy was that we didn't have any money in the company at the time," Wiley says. "So whatever the expense, we'd be in the hole. And we hadn't really done our homework: we didn't really know who these guys the vets were."
"The key to doing most films is to have done some survey work, pre-interviewing, getting to know some people," York says, "but there was no time to do that. I don't know if we knew what was going to happen; I don't know that anybody did, because the memorial had been controversial . But we figured that whichever way it went, it was still going to be strong and powerful."
Foster and Wiley, working with a small crew and for the most part with a single camera, covered a variety of events between Nov. 9 and 14, the day the memorial was officially dedicated. Although they shot 32,000 feet, it became obvious in the editing room that the story was focusing on the veterans rather than the events. "They'd been wanting for years to talk to somebody," Wiley says, and probably more importantly, they'd been waiting to say what several almost cry out during the film: "We're home!"
"Once we go into it, we became very personally committed and involved with these guys. We were on a roller coaster the whole time we were filming, though we didn't want to tell people what to think the film has no narration . What's there tells it best."
The film captures what may be seen years from now as a breakthrough point, the beginning of a reconciliation for Vietnam veterans. Though the vets display brotherhood, respect and love, their sense of aloneness is evident as well--after all, they had to fund and build their own memorial and organize their own event. "We didn't know what we had until we started looking at it," says York.
"But then no one would even look at it, at the networks or PBS. They liked our proposal but nobody wanted to fund it. We had talked to 'Frontline' early--it's the last series-type documentary effort in public television and commercial television is essentially closed to independent documentarians because they do their own stuff."
"Frontline" finally looked at an early print in January and promptly agreed to buy "Vietnam Memorial."
Wiley and York acknowledge they became emotionally involved to a greater degree on this film than they have on any other project. "In documentaries, there's an overtone of journalism theory and tradition that you have to have certain standards of balance and fairness. It's not even a question of objectivity. A lot of the things we've done, there wasn't anything to get attached to. There are two camps--documentary filmmakers who are filmmakers first, and those who are committed to issues and are filmmakers only as a means of expressing viewpoints. Of the two, I think we'd have to say we're filmmakers first, issue-oriented second."
Still, raw emotion and pride drip through the words and actions of the vets and their families in "Vietnam Memorial" and the film may eventually be expanded into a longer theatrical version. Wiley and York are also working on a film about the building of the memorial and a film on the MIA-POW issue.