Behind the Scenes
California filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's lives changed when they met Heidi Bub. Never sure where Heidi's story would lead, the pair followed Heidi to Danang and back -- deeply into the events of her past, through a tumultuous mother-daughter reunion, and toward an uncertain future.
The documentary they produced, a 2002 Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, sensitively revisits one of the most controversial chapters in American history -- the Vietnam War -- and reveals the impact of war at a very personal level. Here, Gail and Vicente answer questions about their experience.
How did you choose to document Heidi's story?
In many ways we like to think of the film as having chosen us. We weren't actively looking for a Vietnam-related subject, we didn't decide to research Operation Babylift nor did we do an extensive search to select a potential primary character whose story we wanted to tell.
In fact, here's how it all began. Gail was at a party and ran into her old friend, journalist T. T. Nhu. Gail and Nhu had known each other since their days as activists working to end the Vietnam War. Nhu had recently returned from a trip to Vietnam and was describing her experience of delivering a letter to a Vietnamese mother in Danang who hadn't heard from her Amerasian daughter in 22 years. As she described the emotional intensity of the scene, Gail remembers feeling her documentary filmmaker's heartbeat accelerate. She expressed to Nhu that she thought it was unfortunate no one had traveled with her to document the moment. Nhu responded saying that Heidi was planning to make the trip to meet her mother -- maybe we wanted to come along. Gail instantly knew there was a film to be made about the ensuing mother-daughter reunion and immediately called Vicente.
Six weeks later we were in Vietnam.
We weren't quite sure of the scope of the film that might result from the trip, but there was no time to waste wondering. If we joined Heidi Bub on her return to Vietnam, we would at least be able to capture the reunion and what we believed would be a re-connection by Heidi with her long forgotten Vietnamese roots. The cultural divide between Pulaski, Tennessee where Heidi had been raised since age seven and her family and background in Danang seemed rich in possibilities. Our motivation as filmmakers is always inspired by passion-driven stories and the opportunity to step into the unknown and capture life as it reveals itself. In this case, we certainly were as unprepared as Heidi for what was about to unfold.
We all believed that the reunion would be a healing story, a kind of full-circle coming home. The war in Vietnam was long over and we could create a film that, we believed, would ease the collective pain that is still connected to the war. The tragic drama of Heidi's reunion with her mother, however, reminds us that wars don't end when peace treaties are signed and bombs stop falling. It can take generations to heal from the wounds of war.
How did you develop the close relationship with Heidi that's evident in the film?
We met Heidi two days before leaving for Vietnam. We had asked her to spend a few days with us because we knew we needed to do a pre-trip interview in order to have a bed of material to play against the changes that we anticipated happening once she was in Vietnam. And, of course, we were strangers and needed to meet! From the first evening we spent together, there was a remarkable rapport between the crew and Heidi -- a trust and familiarity that allowed us to begin the filming with an openness and intimacy that pervades the film. We think this was a result of a number of things -- Heidi's genuine outgoing personality and perhaps most important, the fact that we were the first people to ask her in detail about her past. The story that had been locked inside for so long began flooding to the surface. In many ways it re-enforced our experience as filmmakers that most people have stories they want to tell but have very few opportunities to find anyone who will listen.
What were Heidi's feelings about being the subject of your film?
When Heidi agreed to let us accompany her and film her trip, she, along with us, believed everything was going to be happy. She wasn't exactly sure why we wanted to come along and she was caught up in the excitement of a reunion after 22 years. She didn't give much thought to the consequences of turning it into a feature-length documentary. Once we returned, however, she expressed hesitations about sharing what happened with the world and questioned whether we should continue with the film. She said that she was ashamed of her behavior with her family but that she had been so overwhelmed by the whole experience she just couldn't control her reaction. She feared that a film would expose her to audiences who would condemn her, making it all even more difficult to handle.
We felt great compassion for Heidi and didn't in any way want to coerce her into going forward with the project. We believed the film could have a great impact on many people but more importantly we didn't want it to have a negative impact on Heidi. After many months of talking together she agreed to proceed. But we weren't totally convinced. We wanted her full support. We showed her a 17-minute sample that included the most dramatic moments of the film -- good and difficult -- and told her if she wanted us to stop, we would. We would only continue if she believed there was something in it for her. After viewing the tape she said yes, we should make the film. Of course we asked why, what did she believe was in it for her? She told us that it was forcing her to really look at her past, that she wouldn't have done that if it wasn't for the film and she knew some part of her wanted to remember it all. As she told us, her life, until then, had felt like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle floating unconnected in her mind. In making the film, we were helping her fit them all together as well as helping her find missing pieces.
What does Heidi think of the completed film?
Once the film was completed, we sent her a copy and it took her over a month to look at it. When we won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival we called her to share the excitement. She said, "I'm so happy for you. You worked so hard for so long, I'm glad you won... and... I guess I better take a look!" Finally, a few weeks later, she gave us her opinion, "I think you made a really good film... I just wish it wasn't about me."
We've shared many e-mails and letters with Heidi from viewers who want her to know that they feel compassion for her, that they don't judge her. Hopefully this response will help her feel less isolated and more forgiving of herself. We believe this would be an important part of her healing, enabling her to open the door to her family that as she says in the film, has remained closed, but not locked.
What did Heidi expect in finding and meeting her mother? And why wasn't she better prepared for the encounter?
Heidi was so ecstatic and anxious at the prospect of reuniting with her long-lost mother that anything else associated with the trip to Vietnam was probably of less importance to her. And everything was happening so quickly. From the time she found out that her mother was alive and had been looking for her for all those years to the day she left for Vietnam was barely four months. In hindsight, she thinks perhaps it might have been better if she had waited a little longer.
In preparation for the trip, she exchanged a few phone calls and letters with her mother. She had many phone calls and e-mails with T. T. Nhu. She understood that her family needed money and she was excitedly planning to help them. She put a lot of attention to buying presents and prepared cash to carry with her as a gift. Nhu explained to her that it was customary in Vietnam for children to care for their parents when they got older and while Heidi wanted to help, she wasn't quite sure how the cultural expectations applied to her. After all, she explained, she'd been gone for 22 years and everything Vietnamese had been taken away from her as she was turned into a white Southerner. As she said in the film, one of her biggest fears was that she would offend someone by doing the wrong thing since she had been "101%" Americanized. She wasn't personally motivated to start reading books about Vietnam or looking at films or even contacting other Babylift kids who might have already made a trip back to Vietnam. Heidi was going home to reunite with her mother. That was much more significant for her than going to Vietnam.
T. T. Nhu has often wondered whether Heidi could have been better prepared for the trip. While Heidi bombarded her with questions about how to respond and behave in certain situations and learned some basic greetings and phrases to say to her family, her full attention prior to the trip was really concentrated on the personal and emotional aspect of seeing her mom. In fairness to Nhu, we believe there is no way a person can be totally prepared for how they might react when the emotional stakes are so high. Things might have been different if Nhu hadn't left early to visit some of her family in Hanoi. If she had stayed, she could, perhaps, have been the bridge between the family's request and Heidi's breakdown. Besides the emotional buildup, Heidi wasn't receiving complete and accurate translations.
By the time of the "breakdown" scene, however, she had also reached her limits in terms of feeling isolated and was terribly homesick for her own children and husband. We tried to supply as much support and comfort to Heidi as we could, but ultimately, she felt deeply alone. We think it's important to also remember that Heidi had never been separated from her own children before -- her youngest daughter was only nine months old -- and she had never really traveled outside of the United States, in addition to having grown up in a small community with little diversity. The culture shock was enormous.
What happened to Amerasian kids who were left behind in Vietnam?
At the end of the war thousands of Amerasian children were left behind to face a very uncertain future. It is our understanding that they were hated by the former North Vietnamese because they were children of the Americans, their old enemy, and they were discriminated against by former South Vietnamese because they were a reminder of the war they had lost. In general, they were rejected and shunned by the society, often abandoned by relatives and called, bui doi ("children of the dust") and con lai ("mixed-blood" or "half-breed"). While they weren't all rounded up and burned, as Heidi's mother had feared, their lives were often difficult.
It might have been different for Heidi because when her mother's husband, Vinh, returned from fighting with the Viet Cong, he said he would have raised Heidi as his own. Since we have learned that Vietnam is a patrilineal society and one's position in society is passed down through the father, Vinh's connection to the Viet Cong may have helped Heidi escape the ostracism experienced by others.
How does Heidi's experience compare to that of other adoptees finding their birth parents?
We understand from experts in the adoption world that reunification of adoptees with birth parents is often not a happy dream come true. It's not unusual to find that the results of reunions after years of separation and cultural differences do not meet the expectations of either the child or the parent. In fact, it's often an explosion of dreams colliding with reality. This is true not only in the case of separations caused by the Vietnam War, but also in similar situations in other cultures as well as reunions between families of the same background.
Was the family's request for money unusual? How do you feel about Heidi's reaction?
It is our understanding that Heidi's family's request for financial support was not out of the ordinary. Experts in Vietnamese culture agree that traditionally the member of the family that lives abroad constitutes the life-line for the rest of the family. And the request for help is considered quite normal. For many returning Vietnamese, the ability (emotionally and materially) to help is regarded as an opportunity to contribute to their family's well-being. Contributing to the ancestral tomb is often considered the greatest gift of all.
The truth in that, however, doesn't make us feel judgmental towards Heidi's response. None of us have walked in her shoes and we couldn't honestly predict how we might have reacted. We might think we know, but our thoughts are necessarily bound to our own experience.
How much money did Heidi's family want?
We're often asked this, and we don't really have a figure. We know that Heidi's mother isn't working and her husband receives a $20 per month stipend from the government for having fought with the Viet Cong. The average income in Vietnam is about $400 a year. A little bit goes a long way, so any amount of money sent by Heidi would help her family.
Some viewers have condemned Heidi for representing an aspect of American culture that they believe is selfish and individualized. They wonder why she just couldn't give a small amount of money to her family. But... we don't think her resistance to sending money has anything to do with the amount they might need. It's our sense that Heidi's reaction had much more to do with having lost the dream she'd held onto -- of what she would feel like once she found her mother. As she says in the film, she returned to Vietnam hoping to be the child -- the child who had been sent away at age 7. Yet she was asked, in many ways, to be the mother and her mother was the child. Heidi wanted to give to her family. She didn't want to feel she "owed" them.
The tragic breakdown for Heidi was complicated by so many things: her expectations for the visit, her limited knowledge of the culture, her guilt at the opportunities she'd been given by growing up in the U.S., her anger at having been abandoned as a child, her experience with her adoptive mother and her desire for unconditional love. By the time her brother asked her for money to support her mother, it was not really the surprise of his request or the amount they might have needed that caused her to break down. We believe it was just the straw the broke the camel's back. Heidi emotionally collapsed and she continues to be apprehensive about opening the "unlocked" door because of a fear that she'll be overwhelmed by the power of her feelings and the potential request, and unable to hold onto any boundaries.
In addition, it seems to us that Heidi still believes that her family's request for money diminishes the love they feel for her. It is our understanding that the need for money and the expectations of getting money from a family member who has more than you (especially if the live in the U.S.) is so woven into Vietnamese culture that it in no way undercuts true love. As Heidi's mother explained in the film, if Heidi had grown up in Vietnam she would have understood this and she hopes that in time, she will.
What was filming the "breakdown" scene like? What are the ethics of filming such emotional and intimate moments?
Documenting Heidi's trip carried an enormous emotional charge for us as filmmakers. From the very first moment in which mother and daughter embraced, we were exposed to a high degree of intensity in front of our camera. It was hard to hold back our own tears -- and often we didn't. Of course, the "breakdown" moment was without a doubt the biggest test of our ability to control our personal emotions while at the same time continuing our work as documentary filmmakers. The complexity of the situation hit us with an unexpected force as we witnessed the pain that Heidi and her mother were experiencing.
There was no way we could have prepared ahead of time. It took us by surprise. Suddenly we had to find a balance between the respect we owed to Heidi and her family, the compassion we felt for everyone in the room, and our own emotions and reactions to the pain everyone was feeling -- all this had to be balanced with our commitment as documentary filmmakers to capture the moment without intruding, affecting it as little as possible with our presence. If anyone had asked us to stop, we would have immediately turned off the camera. But our work was to document the raw truth as it revealed itself to us -- it was life in the making. And it was probably one of the toughest tests we have had to go through in our lives as filmmakers -- and as human beings. We all face each moment without prior knowledge of the outcome. It is this challenge that stimulates our work as documentary filmmakers -- filming life itself.
As filmmakers we often find ourselves in situations in which we need to decide what's more important: to get the shot, or to preserve the privacy of our protagonist's intimacy. And we have to decide as we go, often without time to deliberate. We hope that in moments in which there is no time to make rational decisions, we can trust our intuitive integrity. We like to believe that filmmakers are no different from any other human being and as human beings we all have the obligation to be ethical.
How did filming the reunion affect the trip and the outcome?
We're aware that every time we bring a camera to any location we are modifying reality in some way. Having said that, it was obvious to us, and it is probably obvious to viewers, that both Heidi and her family were at ease with the camera and the crew. We were welcomed into their lives and we always tried to respond respectfully to their graciousness.
We'll never know how things would have developed for Heidi had we not been there. But if we hadn't been there, we, personally, wouldn't have had the chance to experience and learn about the power of such an intense and raw human emotion. And neither would viewers, especially people related to the adoption community, have had the opportunity to be touched by the way life unfolds sometimes in such a magical, sometimes in such an unpredictable way.
Ultimately, without the camera, Heidi wouldn't have had a document of this profound moment in her life when her worlds collided. Being able to witness the experience again and again as time goes on will, we hope, give her more insight into her own life. She'll be able to see things with a new perspective, hear much that she might have missed and ultimately connect her past with her future.
How did you create such strong rapport with Heidi's Vietnamese family?
The first time we saw the family was when Heidi and her mother rushed to embrace at the Danang airport. It was such an emotional moment that no one really had any concern about or interest in the film crew. In fact, we became "bonded" with the family at that moment and for some reason Heidi's family believed that we were partially responsible for her return. Their generosity of spirit held strong throughout the visit. They welcomed us into their homes and hearts. And while we don't know when we might have the opportunity to share our homes with them, they certainly remain well-seated in our hearts and minds.
In the trip's aftermath, how has Heidi changed? Has she been in touch with her family?
We believe Heidi's journey is not really over. She is still struggling to make sense of it all. As far as we know, she continues to describe herself as a Southerner without clarifying herself beyond that. She doesn't openly identify as a Vietnamese American, mostly, as she explains to us, because she just doesn't feel like that's who she is today. But she doesn't deliberately hide the fact either.
As for being in touch with her family, she finally sent a letter with Nhu who was visiting Danang in summer 2002. Perhaps, someday, Heidi can make another visit. We imagine that traveling with her husband and daughters would make things easier. Or, maybe sometime her mother could visit her in the U.S. Either scenario, to us, offers the possibility of a mother-daughter connection that we believe would allow them to establish a relationship built on the love both so deeply desire.
Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco welcome your comments and questions. You can reach them directly via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.