Vietnamerica Part I – a film review
When I was in high school at Harbord Collegiate, I lived around the corner from my three secular synagogues. I had stopped following the Friday evening and Saturday practices of my Jewish Orthodox upbringing. Going to films, sometimes on both Friday evenings and Saturdays, became my new secular religion. And there were three film synagogues to practice that religion, the Bloor Theatre on the south side of Bloor east of Bathurst (now Lee’s Palace), the Alhambra on the north side of Bloor just west of Bathurst and immediately around the corner from my home, and the Midtown on the north side east of Bathurst, always my movie theatre of choice.
The Midtown was originally built way back in 1913 when my mother was born. It was then called the Madison. During WWII, when I was still a very young boy, it was rebuilt as the Midtown. In the late sixties during the period of the Vietnam War and the start of my academic career, the Midtown began its parallel descent with that war, first renamed the Capri and then the Eden, a showcase for “adult films.” The theatre was rescued by Carm Bordanaro and his family just at the beginning of 1980 when the Boatpeople campaign to resettle Indochinese refugees in Canada came into full swing. Canada, under the Clark government in July of the previous year, had set a target of an intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees, 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector matched by the same number by the government plus the 8,000 to which the government had previously been committed. By the end of 1979, the private sponsorship movement had already exceeded its target.
So it was entirely appropriate and historically compelling for the life of that theatre that a new documentary, Vietnamerica, had two screenings at the Hot Docs yesterday. I attended the second in the Ted Rogers Cinema. The Rogers family had donated $5 million enabling the Hot Docs Festival to purchase the building. It is now one of the most comfortable theaters in Toronto and allows Torontonians to see a wide array of documentaries. The movie, Vietamerica, should not be confused with G.B. (Jimmy) Tran’s graphic memoir about his and his family’s fifty-year journey and its experiences in coming to and settling in America called Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey.
Vietnamerica is a feature-length documentary (1.5 hours) on the Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States, focusing mainly on the ordeal they went through, but bookended by the reasons for their flight at one end and, at the other end, their success in the United States. The problem comes in the bookends, though the core of the film could be helped to a degree by cutting some irrelevant segments and providing more clarity on the different phases of the exodus and the very different causes and consequences of each phase.
Instead, there is a compression of the Vietnamese allied with the South Vietnam government who first fled, then the Vietnamese who were ethnic Chinese fleeing ethnic cleansing, then the Vietnamese refugees of property owners and the middle class who fled in an overlapping wave of repression, then the “lingerers” who fled between 1982 to 1988, then those who fled but were repatriated unless they could establish that they were targeted for persecution, then the rescue of the prisoners from Vietnamese jails. All are lumped together. The compressing of different conditions in leaving, in camps, in readiness to resettle, in the availability of relatives to help in sponsorship and, generally, to changes over time in both push and pull factors, led to a somewhat confusing portrait of the exodus.
There were also omissions, but the film was already long enough and I am sure a great deal had been cut. I would have substituted the bookend material with more expansion on the lives of those portrayed so that one could more fully identify with them, on the corrupt role of the Vietnamese military and government officials in accepting gold to facilitate escape, and in the perils to those caught who did not have government protection and their subsequent suffering. But it was not my film.
Scott Edwards is the director with a very minimal filmography. Robert Andrew Bennett and Megan Williams are given credit for the script. These two screenwriters also have a very thin filmography. For the clear and acknowledged force behind the creation of the film has been Nancy Bui, Executive Producer and founder of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF). Nancy is responsible for a collection of more than 700 oral histories of Vietnamese who were resettled in America. Some of that collection and 200,000 pages of documents and pictures are housed at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.
Her driving force brought the film to its realization. I had the pleasure of spending much of the evening after watching the film talking to Nancy and her assistant, discussing the film and, more specifically, my claim that propaganda films are documentaries, but a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message. That is, I believe that documentaries should not be a means to push an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, then the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Many renowned documentalists would disagree. So there are two different questions. To what extend was this film a propaganda film? And to the degree it was, does that make the film faulty?
Nancy, a journalist, fled Vietnam with her two children in 1979. In 1988, she wrote a novel about her experience called Bot Bien, sea foam. But the real impetus for making the film came from an experience with her daughter who came home from school crying because she had received an F on an essay. Nancy had helped her daughter write the history paper on the experience of her own family as Vietnamese refugees coming to America. When Nancy went to remonstrate the teacher, the teacher explained that her daughter received an F because it contained no references. If Vietnamerica is any indication, the essay not only lacked references, but ran contrary to widely accepted interpretations about the war, quite aside from the personal experiences of Nancy and her family. More specifically, the film was made to reflect her viewpoint and to counter the views of many other films, such as, if I recall correctly, one at the extreme other end, Vietnam: American Holocaust, that portrays the Vietnam War as a sustained mass slaughter planned and perpetrated by presidents Johnson and Nixon.
Nancy became determined to provide the documentary background of her record of her and others’ experiences in coming to America and the reasons they came. The oral history project was one result. An award-winning short film, that is at the core of Vietnamerica, was produced, Master Nguyen Tien Hoa. The latter told the story of a Vietnamese martial arts master, Nguyen Tien Hoa, who returns to Southeast Asia in quest of the graves of his wife and children. That film, won a number of commendations, including the Dallas International Film Festival, the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival as the best short documentary film in 2015. I am sure it deserved those prizes. But in stretching the film to a feature length and marrying it to a propagandist film on revisionist history with respect to the Vietnam War, the moving story of Hoa becomes diluted and sometimes lost.
The Hoa story forms the heart of the feature-length film and contains its most moving scenes. Hoa describes being tied up when the boat on which he and 75 members of his family and friends who escaped with him was captured by Thai pirates. He sat helpless as the pirates wrenched away his young daughter from her mother’s arms and threw the baby into the sea. Subsequently, helplessly, he was forced to watch the rape of his wife in front of his eyes. That portion of the film is simply excruciating to watch. A climactic moment in the film takes place when Hoa finds the grave of his cousin with whom he spent 18 hours in the sea after he managed to capture a second Thai pirate boat to be used by his family and friends. However, he was swept out to sea along with his cousin when he tried to transfer his cousin with his broken leg to the captured pirate boat. Hoa never saw his family or friends again; they presumably died, numbered among the 200,000 to 400,000 who lost their lives in the exodus.
The showing began with a number of introductory speeches, but one could anticipate the perspective that would predominate in the film when the American anthem alongside the old South Vietnamese national anthem were played and the American flag and the old South Vietnamese flag were much in evidence. There was also a moving one minute of silence in memory of those 200,000-400,000 Vietnamese who perished in their effort to reach safety and freedom from communist rule even though the film at one point claimed that half of those who tried to escape died in the effort – which would mean that a million and a half died instead of 200,000 to 400,000. Other very questionable numbers are cited – 100,000 executed by the Hanoi government, 7 million who died in the war. The movie is “ambitious” in a much more general way. Made at a cost of $350,000, it not only covers the horrendous experiences of selected refugees who came to America, but the selection of those portrayed is interesting in itself.
Hoa is a martial arts instructor who, according to his own testimony, was mentally ill for eight years following his trauma until he reconnected with his martial arts background. According to Hoa, it provided the therapy to get over his trauma. That is a metaphor for the whole film. Hoa now provides instruction in martial arts to young and old as both physical and psychological therapy to help people cope with the struggles in life. The need to resort to martial methods in also the overriding theme of the movie.
For example, the bookend of success stories includes two out of a myriad that could have been selected. One is Nguyet Anh Duong who led the scientific effort to develop the so-called bunker buster bomb that enables the bomb to penetrate deeply into structures before it explodes. Developed for America’s war in Afghanistan, Duong won the Dr. Arthur E. Bisson Prize for Achievement in Naval Technology and the National Security Medal for a significant contribution to America’s national security. Duong is currently the Director for the Borders and Maritime Security Division within the United States Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.
The other significant achiever represented in the film is General Viet Luong, the first Vietnamese-American general in U.S. history and a child of Vietnamese refugees. Vietnamese have been successful in a myriad of fields, science, the arts, business, medicine and academia. But the film ended up keeping the two samples of military success stories. There are several other stories briefly and even more sketchily told. One was of Thanh Tu Tran, a Captain in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces and son of a former Prime Minister of South Vietnam who spent fifteen years in a communist prison. Another was a writer who escaped North Vietnam.
In the film, there is a chance encounter between Tran and Vietnamese exchange students at the memorial in Washington to those who died at the hands of the communists. But instead of getting into an interesting discussion of different perspectives and understandings, the encounter dissolves before it ever gets started. That is also true of the historical as distinct from humanitarian aspects of the film.
Last evening, I had a discussion with a resettled North Vietnamese young lady who also saw the film. She came to Canada in 2006, attended York University and now works as a real estate agent. She told me that when she came, she had to learn how distorted her education had been since she had never been exposed to anything but the communist version of what was called the American War. On the other hand, in contrast to my response – I had wanted the intimate moments of individual lives to have been more developed to facilitate greater identification – she was bothered by the intimate individualistic details and thought the film should have attended more to the larger political and military questions. Only half smiling, I suggested that her early collectivist indoctrination was still part of her mental framework.
I attended the film with three other Canadians, all eminent Canadians. We all had the same reaction to one scene in the film in which a Hungarian anti-communist verbally assaults protesters against the Vietnam War who bear his rant in stoical silence as he yells and screams that they all should be hung. We all were repelled by the scene, thought it had nothing to do with the story of the experience of Vietnamese refugees resettling in the West. However, in the interviews afterwards, Nancy told me that among Vietnamese, this was one of their favourite moments in the film. Two interviews I conducted with other Vietnamese who had watched the film confirmed that. Both felt elated when they watched the Hungarian berate the peaceniks. When I pointed out that the Hungarian’s calling for the protesters to be hung was appalling and contrary to principles of freedom, and, in any case, detracted from the film enormously, one Vietnamese viewer conceded my point, but not the thrill he and other Vietnamese had about the scene.
With the help of Alex Zisman