There are moments in Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s superb documentary DAUGHTER FROM DANANG that are like kicks in the gut. As we watch American homemaker Heidi Bub, who left her homeland in the Vietnamese baby lift 22 years earlier, visit a family who are strangers to her, the emotions are so overpowering and the subjects are so helpless in the face of the fates that have first separated them and then brought them back together so many years later.
Dolgin and Franco are unflinching in telling the story, and just as meticulous in keeping the people involved real human beings rather than icons of the price of war. In person, they are an intriguing mix of candor, warmth, and intensity, qualities that are emminently evident in their work. When I talked with the filmmaking duo on November 6, 2002 in their office in Berkeley, California, the conversation turned from the physical journey of documenting this reunion, to the emotional journey that they made while making the film.
It’s a heartrending documentary that shows not only the long-term effects of the Vietnam War in very personal terms, but also looks at how fragile the bonds of blood and family can be. Both insights are disturbing, but in the able hands of these filmmakers, the story of one family’s tragedy is handled with sensitivity and insight.
Heidi, or Hiep as she was known then, was not the child of her mother, Kim’s, husband, but rather of an American soldier who had taken Kim and her family under his wing financially while her husband was fighting. There were rumors that mixed-race children like Heidi would be killed by the new government. At best, the social acceptance, not to mention the reaction of Kim’s husband was a very real concern. Still, when Kim after all these years, talks about giving Heidi away, the tears flow freely, and the sadness transcends the language she speaks, rendering the subtitles superfluous. For all the tough questions DAUGHTER FROM DANANG raises, the most important may be the one asking us to consider all the ramifications of what it means to go to war.