Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Documentary Film,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 11, 2017

Why We Make Films

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It’s 2017 and as always my mind turns to thoughts of the coming months as well as the approach of the anniversary of the Siege of Khe Sanh.

What I am going to dwell on right now is the stories we tell through our films BRAVO! and I MARRIED THE WAR, which is now in production.

Recently I had a discussion with a retired Army veteran about what we are trying to do with these projects.

Initially, with the making of BRAVO! I think we saw the effort as storytelling in its simplest notion. We saw the film as a narrative about a small unit of Marines at the Siege of Khe Sanh which, having lived through it, I personally thought was an amazing tale of bravery, death and endurance.

I don’t know that I can speak for Betty here, but for me, in the beginning, it was just about getting the story told and I wasn’t thinking about what good the film might do in terms of secondary reasons.

Nevertheless, during the journey we have made with BRAVO! from 2009 to today, we have become keenly aware that there are other reasons to make and screen these films about war and its aftermath.

In 2013 Terry Hubert, who was a Marine who served in Vietnam and was instrumental in helping us screen BRAVO! in a variety of venues in the west, advised us that our duty as filmmakers—or our primary duty as filmmakers—is to educate.

I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of American citizens have very little knowledge of the true cost of war—both during deployment, during combat and the years after the warrior comes home.

Betty and Ken Rodgers, co-producers, co-directors. Photo courtesy of Don Johnson.

Betty and Ken Rodgers, co-producers, co-directors. Photo courtesy of Don Johnson.

So, I think it’s fair to say that for both Betty and me, filmmaking is a process by which we can help educate the American public—the world—about the costs of combat. In addition, these films are an opportunity to present some history that a lot of our citizens are not aware of, or if they are aware, it’s often in a way that doesn’t reveal the visceral magnitude of war and its aftermath.

But there is something more to be said about these films and the mental chronicle of their participant’s lives, and a large number of those stories beg to be told and by making our films we allow the folks we interview, as well as viewers who have similar stories to relive, to rethink and revalue certain experiences that have been part of their lives.

Stories of being trapped in battle, seeing the death of friends, and being shunned for the most part by your fellow citizens, are important narratives not only as educational tools but also as vehicles for the storytellers to articulate and examine their lives and the meaning of their experiences.

This type of benefit seems to drill down, for me, to something more personal, more individual. A woman or a man tells her or his story of war and horror and caregiving that has for all intents and purposes remained untold. After telling the story, the load seems to lighten to some degree. It happened to me and I know it happened to a number of the men we interviewed for BRAVO!, and there are indications that the same is true for at least some of the women in I MARRIED THE WAR.

A similar benefit of these stories happens when a viewer of one of these films has his/her own moments that allows him/her to process experiences.

One particular instance comes to mind. We screened BRAVO! in California a few years back and one of the folks who came to see the film was a Khe Sanh Veteran who had survived the Siege as an artillery man and who went on to stay in the Corps and reach the rank of gunnery sergeant before getting out. After leaving the Corps, this gentleman’s life nosedived and he found himself living in a dumpster in San Francisco.

When we met him, he was in a halfway house for folks trying to kick abusive addiction. I spoke to him before the screening and found his dialogue to be extremely fractured and the folks hosting the screening were concerned he may have a breakdown if he watched the film.

So, as he watched, we watched him. After the film was over he came up to our co-producer, Carol Caldwell-Ewart, and very calmly and coherently touched his chest and said, “Thank you for making this film. It relieved my heart.”

That scene is etched in my memory and every time I recall it I feel that all the resources and emotional effort spent on the film were worth it. For a moment—I don’t know how long—we helped someone, and we did so because we told a story. It wasn’t his story specifically, but in a more general sense, it was: He lived through the Siege of Khe Sanh. We often hear from other folks, too, who served elsewhere in Vietnam, who say that BRAVO! tells their story, too.

We also often hear: Wow, that’s the true story of combat.

But the reactions we hear don’t stop there. It seems the messages people gain from the film cast a wider net, such as, for instance, people commenting: Now I understand my dad, or thanks for showing our story, or thanks for not gussying the story up with nothing but images of noble sacrifice like they do in Hollywood.

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

So, thanks to my veteran friend for leading me into the discussion about what it is we do with our films, which prompted me to sit and think about what it is we really do.

We educate, yes, but we really want to get down to the personal level and help people understand on a level that just reading history doesn’t often deliver. Not that reading is bad. It’s extremely important, too.

But there’s nothing like a film that pulls you in on an emotional level that makes what you watch so personal, it becomes your story, too. And you find yourself caring about the characters because you see yourself in them. This is what we also hope to accomplish with our telling these important stories and the history they impart.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to

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