How bearded men and one lucid dream set the director on a crash course with a Vietnam vet and the most moving film you’ll see at the Milwaukee Film Festival
There are loads of documentaries in the Milwaukee Film Festival. Loads. And many have roots in the city itself. Behind the Pearl Earrings shines a spotlight on revolutionary war correspondent Dickey Chapelle, who grew up in Milwaukee’s Shorewood neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. From Mass to the Mountain, which screened this past weekend, showcases the tireless efforts of Ripon’s Father Wally Kasuboski, a priest at the heart of a massive construction effort to restore drinking water in Eastern Panama.
If you only see one documentary at the Milwaukee Film Festival this year though, you better make it Naneek.
The story of Tim “Naneek” Keenan, Neal Steeno’s documentary short is among the most heart-wrenching and honest entries in this year’s “Cream City Cinema” program, if not the festival’s entire lineup. Christened with an ominous interview between Keenan and a Michigan radio DJ, Naneek begins with the Vietnam veteran publicly declaring his return to the country he reluctantly fought against five decades ago. Tim sets off on a journey back to Hill 1338, first for a face-to-face with graying members of the North Vietnamese Army before ending with a sobering eulogy atop the hill itself. Foregrounded by a rebuilding relationship with Keenan’s estranged son Jake and contextualized with archival footage from the war, Naneek is a surreal and cathartic experience sealed inside a tight observational style.
Like the film, the story behind Naneek is nothing short of extraordinary. Steeno, who for some time was broke and living out of his car, literally followed his dream to make it, galvanized by a lucid vision and sold on Keenan’s willingness to reconnect with his son. Naneek bears little sign of improvised planning, lost footage, or threadbare connections to a foreign population but make no mistake, those were all a part of the creative process. Ahead of Naneek playing this week at the Milwaukee Film Festival, I spoke with director Neal Steeno about how he managed to wind up in Southeast Asia in the first place.
How does one find themselves making a movie in Vietnam?
After I graduated from Michigan State, I worked for AmeriCorps in Eugene, Oregon doing trail work. I ended up leaving the service early to pursue an audition in Los Angeles and had to find my way back home, but you can’t get out of this city on your own and by leaving early I had no transportation. So, and this is a little weird, but I would go up to interesting-looking locals with gnarly looking beards and ask them why they grew their beards. Eventually, it would evolve into these half-hour, hour-long conversations with this men pouring out their hearts and their history.
Fast forward to 2011. After meeting all of those men, I had formed a pilot project in northern Michigan and called it “Weathered Beard”, where we would do live storytelling, like “The Moth.” We would feature five speakers once a month and pack in 200-300 people at a cool theater in Traverse City. You would describe why you grew out your beard and then tell a story that’s endearing, changing of life perspective, whatever.
I was also dating a girl at the time who was treating this guy Tim “Naneek” Keenan, and she was like “You’ve got to meet this cat.” So Tim and I met and eventually he tells this story [for “Weathered Beard”] about how much he hated this colonel, “the Griz,” that was calling the shots above these hills in Vietnam. Tim met the colonel decades later after a phone call from a friend of a friend. The man said he knew a Vietnam war colonel who lived on an island down South in Florida, I believe. Tim blew it off thinking there’s no way it could ever be the “Griz.” Sure enough, another phone call later, it was him. Over a period of time, they eventually met. He embraced Tim and, I kid you not, they became close thereafter until his passing. The story went full circle where Tim realized he never understood what the colonel was going through. Tim came away from the war hating this man until, at the end of this man’s life, Tim ended up speaking at his eulogy. Tim was asked by the “Griz” himself to speak at his eulogy. It was this beautiful story. Everyone was captivated. He went on for 45 minutes, but nobody cared about the time. It was incredible, and I remember thinking ‘This can’t be it. This guy needs to be heard.’
When did you seriously start talking to Tim about going back?
Tim would gradually open up to me more over the years but he would always say he never wanted to go back, so the idea never crossed our mind. The real reason Naneek came to life was this, and I don’t know if this is like a weird Godsend thing, but I had a dream that I was filming Tim in Vietnam, and I never remember my dreams. It freaked me out. I woke up in sweats feeling as though I had just been there with Tim. The following morning I knew I had to give him a call and talk to him about it, and when he picked up, before I said anything, he said “I’m ready to go back.”
What about this dream prompted you to reach out to Tim, though? Especially for someone who doesn’t remember his dreams?
I felt pulled to do something. Something compelled me that morning. I will say this, though. That same day, I went to a coffee shop and Mark Borchardt from American Movie was sitting next to me in downtown Milwaukee. Right before I left, I went up and asked if he had a mantra he lived by and if he could write it in this book I was reading, What Should I Do With My Life. He wrote “Neal, Please please don’t waste time and be true to yourself.” And I thought, ‘Bingo. That’s it.’
Was bringing Jake with your idea? Or Tim’s?
That was Tim’s. Tim said that the only way he would ever go back is if Jake got his passport, too. He thought at the time, and maintains to this day, that Jake would never get his passport.
How long were you actually in Vietnam for? Naneek suggests that you’re jumping around a lot, in addition to covering so much emotional ground.
We were gone for 10 days and we were not traveling for seven of them. If you were to look at this from the perspective of a producer, how do you get in contact with North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in 1968, fought against Tim? I was researching it and thinking there’s just no way. There’s an author out of Traverse City named Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers, who suggested we go with an old veteran who was married to a Vietnamese woman, Nguyen Anh, and that’s the woman you see in the film. We contacted her and without our knowledge, she ended up coordinating the entire meeting with the five People’s Army soldiers and then proceeded to research how the hell we would even get to Hill 1338, because they really don’t have precise maps like we do here in the states.
You make it sound like it wasn’t planned that Tim would have this reckoning with his past.
It wasn’t. We knew we wanted to get to the hill. That was our biggest goal. Anh said she had a big day planned on Tues and that a few men would like to meet Tim. So Mr. Thuat, who you also see in the film, corralled all these guys and when they showed up, man, you don’t realize how much respect you have for these men until you’re there in person. All these short guys come in with the look and demeanor of ‘What the f are you doing here?’ but they showed up. Tim was scared straight the night before, as anyone would be, meeting people who wanted him dead.
Naneek shows Tim to be very much in the moment, but when he’s talking with these veterans, I never pick up on any nerves. Sure, he seems emotional but it’s more of an intense commitment. Very much an ‘I’m here, and we’re doing this’ mentality.
I think Tim’s very sensible in that regard. He knew, especially after being in the country for a day, nobody wanted to hurt him. What you don’t get to see though, for the first hour of the meeting, those were cold faces. These men just sat there with a skeptical eye. I think Tim just didn’t know what to say to these guys at first.
And you do acknowledge that in the film, where it’s only after Tim mentions his work with veterans that the mood does change.
That was a true ‘Oh crap’ moment. He eventually announces himself as the president for a Veterans for Peace chapter in northern Michigan, and when he says “Veterans for Peace” they all nod and immediately barrel through information about the hill. They opened up more than you could ever imagine.
You need to use those title cards, but the bulk of Naneek is just you and your camera living in the moment with Tim and Jake and these men. A lot of time must have passed that isn’t easy to pick up on in a half-hour film.
We had only one camera and had to pick up everything. That meal was actually two and a half hours. Mr Thuat’s house at the end was an hour and a half, so I left out details about positioning and tactics in the tunnels, the military buff stuff. Both sides just wanted to get home alive and I wanted to convey this idea that they were 20, Tim was 20 and no one had any idea, at least Tim didn’t, of why they were there and doing what they did. It’s very powerful to see their faces and watch them reach that sentiment.
It is powerful and so serene, despite being such a heady and terribly emotional moment for everyone. Your aesthetic choices inform a lot that, especially La Liberte’s piano music. What was your philosophy on scoring Naneek?
A musician out of LA wanted to help us score for a little less than what we had available because we were shoestring on this. He had actually watched the film twice without music, and we had given him guidance, just some general points and instrument suggestions about where we would see some tension, but he kind of free-handed it in a way that made sense to him. Once we listened to it, we were like “Wow, yeah that’s why you do what you do, man.” Outside of a few tweaks, that score is his assessment of the film. He was incredible.
Did the fact that you were there with a camera affect Tim’s intentions there? Did you ever feel your presence undermined that effort?
The camera was the tension cutter, actually. Mr. Thuat came in knowing what was going to happen, because they had brought back veterans before. Without Mr. Thuat and Anh though I don’t believe we would have gotten as close as we did. How are you going to talk to anyone without someone there to translate? We were very grateful just for that.
You also work in helicopter shots, footage of real boots-on-the-ground soldiers in Vietnam. How did you get your hands on this stuff?
When we climbed that hill, we saw old shell casings and trench holes, the places where Agent Orange had been dropped. The war was still there. We got back to the hotel though and all the footage came back corrupt. 45 minutes of us climbing ceased to exist. I freaked out and sent it to about 10 different data restoration places and not one could piece it back together so we reached out to a place in Hollywood for old footage. That hill you see in the film is the actual hill. There were multiple platoons on that hill and Tim couldn’t pick out particulars as far as whether that was his or not but that was it. Hill 1338. 1967.
This back-and-forth of timelines mirrors what I imagine is going on in Tim’s head space. Structurally, Naneek is echoing that journey for him.
I totally agree. It may have worked out better with that old footage. It’s so much more powerful, seeing the youth in that time and place.
Then there’s that ending sequence where Tim’s listing off the names of the casualties, with nicknames like “Tex” and “The Colonel.” It feels like, I don’t know, a scene from Forrest Gump or something. It’s so surreal.
When Tim was saying all of those names I remember thinking ‘How the heck is he remembering these guys?’ That’s just how much it meant to him to be able to say those names and give them a proper burial, listing off these all too brave, unlucky, badass, absolutely honorable men who still went out and gave everything for us. People who either lost their lives or came back wounded.
You told me a little about this in your email but Naneek more or less came out of nowhere at the Traverse City Film Festival.
Well, I wouldn’t say it was the most uplifting experience in the theater at first. I was there with my editor [Ryan Bilinski], Tim, and Tim’s son and I sat there thinking to myself ‘We’re in Michael Moore’s film festival. He watched our film. He put it in.’ We were slotted in with three other war films, one of which was My Enemy, My Brother which was nominated for an Academy Award, and Naneek was finishing the program off and I just hoped it would play well, but I didn’t know what to expect. I sat outside during the show. When I’d walked back in, the final credits were rolling and everyone was crying. We pulled emotions out. People were hugging. I remember thinking “‘Holy crap, this might actually be good.’ Then to win the Audience Award for Best Short Documentary, it was incredible. We took a lot of prairie fire shots that night.