Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco expected a conciliatory tale of healing when they set out to make Daughter From Danang (a Grand Jury prizewinner at Sundance). But like the film’s subject, Heidi Bub, a “101 percent Americanized” woman returning to Vietnam decades after Operation Babylift to meet the mother she barely remembers, they encountered deep cultural rifts.
“We thought this could be a short film with a wonderful happy ending to a 22-year separation,” says Dolgin, a former peace-movement activist who, together with Franco, made 1993’s Cuba Va, a similarly complex portrait of Cuban youth after the fall of the Soviet bloc. Through a Vietnamese journalist friend, Dolgin learned about Bub’s impending reunion with her Vietnamese family. In just five weeks, she raised funds and recruited Franco to collaborate.
The documentarians met Bub (born Mai Thi Hiep) only two days before her flight. “The spontaneity worked for us,” claims Dolgin, remembering the shared nervous excitement that connected the filmmakers to the 29-year-old mother of two. “But we knew she wasn’t prepared enough. In her defense, was it even possible to prepare herself?”
While in Danang, Dolgin and Franco found themselves confronted with a central character that changed in a matter of days from a “hopeful young lady,” as Franco recalls, to a confused Ugly American. “I was upset at Heidi,” admits Franco. “I wanted to shake her up and make her realize that life in Vietnam was different from what she knew in the States. But it didn’t take me long to realize that she was responding the only way she could.” Making matters worse, the hired translator often appears one step short of communicating the actual needs of both Americans and Vietnamese. “Yes, we didn’t understand the exact words that were being said until we came back and transcribed it,” admits Franco.
While Dolgin and Franco realize that some audiences will dislike Bub, they believe that her path of disenchantment made for a film that “builds in its power of surprise.” Dolgin adds, “We think it’s important for the viewer to have the same sense of revelation that our characters did, and as we did, filming it.” For Dolgin it was personal. “I thought I was going back to do something positive,” she says. “As it turned out, it was another painful chapter.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Daughter From Danang