Vietnamerica Part I

Vietnamerica Part I – a film review

by

Howard Adelman

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

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Shimon Peres movie: The Price of Kings.17.04.31

Shimon Peres: The Price of Unsatisfactory Documentaries 17.04.12

by

Howard Adelman

I was going to review the documentary, Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace, but the analysis will take more time. Instead, today I will review The Price of Kings: Shimon Peres, a documentary filmdirected by Richard Symons and Joanna Natesegara that I saw yesterday afternoon. It is one of twelve planned documentaries on leaders that the directors plan to make. The first one was on Arafat released in January 2011. The Peres film is the second in the series released a year ago. (The third is on Oscar Arias Sanchez from Costa Rica was released in November 2012.) The opening of the Peres film is a confusing collage alluding to the theme of the series as focusing on the sacrifices leaders make to dedicate their lives to political leadership. The film asks: what would you sacrifice for your beliefs? Since the film never really even probes the question, I would be surprised if the film stimulated an intelligent answer.

I think it is very hard not to make an interesting film about political leaders. They have led eventful lives. If you can get an interview and have them talk on camera and then add views of associates, family members, friends and critics, over half your job is done. The filmmakers are to be congratulated for getting that part accomplished. The film not only has many minutes from Peres, but includes Yitzchak Navon, the 5th president of Israel, and Professor Michael Bar-Zohar, the biographer of David Ben Gurion, who also in 2006 published Shimon Peres: The Biography. Former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Querei and an Oslo negotiator for Arafat, and Ahmad Tibi, the Israeli-Arab leader of the Arab Movement for Renewal Party, make cameo appearances. Uri Savir, the Chief Negotiator for Israel in the Oslo process, has a much larger role. Uri Avnery makes an appearance as does Ruth Dayan who was married to Moshe Dayan. Gideon Levy, an ex-aide, and Peres’ friend, Danny Gillerman, have very serious parts. Human Rights campaigner, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, has much to say and is even given the final pronouncement. The problem then is editing the material and knitting it together. The directors use a simple technique – the historical trajectory of the life of the leader focused on the most famous historical events. For Peres, whose life covered the sixty-five years of the history of Israel, there is no difficulty in finding those key moments.

However, the selection of music, perhaps inspired by Peres’ current aged dour visage, is so melancholic that the film is often experienced as a dirge when the violins are not being used to bring forth your tears. Helena Bonham Carter, the actress from Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, is the narrator; her script is pedestrian, clichéd and often wrong, and the officious newsreel voice that she adopts, even though it is that of a woman, takes us back to newsreels of the fifties and sixties. The interrotron technique that appears to have been used for the Peres interview catches the face of the interviewee close-up, but also ensures formality and distance rather than intimacy and disclosure. The lighting on Peres when he is being interviewed against a black backdrop reinforces stiffness and platitudes rather than casualness and open comments. And some of the B-roll! At the end of the film there is a scene of the Tel Aviv beach with a cement podium as a backdrop and two sunbathers on chairs in the foreground. One of the sunbathers brings his legs together, then separates them, then brings them together again as if he suffers from ADHT. But then he appears to be exercising. What this scene has to do with the life story of Peres, I have no idea. It is just an ugly picture! Is that the message the director wants to convey about his view of Peres, that underneath his reserve and dignity he just sways from side to side wherever the political winds take him?

Peres left Poland at the age of eleven; before he left, he promised his grandfather that he would always be Jewish. Peres describes arriving Palestine with its golden sand beaches, blue skies and the perfumed air of the Mediterranean as arriving in paradise compared to the sullen gray skies of Poland and the crowded small shtetl of 1000 families that he left behind. Most of his extended family died in the Holocaust, including his grandfather to whom he made that solemn promise. One day, they were all gathered together by the Nazis, forced into the community synagogue and all shot.

One thesis in the film is that Peres remained an outsider because: a) he was not born in Israel and spoke Hebrew with a Polish accent; b) he never served in the army; and 3) he was too much of a thinker. But they never asked what he read, what his favourite writers were or where he got most of his inspiration. Further, surely the filmmakers knew that he served in the Haganah and was charged at a young age with giving an organizational structure to the collection of militias from pre-state Palestine to create the Israeli army. Finally, one would think that the filmmakers would have asked, why, if he arrived at 11 years of age, he still had an accent? They do not. Like many of the issues raised and theses propounded without any evidence, there are no follow-ups. As we heard the claim of the disadvantage of speaking Hebrew with an accent, we wonder about Begin and the hordes of other non-Sabra founding fathers, but do not expect the film to provide any answers.

In the film, Peres says that if you have to choose between being Machiavellian and doing everything you can to achieve power or naiveté, he prefers naiveté. I wanted to scream: Why did you not ask why Peres defined Machiavellian as the pursuit of power by any means, or the even easier question of why pose those as the only two alternatives? The film loves to capture protagonists cast between two poles. Peres might opt for one pole, such as naiveté and offer a rationale, but the director suggests that this is evidence of his being conflicted. The script writers themselves seem to have a propensity to favour a tryptych of concepts rather than visual panels to make pronouncements – Peres combined religion with a conscience with a commitment to good government. Other than the odd shot of Peres with a kippa, where is there any exploration of Peres’ religion in the film or even an allusion to the fact that as a young boy influenced by his grandfather, Peres was a Haredi while his family was really non-observant? Where are the questions about the influence of his religious beliefs on his politics? Whenever these summaries were offered, I had to mentally close my ears lest they distract from the focus on the events and actions in which Peres was involved.

Some of these were impossible to ignore – such as the erroneous cliché that the UN gave birth to Israel because of the guilt over the Holocaust, a cliché that even most Jews believe. A good historian will show you why this is utter nonsense. One of the more important reasons was the problem of dealing with the 200,000 Jewish refugees left after the war. But that issue is not raised in the film nor whether the intake of those Jewish refugees played any part in Peres’ early life. Instead, the film focuses on the exodus of the Palestinians who became refugees and whom the Israeli authorities banned from re-entering. Does this have anything to do with Peres? If so, what? If not, why is this episode in the film?

The film makes clear that Peres was on the side of those Zionists who accepted partition and an Israel with only 45% of the land of Palestine but ended up with 78% because the Arabs never were satisfied with the amount allocated to them. Thus, war was inevitable in a fight over land. If that fight was to be settled by force of arms at the Arab’s choice and not mutual agreement or external imposition, then why would Peres not take 100% and instead settle only for 78%? There are good answers to which Peres would probably agree, but the question is never asked, perhaps because the director is not neutral and cannot even imagine giving a respectful voice to the right wingers who are presented stereotypically as religious zealots. The film seems to have an underlying thesis – that peace was sabotaged simply by the work of Jewish extremists and the settler movement more generally, as if the Palestinian terrorist bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are shown in the film and that turned the Israeli public against Oslo, played no part. Contrary to some commentators on the film commending its neutrality, I found the appearance of neutrality a sham. The issues are discussed superficially and without any depth.

The film is gripping because the events and characters are gripping. The film engages but doesn’t really probe – except with one provocative (and inappropriate question in the context) suggestion that Israel is an apartheid state. However, by an large the questions are left out of the film to enhance the impression of letting the characters voices carry the film.

Peres is given credit for organizing the arms supply to the army of the new state, but we are told nothing of how he accomplished the feat. If the directors asked Peres, the footage was left on the cutting room table. There is one interesting anecdote told in the film that I had never heard before. Peres was corralled by Ben Gurion to accompany him in the car to Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion told Peres out of the blue that Trotsky was a lousy leader. "No War, No Peace. That was not a decision. Decisions have to be clear and unequivocal." Lenin was the real leader for Ben Gurion. Peres was puzzled by the story. Why not explore the puzzlement? What was Peres’ view of leadership?

Peres is also credited with bringing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons to Israel and with building the "textile factory", the Dimona reactor. But how or why – you will learn nothing from the film. You will not even hear Peres’ evasions.

On the Entebbe operation, the film sums up the position that, while Yitzhak Rabin wanted to negotiate with the terrorists, Peres was totally opposed and was convinced that a plan of rescue could be developed, in spite of the total scepticism of the head of the armed forces, Mordechai Gur. This potted summary is all we get along with a mixture of facts and errors about the raid that Peres’ himself calls one of the bravest and most heroic deeds performed by Israeli troops. An example of an error is heard when the narrator states that five aircraft landed in Entebbe when there were only four Hercules aircraft.

The story and activities were quite a bit more complicated than the edited summary. As Peres himself described them when he opened the storyteller’s festival as recorded by Shahar Chai for Israel News (10.01.12) in a news item headed, "I convinced Rabin to launch Operation Entebbe." Here is what Peres said:

"The chances of rescuing 101 Jewish hostages 4,000 kilometers away seemed miniscule…The conclusion was that we should comply with the demands to release the terrorists," but Peres then left out the qualifier – if a feasible rescue plan could not be developed. It is true that most were sceptical that a feasible rescue plan could be created and he himself thought the chances were miniscule. "The Fantasy Headquarters" made up of gutsy creative officers did come up with a plan and Peres convinced the cabinet that the risks were worth taking. So while Prime Minister Rabin continued to give the impression that he was keen on negotiating, the plan was implemented.

This is a very different version that the impression created by the film of Peres as a determined decision maker willing to take risks and Rabin as a waffler willing to back down on a sacred principle of no negotiations with terrorists. Further, it contradicts the overall impression the film makes, and the stated conviction of the director, Richard Symons, in reinforcing the image of Peres as a very successful second in command but not a decisive and gutsy leader. In fact, Symons has said on tape that he thinks Peres lacked a backbone and was deeply conflicted even if the evidence in his own film contradicts that conclusion. The film spends a few seconds mentioning the back channels behind Oslo, but only a mention; there is no suggestion that this initiative might belie the stereotype of Peres as just a second and never qualified to be a first.

Further, there is so much about Peres that is omitted – his imposition of a military organization on the inchoate ragtag of militias inherited from pre-state Palestine, his early career initiatives in modernizing agriculture and spreading those innovations to Africa, his later initiatives that helped make Israel the "start-up" nation.

Peres is presented as a person with enormous self-control – which he did have – but he also cried when told of Yoni Netanyahu’s death, but that is not stated or admitted in the film. What is said by a colleague – I cannot recall who said it in the film – was that Peres was both very decisive and very flexible and willing to change. Peres admits he made many mistakes, but the filmmakers never ask him whether his decision not to call an election in 1995 in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, contrary to all the advice he received, because he did not want to ride into office on the coattails of Rabin’s blood, was one of those decisions. Had his own ego stood in the way of practicing proper Machiavellian politics? Again, the film provides no answers.

The film does provide a very moving account of the success of the rally in Tel Aviv in November of 1955 when Rabin was murdered, but especially of the close rapport Peres and Rabin had finally developed and when Peres had never seen Rabin so relaxed, happy, smiling and, most of all, friendly. The glint in Peres’ eyes as he described Rabin putting his arm on his shoulders could not and should not be missed. These touching moments – such as the account of and by Peres’ granddaughter, Mika, riding in the back of a car in Washington with her grandfather and saying what she thinks of him, are very moving.

Finally, to return to the ostensible theme of the series, what did Peres sacrifice? Peres explicitly states that the most rewarding and satisfying experience in life is work. Peres did a great deal of important work. His granddaughter cried when she expressed to him directly how proud she was of him and what he accomplished. Where was the sacrifice? What greater nachas is there?

Shimon Peres.17.04.13.doc