May 31, 1999
On his first trip to America to visit his former enemy, Vietnam War veteran Nguyen Van Nghia enjoys a Texas tradition.
Photo by Barbara Laing.
by Deborah Stone, features writer
Kontum Diary: The Journey Home is a one-hour production from the Seattle-area team of Stevan Smith and Phil Sturholm. It tells the moving story of an American and a Vietnamese soldier, enemies during the Vietnam War, who were brought together years later through a forgotten diary.
The documentary is a follow-up to the Emmy-winning 1994 production Kontum Diary, and records the emotional meeting between American veteran Paul Reed and Nguyen Van Nghia, author of the poetic diary, and follows the two men as they worked towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
The film was narrated by Peter Coyote, directed by Stevan Smith, and produced by Stevan Smith and Phil Sturholm for the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
Sturholm, a Bothell resident, is a thirty-five-year veteran of television production who has won numerous regional Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and a duPont-Columbia Award for his news photography and filmmaking. He has worked for KING-TV, done freelance projects for ABC News and PBS, and currently teaches broadcast writing and production at Seattle University.
Kontum Diary: The Journey Home is the third Vietnam-related project that Sturholm and Smith have collaborated on.
"Our first project was a PBS special titled Two Decades and a Wake Up, and it dealt with eight Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who returned to Vietnam for a visit," explains Sturholm. "We spent about a month there filming their reactions and experiences. It was a pretty brutal trip because conditions were poor, but it was fascinating to watch the vets and hear their perspectives. We talked to them a year later and many said the experience had helped them look at things differently and had diminished some of their nightmarish perspectives."
Paul Reed, who had seen the program, contacted Smith and Sturholm, and they learned of the diary he possessed.
In 1968 Paul Reed and Nguyen Van Nghia first encountered one another as enemies during a battle in the hills near Kontum, Vietnam. Paul's unit captured Nghia's base camp and took all the enemies' personal items as spoils of war. Paul found an enemy soldier's backpack and sent the contents, which included a handwritten diary, back home. Paul's mother placed the box on a shelf, and it was forgotten for the next twenty years.
Years later, Paul's mother remembered the box and brought it to her son, hoping it might help him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder. When he opened it, he found the diary of Nguyen Van Nghia, a lieutenant in the North Vietnamese army. "That diary really changed his life," comments Sturholm. "He had it translated and was able to read Nghia's thoughts on war and his longing for home and family. It was written in traditional Vietnamese poetry and really affected Paul. He decided to return the diary to Nghia's family, as he believed he had killed Nghia in battle. Then he found, through Steve's research, that Nghia was alive, and he wanted to meet him."
The program Kontum Diary was made, documenting Reed's and Nghia's first meeting in Vietnam and their travels back to the battlefield near Kontum. As the two men shared their feelings and observations about the Vietnam War, they discovered a shared sense of common humanity, and a friendship grew between them.
Kontum Diary: The Journey Home grew out of Nghia's need for eye surgery to repair his damaged retinas, a condition caused by explosions during the war. Several years later, Reed, with the help of others, brought Nghia to the U.S. The program records this trip and Nghia's experiences.
"Steve shot The Journey Home and really it's mostly his project," says Sturholm. "I did a little editing and helped co-produce it, but it was his baby all the way."
Sturholm is currently wrapping up a seven-year project on a group of Japanese-American resisters who refused to fight in the U.S. Army until their parents were released from internment camps and their rights returned to them.
"These are men who said, 'We're American citizens and we deserve our rights,'" explains Sturholm. "There are about eighty-five of them, originally from California, and our project is to tell their story. We're hoping for a November airdate on PBS."
Sturholm considers himself very fortunate to have the career he has had which has allowed him to travel all over the world, meet interesting people, and experience different walks of life.
He says, "My career has been marvelous. I was lucky to be in the business during its golden age because I got so many opportunities. Today, it's much harder and you need to really be a salesman to convince people that your project's worthwhile."
Sturholm feels that the quality of work is most important and affects the way viewers will experience the product. "With TV, it's harder to make the kind of impact you want, because it's not like the movies," comments Sturholm. "There are so many distractions with TV, so it's critical that the message is received clearly and that it is understood easily. With my work, I want people to be aware of how and why something happened and the effects it has had on others' lives. Hopefully, it will then have an effect on the viewer."