Anthony Istrico is the director of The 2 Sides Project, a feature length documentary about the inaugural 2 Sides Project trip to Vietnam in December 2015 and the six Americans who went on it. He’s been working with his team, comprised of director of photography and animator Jared Groneman, post-production assistant Marco Duran, and film editor/writer Nora Kubach, as Nora sifts through 150 hours of footage to weave together the story about the journey. The just-released trailer became the thesis of the film as they continue to uncover the greater themes. Here, Anthony and Nora discuss the film’s story and how working on it has had a lasting effect.
Tell us a bit about this trailer.
Anthony: We thought as filmmakers going into this project, focused on the idea of two sides, that the most significant thing would be the sons and daughters meetings. It turns out that there were so many other dimensions of the two sides at play. You had Americans in Vietnam, you had the Vietnam we knew only from war movies and the Vietnam we actually saw - which was crazy and vibrant and colorful and beautiful and dirty all at the same time. In the end, the meetings between the sons and daughters were really important, and feature prominently in the film, but the most important meeting turned out to be the one everyone had with the country itself. I hope that’s what you see in the trailer, the entirety of the two sides idea.
Nora: The story is still unfolding in front of us, but the trailer shows the film is about a journey to peace and understanding, and about the bigger meeting of the two sides—America and Vietnam. In going across the world to visit the sites where their fathers died and to meet the people on the other side, these six Americans were able to find answers, get closure (for some), and to learn a little more about themselves along the way. It was an adventure, but more than anything it was an emotional journey. I wanted it to feel personal, and chose particular scenes that show we are about to embark on a journey, but I didn’t want to give too much away.
Did you know what kind of documentary you wanted to make before you started filming?
Anthony: One thing I didn’t want to do is make a travelogue. I wanted to show the transformative journey these sons and daughters went on, which is really the culmination of a journey they’ve been on their entire lives. It’s incredible to think of how long the aftermath of war endures. Each person on this trip has lived with their loss for 40 or 50 years. Most had never been to Vietnam, and didn’t even have the desire to go until they heard of this project. They were just ready for it. But they didn’t know what to expect, or what they would feel. In the end I think they found something they’d searched for all along: their fathers, and themselves.
What approach did you take with the actual filming?
Anthony: Much of the work I do is scripted, so doing this documentary was both refreshing and frightening. Jared and I had to be cognizant of what was happening because the story was unfolding before us. My biggest struggle was how do I stay focused on the message I am getting while not tuning out the other things that are happening around me, which can be just as significant. In the end Vietnam was a character, and the largest variable to try to manage. The framing of that character was really important. So, of the two cameras we had with us, one took a macro view, the wide scene, and the other a micro view. It was the outside looking in, and the inside looking out, so we could show the two sides of what was happening.
What is one scene that really stands out that is central to the film?
Nora: One of my favorite scenes is one leading up to the VTV interview. Margot and Patty are about to be interviewed on national television in Vietnam. We watch these two American women entering a Vietnamese TV studio, we hear Vietnamese being spoken, and at this point in the film we’re wondering why they’re in Vietnam, what’s this interview going to be? We see inside the control room. There is awkwardness on both sides and a sense of tension, and it’s really quite sweet and perfect. We are in their environment; they are trying to communicate together. We are watching the efforts of both sides to connect. It has a “Lost in Translation” feel. I love it because it sets the mood.
Anthony: That’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite child, so I’d just like to go on record and say that every shot is special, every frame we captured added to the story. When you capture as much footage as we did, what really happens is that you start crafting your story from the second you hit record. Even if a particular shot doesn’t make it into the film, it has impacted the film and the way in which we look at subjects, scenes and story lines. There are two shots that replay in my mind over and over again. The first one was at the last meeting we held between the sons and daughters on both sides. We had been to three meetings before that and felt we knew what to expect. All of a sudden a Vietnamese son, with anger, passion and fear in his eyes, clenched his fists, stood up and basically broke down. He explained that he had come here and was ready to hate, but he realized he was more similar than different to those who sat across from him. The second clip that plays over and over is when we were at the site where Margot’s father’s plane crashed. The site visits were generally in wide open spaces, with valleys and vistas that went on for days, and usually both Jared and I were filming. But on this day we had to split up in order to cover two unique sites, so I was alone. As soon as we arrived at Margot’s site, my eye was drawn not to the grandeur of the place, but the intimacy of it. Many of my shots from that day are macro style shots, a very narrow view. There is one image where Margot, kneeling in a depression in the earth where her father’s plane may have crashed, begins to dig into the soil with her fingers as she makes her peace. I’ll never forget that image.
Anthony, you said before we started out that you thought this trip would change you. Has it?
Anthony: I was really hoping to lose a few pounds, but we ate so well, that didn’t happen. I thought the trip would slow me down, make me appreciate life more, because I was surrounded by people who had lost so much. I mean I’m always running around, busy, doing all kinds of things and going everywhere. What is did for me was, as cliché as it sounds, it forced me to slow down. I find that whenever I have a camera in my hands, I look at things differently, and this trip has given me pause about everything I see now. I take nothing for granted and I appreciate the simplicity and beauty of everything, things I didn’t even notice before. Traveling with the first six and encountering so many warm and welcoming people, people who in the face of such struggle do nothing but smile, it reiterated our belief that when you are fortunate, you should give back, which is why we are donating our time to such a worthy project.
Nora, you didn’t go on the trip, but you have the responsibility to tell the story. That’s such pressure!
Nora: When everyone was in Vietnam, I was terrified. I ordered all these books and maps, and started doing all this research, because I thought I didn’t know enough about the history of the war and the place. It was giving me a lot of anxiety. I thought, “Can I learn all I need to know to be able to tell this story?” It all clicked when I got the footage. I do know how to tell this story, and it hasn’t yet been told. This is a side of the war people need to see. The children, their moms, the parents - they all have a story too. That was very freeing for me. I initially felt a big responsibility to make it a historical piece, but really it’s personal piece, a human story, in the context of history.
When I think about stories, the ones that stay with you are the ones that hold the mirror back at you. As a viewer, you’re always trying to find that something to relate to. I know that people watching this will be able to relate somehow. Maybe it will make them think about what judgments they have in their lives about anybody or any thing on another side. The film shows us that we are all connected; we all have the same emotions, we all have moms and dads, we all have families and experience loss. It forces us to take a look at our own prejudices. To think about what might be missing in our own lives, and perhaps inspire us to seek our own answers. I hope this film will help people do that.