Peabody Awards: History Relived in Documentaries ”72,’ ‘October’

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

The Vietnam War and the 1972 presidential campaign are key events in baby boomer history, and two PBS documentaries, “Two Days in October” and “Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed,” brought new perspective and analysis to those events for viewers of all generations.

“Two Days in October,” an installment of WGBH Educational Foundation’s “American Experience,” juxtaposes concurrent events in 1967╛the ambush of an American battalion by Viet Cong and a student protest in Wisconsin╛which together illustrate a turning point in the war and the complexities inherent in both sides of the conflict.

“American Experience” executive producer Mark Samels read “They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967,” a 500-plus-page book by David Maraniss, and instantly realized it would make a great TV program.

“I was attracted to it for two reasons,” he said. “Professionally, I saw a great story, a microcosm of the Vietnam War and America’s turbulent relationship with it at home and abroad. And it was very character-driven and had a lot of strength as a story. I also related to it on a personal level, since the college protest that spins out of control takes place on the campus where David [Maraniss] and I both went to school.” [The two didn’t overlap at the school and didn’t know each other.]

Mr. Samels also saw “October” as perfect material for his goals in audience development. “We’re very interested in cultivating an audience that picks up the baton from the World War II generation, in that these events of the 1960s, 1970s and even early 1980s that were formative for the baby boomers are now history,” he said. “There is some distance that’s allowed us to take another look at them and see another meaning.”

To bring “Two Days in October” to life, Mr. Samels contacted Robert Kenner, who had already produced three films for “American Experience,” including “Influenza 1918.” “I thought it was a wonderful book, and it was daunting,” Mr. Kenner said. “The challenge in turning it into a film is that there are so many characters, and I like to tell stories without narration. The minute you introduce a narrator and historians, it depersonalizes the story, and I thought this was our chance to have the impact of firsthand experience.”

Mr. Kenner searched through the book’s long list of characters for those who could embody archetypes. “The power of this book is seeing and empathizing from 360 points of view,” he said. After spending months talking to people, Mr. Kenner snagged an interview with Clark Welsh, the Delta Company commander who led the infantry platoon described in the book.

With thousands of pages of interview transcripts, post-production was initially a slow, methodical process. “There wasn’t an equivalency to these two events, since the obvious danger of the ambush was far greater than the danger of the protest to the protesters,” he said. “It ultimately becomes a story about how you best serve your country. Vietnam is about life and death, and Wisconsin is about ideas and living up to principles. And that was the biggest challenge and the biggest payoff: to see a glimpse through a keyhole of America at that moment, through the lives of 18- and 19-year-olds.”

With a recent master’s degree in American history, Shola Lynch landed a job with documentary maker Ken Burns, first as researcher and then as associate producer. She wanted to make her own film, and when she heard Shirley Chisholm’s birthday announced on NPR, she knew she had her topic.

“I knew the name because she was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968,” Ms. Lynch said. “When I discovered she ran for president in 1972 I thought, How come I don’t know this story?”

Tracking down Ms. Chisholm and getting her approval to make the film was the first challenge, and then Ms. Lynch struggled to get it funded. After two years of grant proposal rejections, she got her first seed money from the National Black Programming Consortium, one of five ethnic consortia funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cara Mertes, “P.O.V.” executive producer, was on that group’s review committee and took an immediate shine to the project. “I saw that it needed to be done,” Ms. Mertes said. “I wanted it for public television right away.”

Ms. Mertes shepherded Ms. Lynch through the process of getting funding from CPB, ITVS and “P.O.V.” to put the film together. “She had a clear vision of a new kind of documentary,” Ms. Mertes said. “Everything about this topic resonated with “P.O.V.,” because we tell stories that nobody else tells, we talk about communities that other people don’t talk about and we appeal to audiences that others don’t reach out to.”

Ms. Lynch set out to make a cinema verit%E9; piece, without narration. She also wanted the film to feel like the 1970s, with regard to the music, the way she structured some of her visual sequences, how she cut it.

Ms. Chisholm, who died Jan. 1, 2005, saw the final documentary, said Ms. Lynch. “I think she enjoyed seeing the ride again, the questions that were raised and the trouble she caused. I think she had forgotten about it in positive terms,” she said.