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Filmmaker Interview

Robert Kenner California filmmaker Robert Kenner, who produced and directed Two Days in October, has been making documentaries for over two decades. His work for American Experience includes John Brown's Holy War, Influenza 1918, and War Letters.

Two Days in October revisits one of the most controversial chapters in American history -- the Vietnam War -- and explores the impact of war on individuals on the front lines and the home front. It is based on David Maraniss's award-winning book, They Marched Into Sunlight (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Here, Robby answers questions about his work.


How did you make the book into your film?
It was a struggle to try to figure out the connecting of these two days. On some level, what ultimately united them was that this is a story about a democracy and what one owes to his or her country.

I think that most of the soldiers were people who were drafted and who didn't want to go there. They went because they had to. I think most of the students who protested didn't have to, and in some ways they chose to put themselves at risk. Their risk was in no way comparable in terms of physical jeopardy to the risk of the soldiers, but they chose it.

I was sort of groping at, how do you tell these two stories? And it's really about what do you owe to your country? How do you make a democracy work?

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In what ways did you part company with the book?
For me it was about finding articulate voices. Even with the quantity of people David [Maraniss] spoke to, I must have spoken to 20 more, mostly for the Wisconsin part of the story.

Mark Greenside has parents who survived the Holocaust, and he talked about how he was brought up to not just follow what your government tells you, because his parents grew up in Germany. He grew up seeing that countries can make mistakes. I felt that was an interesting part of what was happening in Madison. It was part of the issue of, can we question our government? Do we have the right to? Unfortunately, I had to condense everyone's stories, and some of that got left out. But a lot of his family got killed in concentration camps in World War II. He felt it was his responsibility to ask questions.

Maurice Zeitlin had opposed the demonstrations, and he was embarrassed to realize that. He said it was hard for liberals who didn't follow what they believed. As an example, he described [University Chancellor William] Sewell, who was against having Dow there, but yet he was the man who brought the police onto campus. Sewell cried even into his 90s talking about this experience.

People have to follow what they believe on some levels, even if the country says, "this is wrong." At least this is what we're investigating in this story. The soldiers felt they owed military service, and Zeitlin felt he owed questioning what was perceived to be right.

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How did your subjects feel about being interviewed?
The pain of those days still lives with everybody. It was hard on that level to sit through those interviews and sit through that pain. For the soldiers, obviously, but also for the students.

People had a real loyalty to David [Maraniss] after being interviewed for his book, so when I approached the Black Lions there was definitely an openness in speaking to me. Still, it didn't come easily for some people.

Jean Allen is a very private person. This is a very painful experience in her life. But I couldn't tell the story without her. It took 15 phone calls and five letters until she felt comfortable to talk to me. She felt she had an obligation to history to talk. I really valued what she had to say. She's a brutally honest woman, and there's no one she's harder on than herself.

Ernie Buentiempo felt that some of the soldiers just couldn't give it up, and wanted to keep waving the flag -- and these are some of his good friends. He felt at some point you have to be able to let go. Others didn't want to let go -- both students and soldiers. I wonder how much going through the interview process has changed people.

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Can the experiences of the soldiers and the student protesters be compared?
The juxtaposition of a brutal ambush to a demonstration makes the demonstration seem not as important somehow, because no one's life was at stake. I was concerned with the way the students were presented. I was always battling to make them not feel trivial. On their own, you take them seriously, but compared to the battle for life and death, their stories don't seem as important.

The challenge was this juxtaposition. Everyone does have his or her own experience, and the country has its own experience. Ultimately, I think there was a sincerity that was just as strong with the students as it was with the soldiers.

These were all 18-year-old kids at the time. These were young people forced into making big decisions. Mike Troyer ended up going to fight because he was working in a factory and he couldn't keep up his credits. Jane Brotman ended up deciding to skip her French final. They seem like small events, but they shaped and changed their lives.

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Do these people feel differently now than they did in 1967?
For the students, they still believe that what they were fighting for was right. But there's a sense that there's been a backlash since then.

For the soldiers, there is a confusion -- why were we dying for this idea of fighting Communism? Most of the men were there because they had to follow orders. And ultimately they were fighting to protect their friends. But I do think there was some confusion about why they were out there, left alone to fight, and a real bitterness about how they came home and were not appreciated. They came home and no one cared about what they had done. Whether you agree with the war or not, there has to be an appreciation for what these men went through. I hope that comes across in the film.

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Your film includes so many viewpoints. Was that hard to do?
I really feel appreciative working for American Experience and PBS, being able to go out and tell this story from every side. To be able to talk to the police, to the Viet Cong, to Dow Chemical, to the radical students. I think it was a real challenge to make a film with so many characters. I've never done a film with so many characters before. It was a little bit of a concern -- can viewers be involved with people even though they're going to be on screen for so little time? But I felt it was important to have lots of characters since that's the power of the book, even though that doesn't always work in film. If you cut out a lot of voices, you end up with nothing. I just knew that you needed this larger than usual number to be able to tell this story.

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Did anything unusual happen during production?
I went to Vietnam. Clark Welch asked if I needed help. I couldn't afford to bring Clark, but then he said, "I'll meet you there anyway." At one point, I wanted to shoot some scenics near where the battle was shot, and we were staying in an inexpensive hotel -- we'd taken all the rooms -- and I said to Clark and to [former Viet Cong fighter] Mr. Triet, who was there, you're going to have to share a room. And they shared a room for three or four nights. It was so impressive to see these two former enemies sharing a room together. At first Clark said he was thinking of leaving. But they really valued each other's experience, and they were of immense help in the filming. Together they worked so well.

[American Experience executive producer] Mark Samels felt I was crazy to interview Triet, since I didn't need any more characters. But the strength of the film is that you hear the story from everybody's side. I would not have wanted to tell it without Dow Chemical, the Madison police, or anyone from North or South Vietnam. It wasn't just about Americans fighting. We were fighting the Vietnamese. To not tell it from that point of view would be missing a part of the story.

One amazing thing about being in Vietnam and in Saigon is that the people love Americans. It's just fascinating. That was my biggest surprise.

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What do you want viewers to take from this film?
As in David's book, I think it comes down to wanting to understand all the characters so it's harder to make ideological judgments. It's ultimately a world made up of these human beings, many of whom I might have disagreed with politically, but all of whom I was very moved by.

I would hope that the audience is moved by these people too, but at the same time you have to question -- what is right? How do we choose to support our democracy? What is the service that we owe to our country and how do we go forward as a democracy?

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