Peter McDowell: Jimmy in Saigon (2022) | trailer screengrab
Peter McDowell: Jimmy in Saigon (2022) | trailer screengrab

Peter McDowell on His Quest-Become-Documentary ‘Jimmy in Saigon’

Director Peter McDowell’s search for his missing brother led to the creation of Jimmy in Saigon, a documentary that also captures gay life in war-era Vietnam.

Jimmy in Saigon
Peter McDowell
19 March 2022 (UK)

Lovers Film Festival, the 37th edition of Torino’s GLBTQ+ event, was back in full swing in late April 2022. Held at its usual location, Cinema Massimo, the multiplex of the National Museum of Cinema, folks seemed thrilled to wait in line and enter the cinema together. In Italy, masks were still required at movie theaters until 17 June, but on 1 May, the final day of the festival, the required proof of vaccination form (green pass) was lifted. Lovers featured its competitive sections of documentaries, features, and shorts along with parallel non-competitive categories. The winner of the Special Envoy Rainbow Award for Best Documentary went to the very deserving Jimmy in Saigon, the maiden voyage of director Peter McDowell.

The film is literally a journey on the part of Peter who, over the course of 12 years, seeks to find answers about the death of his older brother Jimmy, who was in Saigon, when he died. At 24, Jimmy had already served in Vietnam but returned shortly after to live with a Vietnamese family. A lot of mystery, deep pain, and un-talked about sorrow overtook the family that never wanted to discuss the eldest son and what happened.

Thankfully Peter, though only five when news of Jimmy’s death arrived at the family home in Champaign, Illinois, had the resourcefulness and dogged determination to investigate this story and the buried emotions of those left behind. He shines a light on some of Jimmy’s motivations, his importance in the family, and their inability to discuss what he and his death have meant to them over the years. McDowell travelled to Torino to present his film and sat down to speak with PopMatters about the long process of the research, along with how the 1979 film Hair helped let the sun shine in on his own film.

I’d like to start with the question of whether all your family members were on board to take part in this film.

Yes. What happened was, in 2008, I was laid off from my job in New York City. There was an economic crisis and it decimated many jobs in the arts. It was kind of sad but I also felt that I would get to rewrite my story. I started my own consulting business. I thought now that I have this modular life, where I could fit in something I’ve always wanted to do, what might it be? I had always wanted to make this film. I made short films in the ’90s, one of which was pretty successful in gay film festivals. 

It was probably in early 2010 that I started talking with a lot of filmmakers in Brooklyn and some others around the country. I explained this idea, how my brother had died 38 years ago. I was struck because every person said, “This is a great idea.” Then I asked, “Well how might I start?” One suggestion was, “Get yourself an HD camera and sound equipment and start interviewing people.” I talked with my mom and my siblings and she gave me her blessing.

I called it an oral history then, I didn’t call it a documentary. I think there was a little bit of benign deception on my part because I didn’t know if it was going to be like a public documentary film. I just knew that I wanted to record people talking about Jimmy. In the back of my mind, I had the idea of creating something public but I had never done it before. 

My mom said, “Here’s a list of names of people. Here are some names of his friends. Go.”  She didn’t have any contact information because she had not been in contact with any of them, so I had to start my process. We have a family vacation around Memorial Day every year and I brought my camera. That is the scene towards the beginning of the film, in 2010. My sisters thought it was too sad for the family reunion vacation. That weekend was the formal start of the project. Then quickly the year after I started travelling to meet people. I would say I’ve had the support of my family ever since. My mom goes up and down because she just doesn’t want to hear about it. She has told me that she doesn’t really want updates but as it goes along we’ve had more and more conversations.

When you got started did you already know about the existence of all the letters, correspondence, and photos?

Not really, I didn’t really know the depth of it. In a way, my mom is a bit of a pack rat, which is great, but she’s not an organizer so it was sort of like a decentralized mess of things. My sister Ann and I, over the course of the last 10-12 years, have systematically gone through things. I have an archivist in Chicago who started an initial archive. It’s actually a massive project because not only are there around 200 letters and 100 photos but there’s just a lot of ephemera.

Most of that I found about 10-12 years ago but about two years ago I was at my mom’s house and she told me about another box in her closet. There were actually three boxes with all the stuff I had never found and we were already practically done with filming. There are some scenes in the film where we pan over a bunch of things so some of those shots show the items found towards the end. One of my great joys would be to have some sort of museum exhibition or gallery show about all of these things because only a few of them could make it into Jimmy in Saigon

Seeing as your mother kept all this stuff, do you think that on some level, while she might not want to talk about Jimmy, she wanted his story to be told?

That’s an interesting topic that I sort of introduce at the end of the film where I say ultimately it all comes back to her. Because I grew up with a pack rat mother, I didn’t realize that people threw things away. That would never happen in our family. On the other hand, there’s also a really interesting story. One of the most chilling and wonderful moments for me was that I could not find the telegram about Jimmy’s death anywhere. My mother said she just didn’t know where it was. Then some time later she said, “Okay I’ll tell you where it is.” She told me it was in a filing cabinet in the basement but it was locked and there was no key. So she told me, “Do whatever you need to get it out.” I had a hammer and was pounding into this thing. It was such a dramatic moment. I wish I talked about it in the film but I felt like Jimmy’s spirit was with me, telling me to get that telegram out of there. Bringing this back to the whole archive idea, it’s something I would love to have as a kind of travelling exhibition that could go along with the film where people could look at these things. 

How did you decide on the form of Jimmy in Saigon? Was it something that you envisioned, did it evolve during the making, or did it come out in the editing?

It’s my first feature documentary and I did this thing where I basically just piled up footage. I thought the film was going to be about my journey so I just had to take the journey and then make the film. Then once we started editing it became clear that it needed to shift. I thought the film was going to be about my obstacles, one after another, and then a series of discoveries but as we showed it to people, my editors and my producers, they felt strongly that we needed to contextualize the era. That was a whole new area of discovery that we hadn’t really planned on, but it was fine to look at this archival Vietnam material and 1960s and ’70s footage, plus a bunch of voiceovers for me.

We ended up largely dropping the part about resistance from people because there were a lot of people, like my brother’s friends, who refused to take part in the film. I did dogged research, and polite persistence in trying to meet with these people but it just didn’t work. So to finish the statement about the structure, I would say that with our first editor it took about 18 months. She started in March 2020 during the arrival of Covid, which was actually the perfect time for editing because it requires you to sit in a dark room by yourself. So Kelly, bless her heart, took 70-80 hours of footage and tried to make something that functioned.

Over the course of about a year, she got us to the point of a rough cut. There were a lot of touching scenes in it but it wasn’t flowing quite right. She had to take on another job so we brought in a second editor who then took us to the finish line. The second editor was a little more experienced and was kind of ruthless, which is what we needed.

Tell me about the movie Hair and its importance for you growing up. Was it always your intention to bring it into your documentary, or was it something that came up as you were working on the project?

I thought the story was going to be all about my brother and then my editors said it’s also about me. But if it’s about me and we’re talking about the mind of a child and how it develops, there was this transition from your brother is dead, we’re not going to talk about it, it was a tropical disease and he didn’t die in the war – and then silence. Hair came out in 1979 when I was 12. At that point, I was just having inklings of sexuality, awakening, and all that. As I said in the film I was blown away because it had frank discussions of sexuality, the people in the film were hippies, which was how I remembered my brothers and sisters when I was little. But then all of sudden one of the characters in Hair goes to Vietnam and dies. I was devastated because I felt like that was my brother’s story. I was trying to think of how, as a kid or an adolescent, you have to piece together your understanding of things. 

Another thing I fought really hard for was the song “Let the Sun Shine In”. The music in Hair is very layered and the song “Let the Sun Shine In” is essentially three songs together because the composer and lyricist created these washes of sound. There’s a part of the song where the chorus sings: “Eyes look your last, Arms take your last embrace”. These words are so poetic. “Sealed with a righteous kiss,” I looked it up and those are Romeo’s dying words from Romeo and Juliette. I realized Romeo and Juliette was a really good metaphor for the story I was telling because they both die and they were on two sides of the world, ill-fated, star-crossed lovers Plus I love Shakespeare. Everything worked and I love the tone of the song “Let the Sun Shine In” because it’s like a dirge, a mournful song but it is also saying, let’s fix this. All of that tied in together. I would have liked to have done even more but we would have had to deal with licensing and fair use.

What is the evolution of the animation used in Jimmy in Saigon?

It was another part of my vision, something that I felt very strongly about. I wanted that photo on the beach to come to life and I wanted an apotheosis at the end, which I feel that we made happen. I also had an idea of putting animation throughout the film and I was going to depict all of the people who refused to participate in animation. It was not to make fun of them or anything but to have these sort of shadowy figures that we couldn’t get to. We scrapped that idea and we thought about illustrating various scenes in Jimmy’s life, but we did storyboards and every time we put them together, they just didn’t work. Our final idea, which is what we ended up doing, was to have animation at the beginning and at the end with just a few things. 

Something that really struck me is Jimmy in Saigon was you saying, “Growing up gay in my family was very lonely.” I wondered, have your relationships with your family members changed through making this film? Do you feel less lonely?

I think aging has a lot to do with it because we’ve known each other for so long. At this point, my family has known me as a gay person for longer than when they didn’t know so it’s all just very chill right now. I guess a really interesting thing happened to me recently when I moved to L.A. four and a half years ago. My mom said, “Oh you should get in touch with Bridget,” a second cousin who is older than me. It was really hard to get a hold of her, she is a producer. I finally reached her and she was like blah blah blah, my wife, etc. I said, “So you’re gay.” And she said, “Peter, you are the only other gay person in my family that I’ve ever met.” I replied, “Me too!”

It’s not like you need to have a gay relative but it gives some comfort. She helped me and watched some cuts of the film and gave me advice. I think that’s helped a bit and just getting older and realizing that when you are young it’s the hardest part. I think kids between maybe 5 and 15 have a really strong need for role models or good advice and parents just don’t always know how to do that. 

Someone asked at the Q&A about whether you wanted to just give up on the film at some point seeing, as it was such a long journey. Was there a time, apart from when you finally met Luyen, when you thought my vision for this project was starting to come through? [Luyen is the sister of Jimmy’s Vietnamese lover, Dung.]

Certainly, the first trip to Vietnam was amazing because I went over alone. I didn’t bring any crew members with me because we found an American cameraman in Saigon whom I just love. The rest of the crew we hired was Vietnamese so I was scared that first day of shooting because I thought here I am, I’ve never led a shoot before, other than small domestic shoots. We had a camera, sound, translator, all that kind of stuff. I wondered if I could do it. After the first day, I was like, oh my god yes I’m capable! I can do this! That was a really fun chapter in the film because we got so much great footage and we had so much energy and it helped build up my filmmaking chops. 

On the second trip to Vietnam, we didn’t even tell the government we were filming because we knew how to do it then. As far as giving up or having an “ah-ha moment”, I guess it was later because we hadn’t really found the Vietnamese family with whom Jimmy lived. There is a sort of montage where I talk about giving up. Between 2016 and 2018 it was pretty hard because we didn’t find anything there, I couldn’t find anything online and I had to raise all the money for this film through individual donations. At a certain point, you need some sort of energy to keep going back to the donors.

Once I found Luyen and we had a phone call, I was super motivated and then we did the interview with her. From there I planned the second trip to Vietnam and then I did five fundraisers in five cities, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and then Champaign Urbana, my hometown. We had around 60 people at each fundraiser, we raised about $30k total so that was the catalyst that really took us to the edit. 

Being a very personal story yet with some universal themes, who would you like to see this film?

When you are making a documentary film you are told by distribution consultants that you have to identify your audience. Who’s your core audience? And you cannot say the word, “everybody”, which is really frustrating to me because I feel like there’s a wide variety of people that would like this film. Some people have said this film is only for old people. Then I meet young people in their 20s and they love it so I think it’s not only for old people. I thought maybe it’s for veterans, it’s for gay people, maybe it’s for gay veterans.

Yet it’s also for anyone who’s had any family trauma, family loss, family secrets, and anyone interested in history. I think it’s touching for the LGBTQ community because it’s a different story. A lot of people tell me this is a story we haven’t heard before, which is nice.

My dream would be for people who knew or encountered Jimmy to see the film and say, “You may not have known about me but I knew him.” The closest I got so far was after screening it in Miami. This guy came up to me afterward and said, “I was living in Saigon at that time as a gay man, as a civilian and what you depicted is exactly as I remember it. Also that French journalist you met in Paris, I knew him.” Then there was a guy here in Torino who came to me with tears streaming down his face and he said, “I lived in Saigon a little later than Jimmy but I had a Vietnamese boyfriend who ended up committing suicide.” It wasn’t the same story but it was a similar tragic experience. He told me how they weren’t allowed to live in the same country because of visa rules. A lot of people feel like gay rights are figured out now, which is not true. There are some people who have the right to marry or live without discrimination but there are a lot of countries where that’s still not allowed. 

Where can one see Jimmy in Saigon? I understand it’s starting to go on the festival circuit, having had its world premiere at the BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival in London, then it travelled to Miami and now Torino. Where is it going next?

The next one is at the AvFest in Sonoma County, California in early May. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in April 2022.] A lot of the festivals announce at the last minute so I can’t say too much in advance about where the film is going next. At this point, it has been made public that Jimmy in Saigon will be screening at the Frameline Festival in San Francisco on June 19th  followed by some more European dates. So the best thing to do is to check out to keep up to date.