“I’m not saying that I won’t chase the ghost all my life,” says Michael Nolan. “But I have that right.” He’s talking to a reporter, Richard Linnett, who’s accompanied him to Southeast Asia in search of Nolan’s brother, McKinley, an Army corporal missing since 1967. Linnett has his own investment in this ghost, as he’s been researching the case since 1998. Still, he advises, “At some point you’re going to have to come to a conclusion about this.”
Conclusions are hard to come by in The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, as they are as well in Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika, which considers the experiences of five classmates born into Soviet-era Communism, now contemplating middle age in Russia’s new market economy. As it happens, both are premiering 24 June at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. And, even as their subject matters are very different, the two films take up similar themes, namely, the effects of broad political structures on individual lives.
As Henry Corra’s documentary traces Michael Nolan’s journey, it also raises questions about moral responsibilities and official deceptions during the Vietnam war. Even after he learns that his brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Michael remains skeptical. After his talk with Linnett, he looks directly into the camera to say, “There’s some things all the research in the world ain’t gonna make any difference, because I know.”
This moment goes to the film’s other focus, that is, the documentary’s own part in this search for answers, for knowledge and a sense of peace that, however illusory. On one level, this part is material, as Corra’s participation helped to finance the trips for Nolan, Linnett, and Lt. Dan Smith, an amputee veteran who went back to Vietnam in 2005 and encountered a man he believed to be McKinley Nolan. On another level, the documentary is a means to shape a set of experiences, framing discoveries and disappointments, showing exchanges and confessions. If it is, as Corra says, “really a meditation on longing and loss and the desire for closure,” it is also a means to the meditation.
As such, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan examines the complexities of documentary as a genre, complexities on display throughout the 2010 Silverdocs program. At first, Michael’s quest seems straightforward, to sort out McKinley’s “legend.” The film shows early meetings with Smith, along with McKinley’s wife Mary, their perusals of old photos intercut with archival footage of the U.S. war in Vietnam: views from bombers, troops’ literal boots on the ground. In November 1967, McKinley reportedly went AWOL and “met up with the Viet Cong” (“That was him writing propaganda,” Smith and Linnett agree on a picture of the young black man at work on white paper). Reports after that time remain unresolved: the defector might have been caught trafficking black market “goods,” he may have been in the notorious Long Binh jail (site of the 1968 riots) and escaped by killing a number of U.S. MPs (two or three, reportedly murdered with “his bare hands”), or he may have made up that story to gain the confidence of the Viet Cong.
None of these rumors is confirmed, a kind of uncertainty the film smartly enfolds into its own structure. Images of the past (archival and personal) are not fixed exactly to events. McKinley’s story remains strikingly undocumented (the military refuses to release his file, as long as he’s not officially dead) . And so the film helps his family to piece together his story, with gaps and without closure, a couple of photos and scraps of memory. In Vietnam, McKinley’s stepson Thach Quang is overwhelmed by how much Michael resembles his father, and as the camera rolls around their embrace, their smiles show simultaneous loss and re-connection. Seeking official narratives, Michael, Smith, and Linnett go on to meet with members of the Viet Cong’s “propaganda division” (at least its title seems upfront). Here as elsewhere, the film keeps tight focus on the subjects’ faces, probing and also oddly abstracting their stories. Afterward, Michael assesses what he’s heard: “It’s repetitious, like they been drilled to say what they saying,” he says. Linnett asks: “So you don’t feel like we’re getting any closer to any kind of truth?”
This is the film’s most intensive and least answerable question. The focus is less what actually happened to McKinley—several witnesses indicate that he had eventually moved his family into Cambodia and was beaten to death by “the Khmer Rouge.” It’s not determined that the killers included a reported friend of McKinley, Cham Sone, but Michael is visibly moved by his tragic, carefully worded version of events, in answer to a question designed to encourage a non-confession: “If you had been given the order, what would you have done?” Cham Sone says, “If given those orders, my choice was to kill this man or die alongside him. One of their strategies was to use family and friends to kill people… Every day, I came this close to killing myself. I would find a landmine and just want to throw myself on it.” Michael hands him a cigarette and then hugs Cham Sone, both men visibly horrified at what they’re sharing.
Following a visit to the site where his brother was murdered, Michael adds in some details to his own story, his haunting not only by his personal loss, but what that loss represented and continues to represent. Along with Linnett and Smith, he wonders how the U.S. military never pursued McKinley, even though its knowledge of his whereabouts is documented in a 1974 memo. More footage inserts offer reasons for this disinterest as well as reasons for McKinley’s own dissent: wailing Vietnamese civilians and the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr.‘s and Robert Kennedy’s criticisms of the war and subsequent assassinations, all underscore the increasingly visibility of discontent with official stories and proscriptions.
This context comes into sharper focus when Michael is asked about the “effect” of McKinley’s death on his life. “The whole disappearing has been a 40-year roller coaster,” he answers, his focus not on the death but on the not-knowing. How could it be, the film asks again and again, that the U.S. government refused to help the Nolans or search for McKinley? Michael has an idea, after years of living with so much suspicion and disappointment. “You couldn’t even imagine how I used to feel about the United States,” he tells Smith. “Take my word for it: it is hard to live around your enemies.”
The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan
This difficulty is visible throughout The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, as is Michael’s extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. Despite his own troubles—he briefly recalls he was “led… down a path of drugs and alcohol”—Michael also finds ways to live with what the film portrays as righteous anger and endless uncertainty. If Michael can’t “know” what happened to his brother exactly, he does also “know,” based on a lifetime of parsing lies and truths.
As My Perestroika looks at such parsing in another place and time, it reveals strangely similar effects, beginning with essential distrust of social and political authorities. The interviewees describe very different experiences, their stories illustrated by archival footage and home movies, the variety of images revealing intersections as well as gaps between perception and representation.
“I can’t say that I wanted to be like everyone else,” says Lyubov Meyerson, drawing on her cigarette. “That’s not quite how it was. I simply was like everyone else.” As a child, she goes on, she “was completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality,” one that was created in large part by media images and rituals: as she speaks, you see her reality, shots of little girls skating in knit caps as snow falls. Seeing reports of U.S. crime and turmoil, she recalls, she only felt grateful to be living in more orderly Moscow. Since that time, she and her husband Boris have become teachers at School #57, helping to shape perceptions of another generation of students.
Boris’ instructional methods appear less pedantic than those he and Lyubov remember: in class, he presses his students to wonder how the Soviets convinced citizens to give up all their material goods and go work on farm collectives in the middle of nowhere; and at home, he suggests that preteen son Mark embark on another stage in his development, namely, “self-upbringing.” By contrast, My Perestroika includes old promotional films extolling Party membership. “Yes,” asserts the narrator over black and white shots of children working hard on essays about their favorite Communists, “Becoming a Real Person is not simple, but you will have great examples to follow. Our Party has brought up millions of Real People, communists, fighters for the people’s happiness.”
The contradictions in this professed ideology are at least as plain as those in capitalism, namely, that collective and individual interests come into as much conflict as harmony. Olga Durikova is a single mother working as a manager at a company that rents and services billiards tables (“I’m called a manager,” she says, “But that’s what everyone is called these days”). As a girl, she absorbed her lessons like everyone else. “What fun was it being a Komsomol [Communist Youth Leader] at school?” she wonders now “I don’t understand who could have enjoyed it.” Remembering her own experience as such, Olga now reflects on the extra work involved, as well as the sense of camaraderie. More recently, the film shows Olga in a beauty shop having her hair colored. As she endeavors here to fit into yet anther set of expectations, gendered and globalized, another form or repetition grinds into gear, as Medvedev’s election as president is “totally predetermined.”
The illusion of choice coes up repeatedly in My Perestoika. Ruslan Stupin, founder of the Russian punk band Naiv, still considers himself an outsider, and sees some of that impulse in his young son Nikita, currently fretting that he has no friends. Ruslan says, “I already explained this to you: you’re just different from the other boys.” “I know,” worries Nikita, “but I forgot.” The fact that they have this conversation at a Pizza Hut makes another point, that outside and inside, once so apparently defined as opposites, are increasingly blurry. Ruslan remembers how “mass cultural” experience shaped his childhood. On occasions of import, say, Brezhnev’s death, he remembers, “Swan Lake was on every single channel on TV.” Vintage TV ballet images give way to black and white footage of the “Funeral of Brezhnev Game,” wherein children march through streets with a coffin, reenacting the procession they saw on TV.
Ruslan also recalls seeing tanks in Moscow’s streets in 1991, and laments that Naiv’s singer Sasha Ivanov worked in a bank (“What was a bank in the 1990s anyway?”, he asks, “Just a giant pipe that sucked all the money out of Russia and sent it to the West”). Now, he and Boris drink in the Meyersons’ kitchen. Now playing music in subway tunnels, Ruslan sighs, “How can you play music just for money?”
As My Perestroika shows the perpetual disjunctions between (official) history and lived experiences, it’s of a piece with The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan. Boris describes his shift in thinking: “By eighth or ninth grade,” he says, “It became apparent that people around you were saying things that didn’t correspond at all with reality,” a result of a system “in crisis.” Now he sees that no lessons have been learned, that Putin’s efforts are similarly geared toward managing expectations and maintaining power dynamics. Certainly, material conditions are changing. But then as now, in the States as in Russia, choices are ever illusory.
The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan