INTERVIEW: Waiting to Exhale; Beth B's "Breath In/Breathe Out" Marks Rising Success for Art-Filmmaker
by Michelle Handelman
(indieWIRE/ 02.22.01) — With “Breathe In/Breathe Out,” New York director Beth B continues to explore the harrowing process of healing intergenerational trauma she began in her 1997 documentary about the treatment of juvenile sex offenders “Voices Unheard.” In her latest work, B goes to the jungles of Vietnam with three Vietnam vets and their adult children in search of memories, forgiveness and that part of themselves they lost in the war. “Breathe In/Breathe Out” is B’s second co-production with ZDF, her first being “Two Small Bodies” starring Suzy Amis and Fred Ward which premiered at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, and her first with Open City Films‘ Blow Up Pictures.
Over the years, B’s fiercely independent style has given us a haunting body of work including 1979’s “The Offenders” (First Run Features), starring John Lurie and Lydia Lunch, the experimental video “Belladonna,” featured at the 1991 Whitney Biennale, and “High Heel Nights,” a short for Arte TV. What’s remarkable about Beth B is the way she moves from film world to art world, and now television, without losing her maverick spirit. After opening at the 2000 Rotterdam Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, “Breathe In/Breathe Out” has its New York Premiere tonight at New York’s Walter Reade Theater. On the eve of the premiere, indieWIRE spoke with Beth about the casualties of war, working low budget and her new found home in reality TV.
indieWIRE: You’ve got so many companies on as co-producers in this project. How did you manage to structure it all?
Beth B: Ohh. . . It’s always a nightmare (laughs) You know how it is, you start out in one place and involve other people as you go along. Working with ZDF was a godsend. I had worked with them before on “Two Small Bodies” and it seems like every few years they close their doors to American co-financing and I’ve been lucky enough to catch those doors when they’re open. Eckart Stein (recently retired director of ZDF) brought this project in and he’s just incredible in terms of saying here you are, go ahead, make your movie. He and I also spent a lot of time talking about the film. In fact it started out to be just about the vets and the more we talked, the more I started to see something that had not been addressed — which was the way trauma, the effects of war — are intergenerational. So through these talks with Eckart, I began to think about bringing in the children. Chantel Bernheim (Dune) got involved doing the contracts with ZDF and raised more money by negotiating French TV sales. Then when we went to Vietnam and needed post-production money, so Blow Up came into the picture. They already had experience shooting in Vietnam (“Three Seasons“) so Jason Kliot and Joanna Vicente had great advice to offer. They said whatever you do make sure you work with a production crew there or you will be screwed.
iW: Why was it so necessary to work with a Vietnamese production crew?
B: Because you’re required to travel with a government censor and a production co. representative from Vietnam. In other words, the government has complete control over what gets produced there and if you don’t work within their system, you risk losing your entire film. They basically told us what we could and couldn’t shoot. For instance, when we went to My Lai, there were Vietnamese people working on site, but we weren’t allowed to film them. So when John Mattson kneels before this woman to ask for forgiveness we couldn’t film that. Which at first just mortified me, but then Nick’s reaction to it and his telling it to us — there was such a power in that. It was very scary, though. At the end of the day they would come into our rooms, take the masters and if there was something they didn’t approve of, they would make us black it out. They held on to all the masters and then after the production manager followed it all up, eventually they got mailed back to me in the US.
iW: What was your selection process like to choose these men?
B: When I first began I just started to call different vet centers. I did a lot of interviews with people that were recommended by the vet centers and one of the vets (John Howe) came out of that series of interviews. Then I saw a film called “The Vietnam Challenge” and Jose Ramos was in that film. It seemed like he was just on the verge of going through some very intense things in regards to his experience in the Vietnam War, so I called him. Then I got in touch with a monk who was also a vet and he gave me a list of people who had been on retreats and oddly enough, Nick Flynn, one of the vet’s sons was on that list. So I called Nick and he said, “well, my stepdad was a vet