Submitted by Mike Williams — Managing Editor (@imikewilliams)
Designer. Photographer. Lover of art. Comedian. And most recently, filmmaker.
That description only begins to tell the story of Wilmington native Camden Watts. She just finished her first documentary, "Abandoned Allies," which aims to explore the relationship between the U.S. Special Forces in the Vietnam War and the Montagnard people who fought alongside the soldiers.
The 30-year-old Meredith College grads bright blue eyes light up (even more) with excitement when she talks about the film. But her excitement turns to sadness when she mentions her disappointment in how the Montagnard people were treated after the war.
"[They] fought with us during the Vietnam War and were incredibly brave and loyal. They saved countless lives. After all that's happened, most of them still love Americans," Watts says.
Watts worked with Executive Producer Surry Roberts, who served two tours during the war with the 5th Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets. He worked closely with the Vietnamese and Montagnard people and helped Watts get interviews for the film.
Here are my Seven Questions with Camden Watts.
Q: Filmmaker Camden Watts. How does that title sound? Must be exciting.
Yes, very exciting. This is a dream come true, and I'm looking forward to what's taking shape. I have always loved filmmaking, and am so happy to have finished Abandoned Allies.
Q: What made you want to tell the story of the Montagnard people?
When I started the project I knew very little about the Montagnards and that made me curious. I knew they supported American troops during the Vietnam War, but that was it. Surry offered a way to study it more. I jumped at the chance thinking that others might want to know this story.
Few people know about the Montagnards, or how different they were from the Vietnamese. Montagnards hunted, farmed, spoke tribal languages and enjoyed what we might call a simple lifestyle. They loved the mountains, valued family and were good stewards of the earth because they relied on it to live.
Montagnards also knew the jungle because they lived in the mountains. Movies about the Vietnam War depict how harsh the conditions were in the jungle. If the enemy didn't kill you, the jungle might. Mix together these elite warriors highly trained U.S. Special Forces and native Montagnard soldiers and you have a solid team to gather intelligence and defend a territory. Montagnards were the perfect ally during the war, and they believed that fighting with Americans would protect their way of life.
Today, North Carolina is home to the largest population of Montagnards outside of Vietnam. Many live in the Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte areas. If more people knew this story, I think native North Carolinians would be even more welcoming.
Q: The title of the film is pretty straightforward. You could say these people were literally abandoned. What went through your mind as you were doing interviews?
I felt disbelief, shock and disappointment, and I had more questions than answers. I kept thinking, "Is that really what happened?"
So many lives were lost fighting for freedom, and we completely abandoned our allies. That became evident during the interviews. Some veterans were moved to tears while sharing their stories. They seemed to still carry that weight and frustration.
It helps to understand that American soldiers are trained to fight and win. During the Vietnam War, U.S. Special Forces soldiers were highly skilled. They won the hearts and minds of the people by speaking the same language and understanding their culture, on top of understanding military tactics. They got to know the Montagnards as family because they were living with them day in and day out.
They were all led to believe that fighting together would make a huge difference, but that hasn't happened. Montagnards still suffer in their own country. Yet the guys who made promises on behalf of the United States aren't standing idle. They feel personally responsible, so they're doing what they can to make a difference. It's a beautiful statement about keeping one's promises.
Q: Talk about Surry Roberts. What was it like working with him on this project, given all his knowledge and insight?
Surry's support has been critical. He's passionate about history, served during the Vietnam War as a Green Beret and still works closely with Montagnard families living in North Carolina.
He had existing relationships with some of the people I interviewed. Because of his credentials, I wasn't easily dismissed as a kid with a camera that might waste everyone's time. I was expected to tell the story accurately, and with the highest level of excellence and professionalism possible.
That's the kind of person Surry is; he's really impressive. He's always pushing me to be better, think bigger and move faster which is something an artist needs. I consider him to be a very dear friend and am so lucky to simply know him, much less work on a project this cool together.
Q: What do you hope the film will accomplish for the Montagnards?
At the very least, I hope for more awareness and appreciation for the Montagnard people. Ways to educate others would be helpful. A museum, exhibition or monument would do that and simultaneously preserve the Montagnard cultural heritage.
On a grander scale, I hope for change in foreign policy. Our country has invested billions of dollars in trade with Vietnam, yet the Vietnamese human rights record remains terrible. The U.S. Department of State has published this information; it's readily available for download. So finding a way to encourage the Vietnamese government to treat its people better is important.
Q: When will the film be available for purchase and when are the next screenings?
We're putting together local screenings, many of which will happen this summer and fall. You can visit abandonedallies.com for information as it develops.
Q: Whats your next film project?
I've been meeting with people, building production crews and raising funds but it's too early to share more details. It'll be a really interesting subject, though. Raising money is key so that I can improve production quality and complete the project quickly. Anyone who wants to follow along can do so online: @cammicam or camdenwatts.com.