Interview with Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock
By Ross Anthony

American Film Foundation, tucked in a cozy quadrant of beachhouse offices behind a large ocean-facing building in Santa Monica, hosts "Return With Honor" filmmakers: Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock. The pleasant courtyard feels more like a backyard, as the two filmmakers and I sit at a poolside table. Terry inspects the video camera (I use to record dialogue), positioning it between he and Freida for the best audio.

RA: How difficult was it finding the N. Vietnamese footage contained in your film?

FLM: We knew that there was some footage. That they, in N. Vietnam, had filmed the war in black & white 35mm for the purpose of showing it as propaganda in their own country. Actually, they were very open to our using two of their three archives.

TS: It wasn't that it was difficult. Rather, it was miraculous that we found the actual POWs in our film on their footage being captured or held ... 30 years before!

FLM: We asked for generic footage, you know, like plane crashes and by the way ... would you have a shot of Alvarez? And then it popped up! For filmmakers, that was like gold.

TS: It made the film very special ... like a second unit that could go back in time. And the other thing was one of our interviewees was an artist. So his firsthand sketches bring another feel to our film. We didn't use any narrators just the voices of the people who lived the experience.

FLM: In our visa application we had to write down a description of our film.

TS: Basically, we told them we were going to make a piece in which the former POWs would be telling their own story.

FLM: And also we were not interested in looking at it from a good-guy/bad-guy point of view. We didn't have an agenda. We weren't there to make them look bad.

TS: In the film ... well, one N. Vietnamese guy fixes a POWs leg. I mean, if some foreign bomber parachuted into LA after dropping bombs on it ... he might get cut into little pieces. So...

RA: Were the POWs difficult to locate? And how interested in your project were they?

TS: They're all networked with email. They're very close. They're best friends.

FLM: We asked two POWs in the beginning to be our liaisons.

TS: Also the inception of the film came from three graduates of the class of 1965 of the Air Force Academy. They asked us because of our MAYA LIN film, because it was human and rather apolitical.

RA: Why are only six or seven wives featured compared to 30 men?

FLM: The foreground story is the survival. How that effected the homefront is touched on, but that's really another story.

TS: Yeah, there's lots of interesting stories. How about the N. Vietnamese captors? That'd make another interesting film.

RA: How would you respond to those who may see this as an Air Force propaganda piece?

TS: We had absolute creative control ... period. If it comes off that way, then that's their perception.

FLM: That was not our intention. We are not military people.

TS: It wasn't our intention to either attack or support.

FLM: If you do a story about people who believe in their country, it's going to come out ...

TS: Yeah, I think it's patriotic in the best sense, without being flag-waving. And it expresses the sorrow of war. It's not attractive what they went through. We've gone through two wars recently where no Americans seem to have died, sort of a video game thing; so "Return With Honor" is a reminder that Americans as well as others died.

FLM: Then there's the story of coming back. There was one POW who served 7 and a half years in these camps, then came home and a week later committed suicide. It just makes you think, what keeps you alive and what crushes you? What belief system keeps you going?

RA: It was good to see that your featured POWs seemed to be doing fine these days (I mean it would certainly be easy to understand if they weren't), how about the others?

FLM: We selected this group pretty anecdotally. I mean, we didn't prescreen. It's interesting that they all seem pretty together.

TS: We heard of some others who didn't do as well ...

FLM: I imagine if we took another 30, 95% would be the same.

TS: All of these returning POWs were welcomed with open arms by the American public. And that was very healing for them. The homeless vets some of us might think of, didn't get that welcome.

FLM: Those guys say, "We served with honor, but have yet to be honored."

TS: It's almost like if you were killed and your name is on the wall, now you're honored, but if you happened not to be killed, you're a schmuck.

TS: And the vets loved this film. I mean at a screening, the projectionist comes out, "I was a vet and no one knows it. Thank you for making this film."

FLM: Nowadays, it's okay to be a vet. There's even fake war vets.

RA: Did you attempt to conduct any interviews with the N. Vietnamese captors?

TS: The one interview we did do was with a wonderful man who rescued McCain from when he crashed in the middle of a lake in Hanoi. He was this charming guy who acted out the whole rescue. We didn't end up using it though, for the unity of the film. It wouldn't have fit. And also there would have been difficulty if we tried to interview the captors.

FLM: And we would have been turned down if we had asked the N. Vietnam military. They don't want to talk about the past.

TS: Some people think a documentary .. if you show A, then you have to show B. But that was not what we were trying to do.

FLM: Yeah, our focus was how to survive, keep direction and meaning. It would have taken it off the primary path.

TS: They would feel very uncomfortable talking about it -- I mean it's a communist country. They have people looking over their backs. Whereas our guys ... they don't care.

RA: What was your budget?

FLM: Started at $900k went up 2.1 million.

TS: Because it's 35 mm. We shot super 16mm, but the blow up to 35 was very expensive, $100k I think.

RA: Where did you do the interviews with the POWs?

FLM: In their own homes.

TS: You need to have the people comfortable and forthcoming. If you take them to a studio even if it's their own city, they dress up and feel uncomfortable. But this way ... the black back drop equalizes everybody and concentrates on the people. We filmed for a couple hours of each one.

RA: How was it watching these guys, sometimes at tears in their testimony?

FLM: We sometimes stopped.

TS: Or just didn't use the footage. You have to be careful, not only for them, but for the audience.

FLM: You know it's a privilege to be there in front of that honesty.

RA: "Return With Honor" is a fine piece. Now Freida, changing the topic a bit, tell me a little about your upcoming Frank Zappa project?

FLM: Well it's a feature-documentary portrait film of this great musician, composer, social critic. He's very honest, outspoken, all the things that we admire. I just thought he was amazing. I think there's a great following ... a lot of "Zapfans."

RA: Your production company is non-profit, what exactly does that mean?

TS: It's allowed to accept grants from foundations to fund its films. It's basically an education film company.

FLM: Realistically... documentary films aren't big money makers.

TS: They're non profit anyways. (chuckles...)

FLM: It's one way to fund your project. At the same time, should there be revenue, we'd put the money into the next project.

TS: National Geographic is a non-profit. It has no stockholders.

FLM: We're not adverse to profits.

RA: Anything else?

FLM: It's all said in the film.

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 17-Mar-2004 15:36:42 PST