INTERIVIEW: A Tennessee Native Confront Her Childhood Vietnam; Dolgin and Franco's "Daughter from Danang"
by Kate Schultz
(indieWIRE: 10.31.02) — A seven-year-old child is plucked from her home in Vietnam, plopped into America’s bible belt, and magically transformed into an all-American girl named Heidi. Must be the plot the of a horror story, right? Actually, this was the handiwork of “Operation Babylift,” the U.S. government’s scheme to ease Vietnam’s post-war burden by putting Vietnamese children up for adoption in the U.S. In Heidi’s case (and probably in many others, too) those heroic efforts to erase her past and assign her an American identity weren’t completely successful.
Twenty two years after she left, Heidi returned to Vietnam to find her birth mother, accompanied by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, the co-directors of “Daughter From Danang.” As longtime documentary filmmakers (their films include “Cuba Va: The Challenge of the Next Generation“) Dolgin and Franco were no strangers to confronting the unknown when filming a documentary, but even they were impressed by what Dolgin calls the jaw-dropping moments in “Daughter From Danang.” The film really does leave the viewer with the sense of witnessing a miracle.
Dolgin and Franco, who both live in San Francisco, visited New York recently to share the experiences they had making this incredible film. “Daughter from Danang” opens tomorrow at New York’s Quad Cinema.
indieWIRE: How did you envision this film before you went to shoot it?
Gail Dolgin: I think we always knew it would be a multi-layered film, because it was one person’s personal journey, and that always leaves room for a lot of emotional involvement and unknowns. We knew it was a passion-driven story, and that’s one of the things that motivates us as filmmakers. Did it change for us as we moved through the journey with our main character? Absolutely. It was not at all what we anticipated and we had to be there, moving along with it, as it revealed itself. It became far more complex than I think either of us ever anticipated.
iW: But you expect to work that way — to roll with the punches and go with the flow?
Vicente Franco: As documentary filmmakers, we always have to do that. You can’t have a preconceived notion of what you’re going to be doing. You’d better leave it open in a very broad way, because we know the more you limit yourself, the more you probably prevent yourself from making a better film. We came out with a film that is much more real than if we had stuck to what we thought it was going to be: a simple celebration of reunion between mother and daughter.
iW: Were you prepared to make that film, this simple celebration of the reunion?
Dolgin: When we were first introduced to the possibility of doing this story, we thought we could come back with a 20-minute short that was about a full-circle return to a birthplace. We knew that there would be emotion in that, and we also knew that the cultural gap between Heidi’s home in Pulaski, Tenn., and Danang, Vietnam was going to give us something of interest, to see what it was like for somebody to connect the dots between those two cultures. We were not prepared to make a long narrative feature out of something meant to be a short film.
Franco: When we first met Heidi, it was, first of all, about getting to know her. We had known about the story for only a few weeks. Two days before we were supposed to jump on a plane with her, going to the realization of the dream of her life, we had a lengthy interview with her to find out what she was all about. It was a very important interview. It gave us a chance to establish a rapport with her, and also to find out how a Vietnamese girl developed in a place totally different from Vietnam.
Dolgin: We wanted to see what she remembered because we knew, as soon as we got off the plane, memories would start coming back and we wanted a real baseline of who she was before she landed in Vietnam, returning to a place she had lived for seven years. She didn’t come to the U.S. as an infant, so we knew there were memories locked in there that would be of interest as they were revealed, because in Pulaski they’d been shut down.
iW: You were able to create an extraordinary on-camera relationship with Heidi. Her honesty was such that I trusted her most of all the subjects to “tell it like it is” as family events unfolded in Danang. How did you two as filmmakers create that?
Dolgin: We have a commitment to create an atmosphere of trust and intimacy with whomever we’re working, because otherwise we can’t really tell a story the way we want to tell it. In this case, the chemistry was right. I had spent an evening with her before we did this interview, and immediately there was an openness. We think in many ways it was because she was: A. really excited about the trip and needed to talk, because it was a release of her anxieties about it, and: B. no one had asked about her story before. I think we all want our stories to be heard. There was trust established just in the fact that we were the first people to ask her in depth about some experiences. Then, by accompanying her on the trip, we bonded. That’s a cliche, but, in many ways, we became the people she could rely on.
Franco: She was there afterwards by herself for a while, and after things started to develop and conflicts started coming up, that bond maximized. She had nobody else to depend on but us. We needed to be there for her.
Dolgin: Tran Tuong Nhu, the journalist who introduced us to Heidi, had a very strong relationship with her that developed over e-mails and phone calls. Because of that trust, Heidi relied on Nhu. Nhu was trusted by us because we had known her for many years. It was a circle that became very tight. So, when Nhu left, we were Heidi’s bedrock.
iW: Did your feelings about Operation Babylift change through the course of the filmmaking and after seeing the final results? It seemed horrifying to me, but as Heidi says herself, it did provide her some good opportunities.
Franco: That’s what’s so interesting about documentaries. I knew so little about the Babylift situation that I didn’t have preconceived ideas. Obviously, we were aware of some of the consequences, and we knew that what Heidi was going through was just one more example of how war doesn’t really provide the benefits it claims to bring, but a lot of atrocities. And from the moment we found out about it, we knew that Babylift was the last chance the U.S. government had to get some good press from a war it had lost. The research and archival material for the film show a lot of interesting aspects of how forceful Babylift was. We believe that it actually was applied in a very loose way and that kids who were not even orphans were included in the program, probably for political reasons. There are some good aspects, obviously, from Heidi’s point of view. She was happy that she received an education. On the other hand, not all of the consequences were positive.
iW: I’d like to know more about how you two work as co-directors. It seems as if it could be a struggle of wills, particularly when you’re shooting and making quick, difficult decisions. Can you talk about your partnership?
Franco: Gail and I have been working together for 14 years. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it would bring positive results. It wasn’t an experiment for us. I think the trust we have for each other and the way we complement each other is what shows in our films. It’s definitely a struggle, but it’s a creative struggle, and therefore is a good process. We co-direct together and sometimes we produce together. In this case, we both directed; Gail produced the film and I did the cinematography. It’s not a struggle of wills, it’s a collaboration. As a DP, I feel that four eyes are better than two. And I think directing is the same way.
Dolgin: Having a co-director relationship with the cinematographer is really great because when we got to some very critical moments in Vietnam, when there wasn’t time for a DP to turn around and get some signals from a director, you had to go on intuition and trust. We knew right at that moment, without any words passing between us, what we wanted to do and why. I also have such incredible trust for Vicente as a DP, and as a cinematographer. It’s a director’s dream come true to have somebody they can work with, that they know exactly how that person sees and perceives something.
iW: How is San Francisco/Berkeley for filmmakers?
Franco: San Francisco is probably the Mecca of documentary filmmaking, and we definitely think it’s a very tight community. Everybody is mainly in competition for the same funding, but at the same time we help each other every way we can. I feel there’s no better place to work as an independent documentary filmmaker.
Dolgin: There are so many of us there. One thing that never gets mentioned in interviews that we’ve done is that one of our offices and our editing room is in the Saul Zaentz Film Center. That’s become an important hub for documentary and independent filmmakers. The building houses the executive offices of Saul Zaentz, the producer of “The English Patient” and “Amadeus” and a bunch of other films, and there are several floors of spaces rented to independent, primarily documentary, filmmakers. It’s really an important and supportive environment for us and we have great gratitude for that. The Film Arts Foundation is based in San Francisco, and that’s also an important hub for independents, and ITVS, the Independent Television Service, has their main offices in San Francisco and they were one of our primary funders and supporters.
iW: I wonder if Heidi may want to re-establish a connection with her family. The door, as she calls it, seems open for a follow-up. Have you considered a sequel?
Dolgin: We thought at first maybe we would do three parts to this film, from the mother’s perspective, from Heidi’s perspective, and from the missing father’s perspective. We didn’t have the money to do it. The father is seemingly very difficult to find, and the story became what it became. We believe the story is not over in terms of Heidi’s life and her relationship with her mother. If she were willing to allow us to join in the filming of that we would be very willing to do it, but it’s not clear whether we would be invited.
Franco: Or whether there is a film about it or not.