In this film made over ten years, filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn goes on a pilgrimage to the Vietnamese countryside where her husband was killed. She and translator (and fellow war widow) Xuan...
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In this film made over ten years, filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn goes on a pilgrimage to the Vietnamese countryside where her husband was killed. She and translator (and fellow war widow) Xuan Ngoc Nguyen explore the meaning of war and loss on a human level. The film weaves interviews with Vietnamese and American widows into a vivid testament to the legacy of war. Written by
Fiona Kelleghan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Some have called this documentary 'propaganda,' and I can understand that point of view since there is no mention of Viet Cong atrocities here; but since this was made some thirty years after the war was over, it can hardly be propaganda. It does present a limited point of view, that of the women who suffered because of the war, but that was film maker Barbara Sonneborn's intention. She wanted to show how she personally suffered because she lost her husband in the war and how she has come to grips with that loss, but more than that she wanted to show how other women also suffered and what the war meant to them, including, and perhaps especially, the Vietnamese women. After all, it was their homes that were bombed, not ours.
Imbedded within and at the heart of Sonneborn's reflections is the story of Xuan Ngoc Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American woman who served as her translator. Nguyen tells her personal story beginning with the sight of the bombs falling on her village and that of her five-year-old cousin being shot by an America soldier (who became horrified at what he had done). She tells of her stint as a prostitute for G.I.'s, her marriage to an American soldier and her coming to America, the end of her marriage, and the implications of her life afterwards, raising her son and becoming Americanized, and finally her return with Sonneborn to the country of her birth. She is the heroine of this film, a woman who faced the horrors of war, did what she felt she had to do, somehow survived in one piece, and now looks back with tears in her eyes.
Sonneborn's documentary owes part of its effectiveness to the contrast between the black and white and fading colored film shot during the war and the brilliant rush of greenery so beautifully photographed today. The effect of seeing the verdant fields of today's Vietnam contrasted with a land torn apart by bombs and sickened with Agent Orange is to show that despite all the damage and death of the war, the fields and those who tend the fields, recover. In this sense--and John Hersey used the same idea in his book, Hiroshima (1946), when he described how the grass grew back after the atom bomb--the futility of war is demonstrated. We kill one another with a ferocious abandonment; nonetheless, the greenery returns, even if, as Carl Sandburg implies in his poem, 'Grass,' it is fertilized by our blood.
Consequently this film cannot but play as an indictment of the war in Vietnam, and for some, as an indictment of all wars. I will not argue with that. As anyone who has really thought long and hard about war knows, from Sun Tzu to General Powell, it is always best to avoid the war if that is possible, but there comes a time and a circumstance in which one has no choice. The jury has long since rendered its verdict on the war in Vietnam.
We are reminded of that every time we hear a commentator say, 'We don't want another Vietnam.' But there is an enormous difference between the horrendous stupidity of our involvement in Vietnam and the absolute necessity of defending ourselves against the aggression of the fascists and imperialists during World War II. And the war being fought today against terrorism is also one that cannot be avoided.
I see Sonneborn's film as a reminder not only of the horror of war, but of our responsibility to be sure that our cause, as Bush has it, 'is just' and our methods restricted to the task at hand, and that the suffering of those involved be ended as soon as humanly possible.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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