When producer Dave Flitton was putting together the 12-hour series Battlefield Vietnam in 1998 for Edinburgh-based Lamancha Productions, he knew he would have to go beyond the usual footage archives in order to get the whole story. ‘Previously, very little footage of the Communists in Vietnam was available, guaranteeing that programs about the war were one-sided,’ Flitton says.
To balance the production, Flitton wanted footage that came straight from the source, in this case Vietnamese archives housing hundreds of films and newsreels that portrayed the Vietnam War from the perspective of the ‘enemy’. Like many documentary filmmakers who are unfamiliar with the terrain, Flitton needed a guide, and for that he turned to John Abbott, a research consultant in London.
Abbott is a Vietnam doc veteran. In 1966, he filmed combat in the field alongside the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade and Australia’s 1st Battalion RAR, and later worked at NBC’s Vietnam operation. More importantly, he had contacts in Vietnam, people he could manage from London in order to locate and acquire the necessary footage from the country’s poorly organized system of film archives.
But there were problems…
In Vietnam, all studios and state archives are controlled by the Vietnam Film Institute. Since 1999, the Institute’s material has been available to the world market through Progress Film-Verleih of Berlin (see sidebar), but at the time of Abbott’s footage search, he had to deal with the Institute directly.
‘I would try to find out what the producers wanted in terms of subject areas and imagery, and then, working both directly with the Vietnam Film Institute and my people on the ground, we would find out what was available and go through the process of getting the best-available-quality imagery,’ Abbott recalls.
Sometimes footage was in bad condition. Other times, film reels were not in the places indicated by the old and ‘not terribly accurate’ archive lists. In those cases, Abbott and his team tried to contact the original production organizations. ‘We would always go the official route, and then go the sideways route, but always be upfront,’ he says. ‘Never behind their back, because you’re working in somebody else’s society.’
At first, the Vietnam Film Institute wasn’t set up to handle Abbott’s footage requests. ‘To provide footage, people were asked to do things that weren’t in the plan,’ he says. ‘It required people to like you enough, because there wasn’t anything in it for them.’ Bribery can be useful in certain circumstances in Vietnam, but Abbott says ‘it wasn’t an acceptable policy from the perspective of people with whom we were working.’
Another snag with a communist bureaucracy: Footage prices were set by the Vietnamese Ministry of Finance and not by the film library. ‘It was a complicating factor simply because when you want to bargain, they don’t have a bargaining position,’ Abbott says. ‘You can’t drive the process by offering more money. You can’t use money to make people work harder.’
The Ministry of Finance charged little for the footage, but with the costs of acquisition, including travel and Abbott’s consulting fee (US$280 per day), the producers paid the same as they would have on the Western market. ‘The arrangement was a complex one that involved us guaranteeing to spend certain amounts and so helping fund film transfers and stock conservation,’ Flitton says. ‘In the end, it wasn’t cheap and we did a lot to help the Vietnamese archive produce the material.’ Although, he says, once the Vietnam Film Institute opened up its collections and trust had been established, no attempts were made to influence Battlefield Vietnam editorially.
Flitton’s only complaint was that the process took much longer than he had hoped. ‘When you are dealing with very different cultures and government agencies – wherever you are – you can’t expect things to move too quickly,’ he says.
Abbott admits that sometimes it was hard to know what was happening during his dealings in Vietnam. He compares the experience to operating in Hollywood: ‘You think you’ve reached an agreement and nothing happens.’ At times, Abbott wondered if he had made a misstep or said something wrong. ‘Nobody’s trying to be difficult,’ he points out. ‘If things aren’t happening, there’s a reason for it, even if you don’t know what it is. In practical terms, you have to work on the basis that the goodwill is there and that people are trying to help. You’ve just got to keep at it.’
The end result
From all this persistence came an award-winning documentary series that spanned the 30-year history of war in Vietnam, starting in 1945. Forty percent of the series footage was obtained from Vietnamese sources, enabling filmmakers to describe the strategies of all sides in the conflict.
‘Without question, most of the footage was spectacular,’ Flitton says, citing the footage of the Tet Offensive from the Vietcong perspective, and the North Vietnamese Army at the siege of Khe Sanh as examples. ‘Nothing even remotely like it had ever been seen. We were able to show some of the battles as they happened, from both sides.’
Abbott says the footage had a remarkable impact on the final product, giving viewers a much more balanced account of the conflict. ‘You actually got some feeling for the size and scale of the Vietnamese effort, which was anything but unsophisticated,’ he says. ‘All those years ago when I was in the field filming, with tens of thousands of troops and helicopters and bombs going off, I had to see this series to understand what it was all about,’ he laughs. ‘That was the first time I ever understood.’
The voice of experience Abbott’s advice for doc-makers trying to access material from out-of-the-way archives is to budget sufficiently for procurement costs. The extra expenses are most often worthwhile. ‘There are enormous quantities of interesting things out there,’ he says. Additionally, in places like Vietnam, track record and trust matter, and producers need consultants to help secure a measure of both. ‘A consultant saves you time and gets you in so people will talk to you. Otherwise, they don’t know you from Adam, and it’s the usual business: you very often ask the wrong question.’
Flitton recommends that doc-makers make allowances for extra money and time when dealing with archives in distant lands. ‘It’s easy to be too blinkered in your aims, in too much of a hurry, and damage the relationships badly,’ he says. ‘That, of course, would be catastrophic. There has to be a spirit of genuine cooperation and respect. The transaction that is going on is much more than a simple commercial deal. You have to be very straight in your dealings and deserve the trust you hope to get.’
Where to get Vietnamese film footage
In 1999, Progress Film-Verleih of Berlin signed an agreement with the Vietnam Film Institute to offer and market the Institute’s stock archives. Covering the period from 1945 to the present, the film library contains 900 feature films, 3,000 documentary films, 400 newsreels, as well as unedited film footage. Progress Film-Verleih also has 15 hours of digital-format footage that is available on short notice for features and documentaries. Digital clips cover a range of subjects, including The Tet Offensive, victims of chemical weapons, and the construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
License fees vary depending on format, term and territory, but are typically calculated on a per-minute basis. (As an example, a non-exclusive, one-year license for standard and non-standard TV broadcast in the United States costs US$27.00 per second – if length exceeds 30 seconds, the full minute will be charged).