Nominated for an Oscar, Daughter From Danang is one of the most emotionally harrowing documentaries I’ve ever seen. Halfway through I started to get a very very bad feeling. Something was approaching, something unforeseen, something completely unexpected. You could feel it, like the shadow from a cloud. When that “thing” arrives, it is as wrenching as you had feared. Even more so. By the end of the film, I felt like I had been chewed up and spat back out. It is an unforgettable experience.
Directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, Daughter From Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub’s return to Vietnam, after living her entire life in America. She was airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975 (when she was 7 years old) with the so-called “Operation Babylift,” a well-meaning messy program to remove orphans out of Vietnam and find homes in the United States. However, Heidi was not an orphan and many of the children were not orphans, they were given up by their devastated parents who wanted their children out of the country in safety. The entire thing ended up being a bureaucratic nightmare (and, horrifyingly, one of the planes, filled with Vietnamese babies, crashed), once it became apparent that many of the small children were not orphans at all. Some of their parents had been coerced by aid workers to give up their children (and the film-makers have dredged up an extremely sinister clip of footage showing a chirpy American aid worker doing just that).
Heidi was born Mai Thi Hiep. Her father was an unknown American serviceman, and her mother had many other children with another man, a man who had deserted the family and joined the Vietcong. She put her one daughter on that plane: since her daughter was mixed-race, Hiep’s mother feared reprisals from the Vietcong when they finally took over. Hiep was eventually adopted in the States by a single mother (rare, in those days), re-named Heidi, and raised in a small town in Tennessee (the same town, incidentally, which boasts the birth of the KKK). Heidi doesn’t “present” as Vietnamese at all. She “passed,” totally, as a white American, with a thick Southern accent. She was encouraged by her mysterious adoptive mother (not interviewed in the film) to not tell people she was born in Vietnam. “Just say you were born in South Carolina,” says this mysterious woman. What the hell.
Heidi was raised with many advantages and her adoptive family accepted her and loved her. But there are disturbing undercurrents. Heidi never felt loved. She was haunted by her unknown birth family. Her adoptive mother kicked her out of the house for being 10 minutes late for her curfew, and they have never spoken since. There are hints that she beat Heidi, although everyone (including Heidi) seems reluctant to label her as abusive. The love her adoptive mother gave her was completely conditional, and Heidi longed for the unconditional love of her real mother.
Heidi, now married to her high school sweetheart, a Navy officer, with a couple of kids, always yearned for her birth family and wondered who they were. Through various helpful journalists, and contacting the adoption agency, she was able to track down her mother, who still lived in Danang. Accompanied by a journalist, who spoke Vietnamese (Heidi speaks none), Heidi traveled back to Danang for a reunion with her mother and all of her brothers and sisters, still living in Vietnam.
The documentary clearly started out one way and then morphed into something else. That happens sometimes with documentaries, whose stories change mid-way through. A director of mine in college used to say to us, when we were complaining about how a certain show wasn’t what we wanted, or we were disappointed in this or that element: “It may not be the show you want, but it’s the show you got.” The directors here started out to tell the story of one of the orphans from the “Operation Babylift,” and it was ostensibly going to be a moving story about a long-delayed reunion between mother and daughter.
But that is not at all what ends up happening. The reunion scene in the airport was so emotional that I almost felt embarrassed that cameras were present. Heidi’s mother clutched at her daughter, wailing. Heidi, a sweet and polite woman, if a little naive, clutched her mother back, and you could see all of these emotions doing literal battle on Heidi’s face. She had her own emotions but her mother’s swept hers away. It was almost too much pain to be present to. You want to take a step back. But you can’t. This mother gave her daughter up and that fact has haunted her all her life. She says, at one point, “I didn’t want her to think I abandoned her.” Heidi says at one point, before meeting them, and she sounds anxious, “I hope they understand that I am completely Americanized.”
Heidi’s Vietnamese family are very poor but they have strong family bonds. They pull out all the stops to entertain her, putting together gigantic meals, taking her shopping at the market, and going on long walks through the neighborhood where Heidi had been born. These are all very nice people. But as the visit goes on (and it only lasts 7 days), Heidi starts to feel totally smothered. Completely overrun. Disoriented. Upset.
There is a culture clash. An enormous one. One starts to wish that Heidi had been better prepared for what she might run into. The journalist who accompanied her said that she had a feeling it would go the way it did, but she was so taken up with trying to teach minimal Vietnamese to Heidi that she didn’t say anything. It might have been better to skip the language lessons and say, “Here is what they will ask of you. So just be prepared for it.”
When they all, one by one, start asking her for money, start explaining that they expect her to send money back on a monthly basis, that it is now part of her job to help take care of their mother, maybe even move their mother back to the United States with her, Heidi is completely blindsided. It feels like an ambush.
The breakdown that follows is devastating. There is so much in it. Devastation on both sides. It is a train wreck that happens in slo-mo. Nobody is a villain here. Heidi is not an entitled silly American and her Vietnamese family are not rude money-grubbers. It’s a culture clash, that’s all, and the sad thing is that it could have been avoided if both sides had been prepped a bit more. There are glimpses of pain on Heidi’s mother’s face that are so profound you want to look away. And even in the midst of the breakdown in communication, so hurtful to Heidi’s mother, the mother reprimands her husband who criticizes Heidi (in Vietnamese). The mother says to him, “Have some compassion.”
To be able to say that, even as you are faced with all of the losses, and the guilt and the shame, and the disappointments … I mean, this woman’s life is basically ruined through the course of the reunion … It’s just extremely moving.
I wept for all involved. Heidi’s brother (a very kind and sweet man) says later that he feels bad about how it all went down and he is afraid that it made the Vietnamese look bad to Heidi. He says to the interviewer: “I am learning English, so I can write her a letter.”
I’m still crying.
It’s a devastating film. It starts out one way, and then it goes firmly off the rails. It is just one story but you know it is symbolic of many many more. Dolgin and Franco film it all with great sensitivity and compassion, not tipping the scales one way or the other.
I highly recommend it, painful as it is.