Rory Kennedy: Director of LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM
OPENING NIGHT FILM – Friday 4/4/14 Acts of Valor
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
In the final weeks of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army began its march to Saigon. In the face of this impending invasion, many South Vietnamese sought refuge at the US embassy, hoping to escape. There, American soldiers and diplomats confronted a difficult dilemma; whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only--or to risk treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. Director Rory Kennedy (ETHEL) returns to the Sarasota Film Festival with her stunning new documentary LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, chronicling the desperate final days in Saigon from the point of view of the Americans who were on the ground and overseeing the evacuation. LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM is an unforgettable story of heroism and compromise in the face of impossible odds, a film that is at once profoundly moving and an indispensible chronicle of the end of the Vietnam War.
Special Guests in attendance including RORY KENNEDY, ETHEL KENNEDY, 4 Star Marine Corps GENERAL JOHN F. KELLY and CAPTAIN of the U.S.S. KIRK, PAUL JACOBS.
Sarasota's Vietnam Brotherhood Color Guard and Bradenton-based vocalist SHANTEL NORMAN to present the colors and to sing the National Anthem.
Friday, April 4th: Red Carpet 6:00PM
Followed by our Opening Night Party also at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, beginning at 9:00 PM.
SFF Interview: Rory Kennedy, Director of LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM
SFF 2014: Please tell us how you became involved with Last Days in Vietnam.
RORY KENNEDY: I was approached by Mark Samels, Executive Producer of PBS’s American Experience. He was interested in doing a documentary about the last days in Vietnam. Honestly, my initial response was the sense that there has been so much on Vietnam over the last few decades and I didn't know how much I could offer. But my research revealed that, in fact, very few people knew all that happened during those final days, myself included. I knew some details of it, but not the real story behind it, and I found that story truly captivating.
I think a lot of us are familiar with image of all the Vietnamese climbing the ladder, trying to get on the helicopter. (Most think that helicopter was on top of the embassy, but it was not.) But I don't think there's a lot of knowledge beyond that, frankly. And so I think there’s a lot of value in explaining the events, what exactly happened, and that it’s pretty fascinating. And on top of that, revealing these stories that I do not think have been told about the Americans who were on the ground, who went against U.S. policy, which was to just evacuate the Americans. They went against that policy and risked their own lives to evacuate the Vietnamese. That is a largely untold story, one that I think is really important to document and for people to understand and recognize. These are real heroes.
SFF 2014: The film delves very deeply into the human stories of Americans and Vietnamese whose heroism came to the fore during this harrowing time. As just one example, would you tell us about the acts of Richard Armitage, who is credited with saving 30,000 people?
RORY KENNEDY: Many people might know or recognize Richard Armitage’s name. He worked under Powell, and he was in Vietnam, and he had recognized things were falling apart in April of '75. He wanted to head back there because he knew a lot of his colleagues might be in trouble. He called Washington, and they recruited him to go on a mission to save the ships and other military elements that were of value and could be taken over by the north if they were left behind. So when he got there, his mission was really focused on the ships. He worked with his counterpart there, a Vietnamese named Kim Do, a captain of the South Vietnamese Navy.
SFF 2014: He's also one of your main subjects in this film.
RORY KENNEDY: Yes, and they worked out a scheme to meet at an island off of South Vietnam called Kan Phun Island, where they would rendezvous with the ships, and then take them to the Philippines in a flotilla. Captain Kim Do said, “I'm happy to help you do this, but the sailors are going to want to bring their families with them.” Armitage intentionally said nothing when he heard that on the phone and Kim Do read that to mean that it was acceptable to him. Then as they met at Kan Phun Island in the very frantic hours of the morning of September 29, 1975, they rounded a corner and came across a flotilla of 30 ships. There were 30,000 Vietnamese aboard these ships. We have footage of it, and they're just full, every inch of the deck and the cabins are full, full, full of people. It's an extraordinary sight to behold, truly. Then the question was, what do we do now? And Armitage made the executive decision, without checking in with Washington or anyone else, let's bring them with us.
SFF 2014: So he chose to ask forgiveness, rather than permission?
RORY KENNEDY: Yes, exactly. And he got to the Philippines, and nobody was very happy with him: except, of course, the Vietnamese and a few others. But I don't think Washington was too thrilled. They were all able to stay in the Philippines, and most of them eventually made it to the United States. So it's a nice chapter in the story.
SFF 2014: Tell us a little about the intense and emotional interviewing process you went through as you were with these people who were reliving these harrowing events.
RORY KENNEDY: Even though these are events that took place 45 years ago, when they start talking about it, it's really like it was yesterday for them. And I know for many of them, almost all of them, in telling the stories, it took them a number of days to recover. One of the Vietnamese people who we interviewed, when we found out the film was at Sundance and invited him to join us there, he said it was just too much for him, that the interview took him about a week to recover and he didn't think he could handle the screening. So I think that depending on what the experience was in Vietnam, I think it can really bring up some very difficult, emotional moments for folks. So I really appreciate all of them for participating and sharing their stories.
SFF 2014: What lessons do you feel were brought across from this film that apply to current wars and military operations, particularly in terms of exit strategies and the people who are on the ground in these situations? As you say, most of the time, looking at the iconic imagery, we don't think about that human dimension.
RORY KENNEDY: I think there's value in learning how you get out of these wars, and we're looking both at Iraq and Afghanistan right now, and what our responsibilities are to the folks on the ground, and what protection we're leaving them. Do we need to bring some of them back to the United States? How much are they at risk for having helped us? And I think we need to really evaluate all of these situations and make sure we're protecting the people who are our friends and who have worked with us, and in many cases risked their lives to be associated with the United States. And what happens when you leave them behind? Those are really important questions. And I think, then, when you're thinking about going into wars with Syria and other places, there may be something you're trying to contain, or a worthy goal in going into these engagements, but there are long-term implications from them. And when you look at the end of Vietnam and what the options were, the truth of the matter is that there just weren't very many good options at that point. The best option would have been not to get into Vietnam.
SFF 2014: What do you hope audiences will take from Last Days in Vietnam?
RORY KENNEDY: Beyond the present day lessons we can apply, there's also real value in fully understanding the events that took place. Because Vietnam is such a dark spot in our history, people didn't really understand the events as they unfolded during those final days. And I think that we not only owe it to ourselves and to history to watch the film and understand what happened, but also to have an appreciation, both for the Vietnamese who came here and what they risked to be here, and what their contribution has been to our country, which I think has been hugely significant and underestimated.
SFF 2014: Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
RORY KENNEDY: We're excited, because we are doing a theatrical release of the film starting in August, late summer, through the fall, and we're going to be going to a number of cities throughout the country and also a number of other festivals. We have a website, Last Days in Vietnam, which we'll be charting those events. For people who are interested in the subject, but can't see it this Friday in Sarasota, (or just want to see it again), there will be other opportunities.