It was bags of old mouldy photographs rotting in an Ottawa basement that inspired Rob Ridgen to make his first film more than 20 years ago.
The photos were snapshots from his friend Mike Touchette’s time fighting for the Americans in Vietnam.
“I was just out of art school. I was looking for something to do, like documentary, and it seemed like an interesting subject,” he said.
Ridgen, who is today a conservator with Yukon Archives, was also concerned that these important historic images could be lost if not preserved.
While the popular image of Canada during the Vietnam War is as a haven for draft dodgers, an equal number of Canadians, about 30,000, travelled south to volunteer for the war.
Touchette introduced Ridgen to several other Canadian veterans living in the Ottawa area who had fought in Vietnam, all of whom had photographs of their tours.
“It wasn’t easy to convince these guys that this was something that they should want to be involved with,” said Ridgen. “I had to kind of hang around for a while and they got used to me and took a liking to the idea.”
While Rob collected images and interviewed the veterans, he got his brother David, who had just graduated from film school, to direct the 15-minute documentary, Canadian Images of Vietnam -1965-1970.
The film, which is now more than two decades old, is currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada as part of a war-themed instillation, Clash: Conflict and its Consequences.
“Its an experimental documentary,” said David, who is still a filmmaker, now based in Toronto.
“Every picture you see was taken by a Canadian who chose to fight in Vietnam, and everything you hear is audio that was recorded by a Canadian in Vietnam,” he said.
One of the veterans, Kevin McVeigh, who was actually a military photographer, recorded audio of a search-and-destroy mission, which they used as the film’s soundtrack.
“It’s lots of running around, machine-gun fire,” said Rob. “You can hear guys yelling, swearing and that kind of thing.”
To make the film, Rob collected the raw images from the veterans and turned them into slides.
“He had literally thousands of slides and I took the ones that I felt told a specific story and ordered them,” said David.
While most of the photographs were snapshots of soldiers in camp and on leave in various towns, others were far more graphic.
“There were some images of the conflict, machine-gunners in the field, and there were some scenes of a helicopter crash with people going in and extracting bodies. Some of it was pretty disturbing,” said Rob.
Only about 100 or so of the photographs made the film’s final cut.
They projected the slides and filmed them on what was then state-of-the-art, broadcast-quality 3/4-inch videotape, which they edited at Carleton University.
What “we ended up with was a Ken Burns-type film where there’s a lot of pan and scan, there’s a lot of zooming on slides revealing things when you’re watching,” said David.
Although only one of the photographers was a professional, most of the photographs, even the Kodachrome snapshots, were “photographically pristine,” he said.
“Some of the photographs just spoke volumes to me in a way that the others didn’t and told a story that was immediate, rather than something that you had to watch for a long time to figure out,” said David. “Some of these shots are just on screen for seconds and you need them to register a story with the audience.
“But not only do they need to tell a story unto themselves, they need to lead you on a larger arc so the whole of the slides together tells a different story. It’s amazing what stills can do, as opposed to moving HD 3D Hobbit-type stuff. If you just stare at a still for a while, you can get a lot out of it.”
Although it’s a politicized subject, they didn’t pick sides, which David said is one of the documentary’s strengths.
“It’s the kind of film where we’re not saying something’s good or bad. This is what it is, and you decide what to think … We didn’t bias the film in a way that put these men on a podium, nor did we do the opposite, we kind of did a little bit of both and we left it up to the audience to decide.”
It took about three years, from 1989 to 1992, to complete the film.
Rob’s original plan was to enter it into film festivals, but once he sold a copy to the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography he lost his momentum, he said.
Getting a letter from the curator at the National Gallery in January about the video being used in a show came as quite a surprise, said Rob.
It’s the only video piece in the installation, said Andrea Kunard, the associate curator of photographs for the National Gallery of Canada.
Just like Rob and David did 20 years ago, Kunard has to glean out a select sampling of pieces from a much larger portfolio of work to create the installation.
“I’m a historical researcher so I’m interested in the relationship between photography and history, and what we think history is when we look at photography,” she said. “When I started looking at it, I realized how much these events in the past that these people had photographed affect us today.”
There were many different approaches taken by the journalists, photographers and artists, but Rob and David’s piece was striking in the way it tried to recreate the battlefield experience through sound, photography and video, she said.
“I was drawn to the fact that someone had taken the time to actually look at that war from a Canadian perspective and Canadian soldiers in Vietnam,” said Kunard.
The brothers have been talking about digitizing the film, to put it up on the Internet, or even remaking the film in HD.
Looking back as a professional conservator, Rob said he probably wouldn’t have done it on video.
“Video is not really considered a preservation medium,” he said.
But even if he does nothing further with the film, there’s still a good chance it will still be preserved for future generations.
“The funny thing is the gallery kind of has to look after it for as long as it has value.”
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