POV: How would you describe A Thousand Words?
Melba Williams: A Thousand Words is a conversation between me and my dad. It's an attempt to discover more about his experience in Vietnam. As a child, I knew that he was in Vietnam because I saw pictures of him in unusual places, but when I was growing up, he never discussed it at home. Since my father had a very debilitating stroke, he stopped communicating with us through words. With the threat of death looming, I wanted to use that as a reason to go to him and try to capture this important experience and piece of family history.
POV: Since your father could not speak, how did you learn about his experience?
Melba: I knew that we had home movie footage, and I knew he'd brought a still camera to Vietnam, but I had no idea that there was 8-millimeter footage of Vietnam. So my mom sent a box to me and I went through all of it — it was a wonderful surprise to see those images. In fact, my dad had decided in his head that those images were stolen from him, so it was really great to show them to him and for him to see those faces that he hadn't seen in a very long time. I think he was surprised by that experience as well.
POV: How does this film reflect on the relationship between father and daughter?
Melba: I think the timing of the film was really critical, because we had really stopped communicating as a family, partly because of the illness and his struggle just to talk. Doing the interview was a great challenge because it was one of the first times in a long time that we had actually had an adult conversation about something that was relevant. It was very cathartic for both of us to be able to open up to each other again and see each other as father and daughter, and not as caretaker and person who needs taking care of.
POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker?
Melba: I want to tell stories that present new ways of looking at the obvious. I haven't found myself to be a very "issue" driven filmmaker yet. I look for those very mundane, everyday patterns we participate in as humans and just start asking the question, why? Sometimes there's no profound reason, but usually there is. And of course the most exciting part of being a filmmaker is the exploration that surfaces.
POV: What inspired you to make A Thousand Words?
Melba: There's been much consideration about the soldier's story as an individual experience and I've seen many newsreel interviews with families that have lost loved ones during war. But what about families whose loved ones are lucky enough to return, but have great difficulty returning to a functional state? I think that's the side of the story you often don't hear, though it's the norm and plays a considerable role in the shaping of the next generation's attitude about war.
I was also greatly motivated by my father's illness, which created an urgency around discovering his history. Had he not been ill, I might have continued to take for granted that I would one day discover all the things I wanted to know about him without really making an intentional effort.
POV: What was the biggest challenge for you when making this film?
Melba: The biggest challenge was sitting down and actually interviewing my dad. I was afraid that he wouldn't take me seriously. But it turned out that he saw the value in talking about his experience, and I think that he wanted to talk about it. He wanted to disclose more explicit details about his experience but couldn't find the words. It's great that we have the images to back up the things that he couldn't say.
POV: Why did you choose documentary in this case?
Melba: Documentary was the obvious choice because whether my dad was forthcoming in telling his story or not, I wanted his response to my curiosity to be a part of the film. Much of the film is about family communication. I communicate very differently with my brother than I do with my dad, and I think [these] dynamics come across best in a non-fiction form.
POV: What about the film is particularly relevant to African-American veterans?
Melba: I think one of the things that touches African-American veterans about A Thousand Words is that it shows the military as an opportunity to become educated, an opportunity to see the world and an opportunity to be in an environment that fosters self-discipline. Someone like my dad, who was a high school dropout, saw the military as a means of escape and a way of improving his life.
POV: What has been your father's reaction to the film?
Melba: I think he saw the urgency in telling his story. The same goes for my brother and for my mother. Even though she's not in the film, she obviously influenced a lot of the communication in the home. For us, it's a means of saying a lot that was never said.
POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Melba: I'm working on distributing my latest film, Mend. Mend explores the social effects of obstetric fistula through the story of two sisters suffering from this condition in Eritrea. Obstetric fistula renders a woman incontinent after a prolonged (sometimes lasting over days) and mostly unsuccessful labor. Women with fistula are often removed from their communities and find it very difficult to survive. I also have a few commercial projects and works for non-profit organizations with my production company Turnstile Films.