Both sides now

Filmmaker reflects on the healing role of Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire

By Tamra Testerman
Posted 5/21/20

To honor all veterans on Memorial Day, New Mexico Public Broadcast System is airing Albuquerque filmmaker Sarah Kanafani's poignant documentary "On This Hallowed Ground: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Born from Tragedy" on Sunday (May 24) at 10 p.m. and Monday (May 25) at 8 p.m. on Channel 5.1.

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Both sides now

Filmmaker reflects on the healing role of Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire

Posted

To honor all veterans on Memorial Day, New Mexico Public Broadcast System is airing Albuquerque filmmaker Sarah Kanafani's poignant documentary "On This Hallowed Ground: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Born from Tragedy" on Sunday (May 24) at 10 p.m. and Monday (May 25) at 8 p.m. on Channel 5.1.

The film is about the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel in Angel Fire, a monument and sanctuary for veterans and their families that honors all soldiers on both sides of the Vietnam War.

Tempo caught up with the busy filmmaker and asked her a few questions about the film. Here are the edited highlights.

Do you recall the momentthe idea to do the film bubbled up?

About two years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire was getting ready to take their weathered Huey Helicopter down to Roswell for a refurbish and they were looking for a company to document the transformation. I had filmed several JetBlue Liveries at Dean Baldwin Painting in Roswell. Dean Baldwin along with Airsale would be the two companies who would donate countless hours and resources to bring this Huey back to its former glory.

Dean Baldwin knew my work and had referred my company. Upon meeting Chuck Howe, president of the David Westphall Foundation, and stepping onto the grounds of the memorial for the first time, it floored me. I could not believe that I had lived in New Mexico all my life, had been to Taos several times over the years and never knew this place existed.

As I strolled the grounds discovering this incredible story of David Westphall and his parents, I was in awe. I knew there was a much bigger story. After many phone calls, emails and discussions with the board, it was decided that this little three to five minute Huey restoration film would be expanded into a full-fledged 30- to 60-minute documentary to tell the story of David, David's father, Dr. Victor Westphall, and the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel.

There must have been hundreds of hours of footage from the war to comb and interviews. How did you decide what was needed in the edit room?

This is a great question and one that is exciting for me to tell. I knew I had several "chapters." I had David, Doc and the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel. But what about the war? How did David get there? In order for me to tell this story, I needed to go back to the Vietnam War, and explore the controversy behind the war so that our viewers would understand the hardship and ridicule Doc faced while building the chapel.

I did not have a good understanding of this war and as I often am a student of my own films, I wanted to summarize the war and its tragic ending. So chapter one we have David's youth and his call to service, chapter two we have the Vietnam War and its controversy.

The next chapter brings us to the ambush and David's death and into the next chapter of Doc and [David's mother] Jeanne asking, "What we do now?'' For about six months I was not sure how the story would unfold. I knew I needed interviews on the war, on David, his parents, construction of the chapel and the role of the chapel and memorial grounds today.

But let's not forget the famed Huey Helicopter either. How was this going to fit into the story? It had to be in because every single Vietnam Veteran I spoke to reminisced and recounted the impact the Huey had on them. It was a challenge to add it without breaking up the flow and story but knowing the memorial has a Huey on its grounds gave way for a section on the Huey to be explored.

The film depicts Mr. Westphall as someone driven by grief to build, maintain and stand by at the memorial to greet veterans. Do you think (from your film research) there is ever "closure" for victims of war, their families, the soldier, a nation?

I believe that the events we live through shape who we are. One cannot come back from such a tragic war the same. Families who have lived with the loss of a loved one or the unknown of a soldier missing in action will never be the same. The family who is lucky enough to have their loved one return will also change as they may embrace someone who has transformed. The fears and terror of war may have taken a toll on their lives and the man or woman the family said goodbye to before their time at war has now changed.

I don't think there is ever closure for victims of war, their families, the soldier or a nation. I think with time, a nation heals. A younger generation emerges, and sometimes the lessons of history can fade. If the truth of history is not taught and events are not remembered, we may see our nation back in the same place it had emerged.

So while we may not get closure, this memorial has taught me that we can heal. We can heal as a nation, as a family and as an individual who had been tarnished by the tragedies of war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a shining example of healing as so many vets have spoken of the impact this memorial has had on them.

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