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This movie won the 1994 Oscar for Best Documentary feature.

Maya Lin's 'Clear Vision'

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 20, 1995

When the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in 1981, some people praised its healing qualities, its accessibility, its quiet power. Others called it a black bat, a boomerang, a hole in the ground. One vexed vet lost his cool before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and branded it nothing but a big, black scar. "It's insulting and demeaning," he snarled.

In the finely crafted documentary about the memorial's architect, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," we are reminded of the chasm the memorial created between those who saw it as a salve and those who saw it as a salvo. And we learn about the life and work of one of the most provocative artists in 20th-century America.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Feature Documentary in 1995, but is only now being shown commercially in Washington. Directed by Freida Lee Mock ("Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember") and produced by Mock and Terry Sanders, it follows Lin from the time she first heard about the national competition as a Yale undergraduate to the 10th anniversary of the memorial in 1992. In those 12 years, we see Lin mature. But we are left with the sense that from the very beginning she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

Hers was a radical notion for a monument on the mall -- a sunken wall, cold, horizontal and black, etched with the names of more than 57,000 dead soldiers. At the announcement ceremony in the spring of 1981, Jan Scruggs, a veteran and prime force behind the memorial, leaned over the microphone in front of a shy, giggling Lin and said, "I'd like to point out that really the finest architects in the country and some of the highest-priced architecture firms in the country did enter this competition. And they lost." They lost to a 20-year-old kid from Athens, Ohio, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Maya Lin's story is the stuff that American dreams, and documentaries, are made of.

Using old footage, Mock revisits the divisive debate which included vehement opposition from the likes of media personality-turned-presidential-candidate Pat Buchanan.

As people lashed out at her design at a U.S. Commission of Fine Arts hearing, Lin sat in the room neither smiling nor frowning -- stoic, quiet, like a granite wall. She seemed so young, yet so unwavering in her conviction.

"Imagine the courage that took," said architectural historian Vincent Scully, Lin's professor at Yale. "The fiber. The word for Maya is courage. And effrontery."

At one point she says, "An artist struggles to retain the integrity of a work so that it remains a strong, clear vision."

Lin opines on-camera often -- too often -- in the film. The narrative of her life and work is interspliced with shots of her sitting on a stool talking about her work or in a turtleneck hunched over her drafting table, gooseneck lamps overhead, cold drink nearby. Though she speaks eloquently and convincingly about her creations, the power of the movie, as the power of her art, is when things are shown and not explained.

For example, she tells us that when she designed the Vietnam memorial, "I really did mean for people to cry."

In the next scene, we see men standing at the black wall, crying. It is a power-charged moment.

The Vietnam memorial led to more commissions for Lin. She poured 43 tons of broken glass into spaces at the Wexner arts center in Columbus, Ohio. Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., asked Lin to design a Civil Rights Memorial. She read up on civil rights activities -- many events had occurred before she was born. Then she tumbled onto a resonant phrase in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. King said those who fought for racial equality would not be satisfied "until justice rolls like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

This passage became the inspiration for a circular fountain in Montgomery that chronicles, like a sundial, the turning points of the civil rights movement. One of the most moving segments of the film occurs when aged, stalwart Rosa Parks is led to the monument. With a steady hand, she runs her fingers across the words "Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man -- Montgomery, AL."

Little time is spent on Lin's private life. Her mother taught English at Ohio University in Athens. Her father was dean of the arts school. She lived in a sunny, orderly house full of her father's ceramics. Her back yard was surrounded by woods. She had an idyllic upbringing. "I was one of those disgusting little kids who really loved school," she says. Her family had a great respect for creativity.

What makes this documentary so forceful is its great respect for Lin's creativity. Near the end of the film, it's a dreary, drizzly Veterans Day, 1992. A close look at her face shows she's hardened over the years. There are still hints of the joyous, young girl from Yale, but she's been changed, been through the stone cutter, been honed and shaped into something mature and lasting that can coexist with nature.

The man who introduces her says the Vietnam memorial is a space where the living and the dead can meet. Then he gets choked up and backs away. She steps up to the podium and receives a standing ovation. She smiles and apologizes to the crowd. "I didn't really have a speech prepared. I'm not very good at these things at all. Oftentimes, I just let the works speak for themselves."

She says a few more things. A bugler plays taps. Men are crying.

"Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" is not rated.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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