Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s latest film, Daughter From Danang, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance this year. It has, from the start, a high emotional valence, opening with a barrage of weeping children. This difficult scene occurred at the end of the Vietnam war: Operation Babylift, the program by which the U.S. government imported thousands of Vietnamese orphans and Amerasian children in 1975, because, as one unnamed agency worker patronizingly puts it, “It’s better for everyone.”
Perhaps not. Among those reluctant emigrants was a 7-year-old girl named Mai Thi Hiep, the child of a Navy officer and a Vietnamese woman, Mai Thi Kim, who relinquished her daughter for the girl’s protection, or possibly for her own. Hiep made it to Pulaski, Tennessee, where she was renamed Heidi and adopted by another single mother, Ann Neville, who told her to lie about her heritage, and who, after years of being emotionally unavailable and possibly abusive, also abandoned her. (Neville’s notable absence from the film can’t help but seem incriminating.) Twenty-two years after leaving Vietnam, Heidi decides to meet her birth mother again.
Maybe the decision was inevitable. “I named her Hiep because it means ‘united,'” Kim explains. “United with her mother.” Both women have high hopes for their reunion. Also high is the film’s risk of bathos, but Dolgin and Franco avoid it. Having set the emotional stakes, they remain open, honing their found narrative, however ambivalent, to intimate proportions, allowing it to coil into a wrenching climax and finally unfurl toward a sharply unhappy ending.
“I just hope they understand I have been a hundred — and one — percent Americanized,” Heidi says, with what looks like a striking mixture of pride and foreboding. She seems unsure what she means by that (the extra one percent is an afterthought), but admits she can’t pretend to have a real cultural connection to Vietnam. So, the film suggests, Heidi tries to keep her heart and her eyes open. In fact, she appears wide-eyed, impulsive, uncritical, and unrefined — just the sort of person who misses the public broadcasting mandate to “stay curious” while simultaneously serving as the unassuming subject of a CPB-funded documentary. Americanized, yes, and easily caricatured.
In social terms, access to documentary subjects can seem easier when looking downward. Dolgin and Franco work hard not to exploit Heidi’s naïvete for its narrative potential, but they can barely contain their condescension toward her formative milieu, the American South. Inserts of marching skinheads reiterate the unmissable fact that Heidi’s adoptive hometown is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s hardly irrelevant, but it is almost a red herring.
First of all, Heidi’s major concerns are not assimilation and prejudice, but the gnawing, melancholy awareness of her abandonments. Second, though you wouldn’t know it from the nearly fetishistic reverence with which the filmmakers depict Vietnam, the specter of racism loomed as ominously there, where widespread fear of brutality toward multiracial children ostensibly motivated Operation Babylift in the first place. (As did Britain’s Kindertransport program during World War II.) When mothers were told their children would be burned alive, it sounded like typically coercive American PR. To wit: the deliberately quaint stock footage approximates those bitterly hyperbolic self-satirizing goofs on The Simpsons. Imagine Troy McClure among the orphans and you’re not all that far off.
And third, there’s no need to crank up the dramatic context: it’s readymade. “It’s going to be so healing for both of us,” Heidi says on her way to Vietnam. And yet, shortly before leaving Vietnam, she observes, “I didn’t come here to be anybody’s salvation.” The intervening arc between those attitudes, presented as swift disillusionment, is heartbreaking to watch.
The reunion happens in stages. When mother and daughter meet and embrace, the camera quite literally in their faces, Kim sobs uncontrollably and Heidi, bewildered, looks around, as if a little embarrassed and wondering what to do. We realize it’s more a beginning than an ending, but that epiphany, supposedly a source of solace, is disconcerting. Kim becomes smothering and needy, an exaggerated version of the mother Heidi seems always to have wanted; and Heidi tenses, withdrawing into herself. She is startled that she’s become a village celebrity — kids peer in at her through windows and follow her in the streets — and resists the family’s expectation that she provide regular financial support from now on.
And yet, for all the culture shock and language barriers, Heidi and Kim’s common pain is precisely rendered. The family meeting meltdown from which Heidi tearfully retreats could have been scripted. When the bubble of her reunion fantasy bursts, it’s easy to blame Heidi for her seeming immaturity. But it’s as easy to shiver with her when her relatives tell her, “Maybe next time, you can stay longer.”
After Heidi’s return to the U.S., the filmmakers interview her brother, back in Vietnam, and he sounds a note as moving as any montage of teary children being taken from their mothers, only more directly. He says he wants to learn English and write his sister, so she can really know him. Heidi, meanwhile, doesn’t honor a promise to write her mother because, as she puts it, she doesn’t know what to say. It’s not entirely clear whether or how she’s dispatched her guilt, but if it doesn’t linger in her, it certainly does in us.
Daughter From Danang reveals that efforts toward closure only open new wounds. It doesn’t flinch from its unsettling prognosis, namely, that the legacy of war is a kind of perpetual pain.