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Daughter From Danang (NR)
Balcony Releasing/Cowboy Pictures
Official Site
Directors: Gail Dolgin, Vicente Franco
Producer: Gail Dolgin

Rating: out of 5


Daughter From Danang was conceived on the fly, with documentarians Vicente Franco and Gail Dolgin meeting their subject, one Heidi Bub, for the first time on the day before she left for Vietnam. As a seven-year-old half-Vietnamese, half-American child, Heidi (originally Mai Thi Hiep) was airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975 as part of Operation Babylift and made adoptively American. Some 22 years later, having regained contact with her birth mother, she returned for an emotional, exhaustingly videotaped reunion. Bub is more American than even she suspects when noting that she’s “101% Americanized.” She travels from a culture which values “catharsis” and “closure” as things which emerge readily and easily, and to which all humans have a right. Bub’s understanding of where she’s about to go is radically, woefully inadequate. Her relatives want money to care for Bub’s aged mother; Bub feels taken advantage of and departs Vietnam in tears, presumably never to return or re-establish contact with her relatives.

Bub embarks on the trip with a set of pre-defined objectives, and is rabidly overarticulate in pre-trip interview. Her life has been firmly established as a narrative in her mind, and she delivers tired familial anecdotes with all the well-timed pauses and overemphatic accents of someone who’s come to view her life entirely in well-defined retrospect (displayed in an online recount of events, which fills in many of the unfortunate blanks in the film regarding Bub‘s adopted mother). She states her desire for unconditional love and closure; her goals are entirely American-defined. Yet rather than question her expectations, the filmmakers play along, providing that staple of incompetent documentaries, blurry after-the-fact slow-motion footage designed to represent childhood flashbacks. They seem to think that Bub’s goals are entirely reasonable, and only fail due to cultural conflict. They miss Bub’s selfishness, which basically comes down to an amateur psychology workout wherein a childhood with a faulty maternal presence will suddenly be compensated for, catharsis achieved, etc. Never once do the filmmakers question Bub’s set-in-stone story, with its carefully defined emotional arc. Oddly enough, only toward the end of the film does someone actually do this: Bub’s military husband, who stayed at home while she went to Vietnam, recounts how, whenever he’d ask her about her trip, Bub would give incredibly vague, emotional answers and then “expect me to understand.” It is the only voice of doubt heard regarding how praiseworthy or intelligent Bub’s intentions were in the first place.

As a documentary, Daughter From Danang will never be confused with the work of the Maysles brothers or, more closely, Sound And Fury, an extraordinary documentary which also dealt with cultural and familial conflict. The differences are obvious: Those movies don’t have heroes, just various well-intentioned protagonists, all of whom end up losing. But Daughter From Danang pits America against Vietnam and spends the majority of its time empathizing with the pain of the former, reducing Vietnam to a series of picturesque shots emphasizing poverty. Ultimately though, there’s little to sympathize with: Heidi Bub comes across as a well-intentioned but fairly ignorant, entirely self-absorbed woman, the kind of person whose geopolitical ignorance would drive Jonathan Rosenbaum into a frenzy and, more importantly, is deeply unnerving in anybody who ostensibly wants to reconnect in any meaningful way with their past.

For all its flaws (its unquestioning acceptance of Bub, the hackneyed flashbacks, the sentimental music—all things which take their cue from “Oprah”), Daughter From Danang is a mostly riveting and painful experience which serves as a sobering reminder of how American ignorance and complacency can only survive within its borders. Edited down to its bare essence, Daughter From Danang minimalizes travelogue footage and emphasizes the relevant, painful conflicts. It can be excruciating to watch, but there’s barely any fat; it’s like some sort of streamlined case study. There’s a fine film waiting to be made about Operation Babylift’s political significance, hinted at in some stock footage used early on, but this is strictly a personal affair. As Bub herself writes: “I will give this one advise [sic] to anyone who is looking for their birth family... make sure it is absolutely, without a doubt what you want.” No gratification? Then no reward, not even that of knowledge. Bub is truly an American from first to last.

—Vadim Rizov

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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