PBS Premiere: Sept. 2, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Sonya Rhee: Soldados the film was directly inspired by Charley's book, which contains oral histories of his fellow Chicano Vietnam veterans from his hometown. When I first picked up this book, the voices of these men were so visceral I couldn't put the book down. It was almost as if they were standing right next to me. The book was so filmic in its very nature that I felt it would make a great documentary.

Charley Trujillo: I began my creative endeavors as a writer, but I have always felt that I could direct and write films. I write both fiction and nonfiction books. However before I was a writer, I was a college Social Science and Chicanos Studies teacher. The combination has allowed me to analytically understand society, and to do so in a creative manner. What especially motivated me in doing this particular film was my personal experience as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. Since I had written the book Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam, I felt that producing and directing a documentary based on the book was a logical choice.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Rhee: Stories that stick to me and that I can't shake off, those are the ones I pursue. And within those stories, what grabs me the most are those seemingly minor details. For example, in reading "Soldados" the book, many of the veterans made references to food (beans, papas) and that detail about something so simple but actually very significant, culturally and otherwise, touched me greatly.

Trujillo: What generally inspires me in my work are Chicano-based works. This is because this is a group that has been almost totally neglected in U.S. society. Though my focus has been on Chicanos, we are part of larger society that is multi-ethnic and complex. Therefore in producing Chicano-based works, I am also dealing with U.S. and Mexican society.

POV: What inspired you to make "Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam"?

Rhee: Well after reading the book, I knew that I wanted to make it into a documentary, but what inspired me most was meeting Charley. He has this amazing ability to draw you into his world without any guardedness and make you engaged. His sense of humor and charisma is unrivaled and he was the force that kept everyone together throughout the process of finishing this film.

Trujillo: My partner Sonya is the one who initially began the documentary, and I sort of just tagged along. So I guess you can say she was the inspiration. Since I had written the book "Soldados" which is based on 19 Chicano Vietnam veterans from the hometown of Corcoran, California, I thought the documentary would have wider appeal if we included Chicano Vietnam veterans from other parts of the country. That changed after Sonya spoke to documentary maker John Valadez who suggested that we stick to the veterans from Corcoran, and we took his advice. And I am glad we took his advice.

POV: What were your goals in making "Soldados"? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Rhee: I hope Soldados will serve as a lifting-off point for several discussions. First there is the much-ignored and unrecognized history of Latinos who served this country. Then there is the painful legacy of the Vietnam War which will never go away. And within those larger issues are families of veterans and veterans themselves who have not been able to talk about how their experience fighting in a war has affected their lives.

Trujillo: Our goals were not only to make a documentary of Chicano soldiers, a group that is often forgotten or ignored, but how it affected the families. One goal was to show how the Vietnam War changed the veterans. The psychological, spiritual, and emotional transformations that these veterans went through is brought forth in the documentary. This is also attested to by the parents and wives of the veterans. There are very few, if any, war documentaries where families are included. Even though the focus is on Chicano Vietnam veterans, their experience can be applied to other veterans and their families regardless of ethnicity.

Given the current situation in Iraq, I hope this documentary will demonstrate that war has very negative and long term consequences for soldiers and their families. I would also like to see that after watching the documentary, veterans will seek treatment for PTSD.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making "Soldados"?

Rhee: That it took over three years! I had just graduated from college when I first contacted Charley and I think I was a bit naïve about the process of making a film but this story would not let me go. I learned it is essential to be passionate about your story because you are going to be with that story for a long time.

Trujillo:The most surprising thing about making this documentary was how much Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has affected veterans and their families. Though I had written the book "Soldados," the interviews for the documentary were deeper and more emotional than the book interviews. Personally, my parents spoke about things I didn't know I had done.

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Rhee: I am very interested in telling stories that investigate the legacy of war. Because so much media attention is paid to the act of fighting war, which is so immediate and gripping, there is little coverage left for the difficult and long-term process of rebuilding after war. Currently I am working with The Cambodia Trust on a film about children amputees and their daily lives. There are an estimated 4-6 million landmines littered throughout Cambodia and children account for almost half of the injuries and casualties caused by those landmines. And after examining the painful legacy of war on the American homefront, I would like to show the ongoing legacy of war in the place we thought we left behind.

Trujillo: I am currently working on producing and directing a feature film on a screenplay I have written based on my Vietnam War novel "Dogs From Illusion." If everything works out right, I am also planing another documentary on Mexican bandidos of the Southwest in the 18th century.
I am currently writing a novel entitled "The Real Life of a Dead Chicano."

POV: What are your favorite websites related to "Soldados"?

Rhee: The American Folklife Center, part of the Library of Congress, has a Veterans History Project which houses a collection of oral histories, letters and photos of veterans from WWI to the Persian Gulf War. Anyone is encouraged to participate. If you have a family member, neighbor or friend who is a veteran, take a tape recorder and ask them to tell you their story. If you are a veteran and did not realize your story is important to the history of this country, send in your letters, diaries or a recording about your experience. I love this project - it not only promotes discussion but more importantly promotes participation because I really believe that everyone has a story to tell and the right to tell it.