Yukoner’s Vietnam documentary shown at the National Gallery

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.

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.”

Contact Josh Kerr at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read