As a writer of screenplays, fiction and criticism, Christopher Upham has had ample opportunity in the last 40 years to come to terms with his stint as an ambulance driver and medic in Vietnam. So his forthcoming documentary, Return to Dakto, won’t be therapeutic in the vein of many first-person films in the wake of that ill-conceived conflict. Another contributing factor is that, although it’s his project and he’s the narrator, he’s one of five veterans whose journey is traced in the one-hour piece. "The challenge is getting the voice right," he confides. "It’s my story but it’s also a more universal film."
Upham has worked in the film business since 1979 as a writer, producer, actor and story consultant, and is an instructor at S.F. State and the screenwriting section of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Five years into Return to Dakto, he’s finally in the last throes (to appropriate a Cheneyism). Working with editor Traci Loth (Row Hard No Excuses), he’s between a rough cut and a fine cut with the goal of locking picture by the end of the year.
"When you’re narrating and you’re in the film, it’s a huge challenge," Upham says. "It’s very hard to be self-critical when personal material is involved. You may talk about something that’s too interior or personal and doesn’t relate to anyone else, and you may also brush over things that you don’t think are important that really express something for everyone else. It’s a process of finding those pieces."
Upham was part of an engineer battalion of about 600 men who were sent in October, 1968 to Dakto, a key junction about 10 miles from the Cambodian/Laotian border. President Nixon withdrew 3,000 infantrymen from a base up the road with the expectation that South Vietnamese soldiers would take their place. When they refused, Upham’s undermanned group moved in and the Viet Cong mounted a 60-day siege, inflicting a casualty rate of 40 percent.
In 2003, while the Bush Administration was beating the drums for an invasion of Iraq, Upham attended the first-ever reunion of his battalion. â€œI think all the Iraq run-up worked on everyone, and it brought up all the fears, and all the things we had put away," he says. "And it provoked the trip."
The 2004 expedition to Vietnam comprises the bulk of the film, augmented by rare Super 8 footage and photographs shot by G.I.s and subsequent interviews with Upham’s cohorts (one of whom was his battalion commander). Unlike the other four veterans, Upham had previously visited postwar Vietnam. He went in 1992 as a guest of the Hanoi Writers Union because of his involvement with poet Bruce Wieigl on Poems from Captured Documents, a collection of writings found in the packs of North Vietnamese soldiers.
Return to Dakto has elements of the coming-of-age story and the antiwar film, among other genres. But the age of its five subjects gives it a longer arc, and a unique perspective." It’s really trying to see over a lifetime what the commitment of going into combat means," Upham explains. "It has ripple effects certainly to immediate families and rippling outward to society. It shapes your identity at a deep level. When you make the commitment to go out and kill another human being in the service of your country, it has a profound effect on your life."
It’s a sad fact that documentaries about previous wars never cease being relevant to new generations, who are perennially confronted with an urgent new theater of operations. But the war in Southeast Asia cuts an unusually wide swath through our society, Upham says. "[Writer] Michael Herr said, ‘Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’ It’s one of those immense, profound events in our lives, It was the collision of America and Asia on a grand scale. Think about the attitude toward Asian people before the war and now—it’s completely different. It was also a huge loss of innocence for the country. We had seen ourselves as this giant shining power that had brought the world back to sanity after World War II, and to stumble like that."
Notes from the Underground
A group called SF Screenwriters meets the first Wednesday and third Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm at Borders Union Square. That would be October 15 this month. The high-pitched hum you hear, if you listen closely enough, is the caffeinated heartbeat of filmmakers racing to complete their projects, in the event that Sundance calls.
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