In 2007, I was an
undergraduate documentary student at UCLA’s film school. I had never made a film
before, but I wanted to document something very different from the experiences
of my own life. I wanted to explore. My good friend at the time was Vietnamese
and, long story short, I decided to make a feature-length documentary (I didn’t even
know documentary shorts existed) on the street kids of Ho Chi Minh City.
So with a few grants, donations and some savings, we went over to Vietnam to
Because we had to get
permission from the government to legally shoot in Vietnam, word got around,
and a Vietnamese television producer met us at our hotel. He thought our
subject matter was fine but trite, so he offered to take us to a “peace
village” tucked away in the back of a maternity
hospital. This peace village was Lang Hoa Binh: a care center for kids disabled
by the chemical Agent Orange.
I had just turned 21
and had no idea what Agent Orange was. When I researched it, I realized it was
a chemical sprayed by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War to defoliate the forests
and that these children had been disabled by it, generations later. We decided
to volunteer at the care center for two weeks. Every day, I would finish helping
bathe and feed the younger kids, and then I would take off and go play soccer
with the older kids (Chau included). This is when I noticed that these kids
were just kids. They never saw themselves as different. It was the outside
world who saw them differently. I realized this was the story, the perspective
I wanted to explore.
Because I was a woman,
the care center put me front and center with the other nurses, allowing me to
really get into the thick of it all. After two weeks, we started bringing the
cameras along, and initially I wanted to make a feature film about five of the
kids, at different ages, growing up in the care center. But I eventually
decided to focus on Chau because of his passion and dynamic personality. He
knew exactly what he wanted to do at age fifteen, and he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Maybe because I, too, was trying to prove myself as
a filmmaker, I personally related to him. But overall, I realized Chau’s arc
needed the focus. Chau’s story is something we all go through: growing up, wrestling
with our dreams and demons, wondering how our life will turn out.
When I got back to the
U.S., I thought I would finish my film by the end of the year, but my friend
decided he didn’t want to pursue the project anymore and I was left trying to
fill in the blanks. This led me down a long road of hiring translators. That
delay took me into the next chapter of Chau’s life, and I realized the story wasn’t over.
In fact, I had no idea it would take another seven years to capture the ending of
the film and to see Chau flourish.
Structuring a film you don’t know how it will end is tough. I just knew that regardless of where
Chau’s story went, we needed to spend a good amount of time in the
care center in order to understand Chau’s world and to see him as more than someone with
a disability. The number one rule I had from the beginning was for nothing to
be setup, re-created or lit with anything other than natural light. For the
moments of Chau’s life I was not there for, I would never ask him to re-create a
scene or situation. Wherever Chau felt like talking, we filmed. The less I took
Chau out of his comfort zone, the more honesty and truth I would get. I do,
however, think that some more artistic qualities that could have been achieved
in the film may have been lost because of this approach. The film ended up
being 34 minutes. This came from trying to tell the proper story with the
runtime being an afterthought.
Over the course of
these eight years, Chau taught me that if we focus on what we have, rather than what
we don’t have, perhaps we too can achieve the seemingly impossible.
That perseverance and persistence does pay off despite our setbacks. And, above
all else, Agent Orange is not an issue of the past. It is very much one of the
present and still affects millions in Vietnam and America today. This is a
humanitarian issue we can do something about. I suggest raising awareness via
social media and writing to your governing officials about continuing the
cleanup in Vietnam. Together, we can try to protect the futures of later generations.
“Chau, Beyond the Lines” is currently
streaming on Netflix in the U.S. and a broadcast version will air
internationally on Al Jazeera English/Witness, starting February 28.
Courtney Marsh is a filmmaker and activist who received her BFA from UCLA. Upon graduating, Courtney worked extensively in the camera department under the mentorship of Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC. Her short films have screened internationally, and she has participated in programs with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as well as Film Independent.