Who says you can't get something for nothing? To celebrate their 20-year run of funding independent filmmakers, the folks at The Independent Television Service will be make 20 feature-length documentaries by ITVS storytellers available for free on-line viewing -- starting today, and continuing through Sept. 23. First on tap: Daughter from Danang, an exceptionally fine nonfiction film that you can view -- for free -- through Wednesday here. Here's my original 2002 review. (By the way: I did mention that you can see the movie for free, didn't I?)
Our parents and teachers were right to warn us: Be careful what you wish for. Heidi Bub, the subject of a poignant documentary titled Daughter from Danang, has doubtless taken that lesson to heart. And after seeing the film, I’d be willing to bet that its directors, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, have the maxim embroidered on a sampler somewhere.
Heidi, the documentary informs us, was born Mai Thi Hiep, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier stationed in Danang during the Vietnam War. Just before the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Mai Thi Kim, Hiep’s mother, turned her 7-year-old daughter over to Operation Babylift, a program designed to place orphans with American adoptive parents. Why? Kim wanted the best for her little girl, and feared the worst after hearing horror stories about Viet Cong mistreatment of mixed-race children. Not incidentally, she also feared the reaction of her returning husband, who had spent years away from his family while fighting with the VC.
Interweaving testimony from Heidi, her husband and a few of her childhood friends, Dolgin and Franco fashion a fascinating portrait of a Vietnamese-born youngster who eagerly and easily assimilated as an all-American girl with a brand new name in southern Tennessee. Of course, it helped that, even as a child, Heidi didn't look very Asian. It helped more, however, that Heidi seldom spoke of her heritage, at the insistence of her emotionally distant adoptive mother.
During her college years, we’re told, Heidi became permanently estranged from her American mom. (The latter’s absence from Daughter is never directly explained; presumably, she didn’t wish to be interviewed.) And even though Heidi remained relatively close to her American uncle and grandmother, who both appear on camera here, she was determined to find a mother who might grant her unconditional love.
Which is why, 22 years after her departure from Vietnam, Heidi found a way to contact her biological mother.
Dolgin and Franco tagged along for Heidi’s sentimental journey to Danang. As they frankly admitted while introducing their documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, they expected to record a happy ending at a family reunion. Instead, they witnessed, and we see, something much more emotionally and psychologically complicated.
At first, Kim and Heidi are overjoyed to see each other, and Heidi's half-sisters and half-brother seem equally glad to greet their lost-long sibling. Even Do Huu Vinh, Kim's husband, professes to be pleased. In a provocatively ambiguous scene, he claims -- not altogether convincingly -- that, had little Hiep not been shuttled off to America, he would have raised the child as his own daughter.
The longer Heidi stays in Danang, however, the enormous cultural differences between her and her family become increasingly – and frustratingly -- apparent. At first, the dissimilarities are mild annoyances. (Kim loves to hug and caress her little girl; Heidi wasn't raised to be a touchy-feely type.) As her discomfort escalates, however, Heidi wonders aloud if she should cut short her stay.
Daughter from Danang reaches its emotional climax during a heart-wrenching family gathering, and ends, ambiguously, on a note of plaintive regret. You can’t help admiring the empathetic tact of the filmmakers: One wrong move at the wrong moment, and they would have intruded upon, or even interrupted, the real-life drama unfolding before their cameras. On the other hand, you can’t help thinking that they must feel greatly disappointed, because they don’t quite get what they came for.
Alas, neither does Heidi Bub.