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Daughter from Danang is nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. Whether it can beat the widely-distributed Bowling for Columbine remains to be seen, but it’s every bit as good.

A Babylift “Orphan”

Like mother, like daughter
Like mother, like daughter

Heidi Bub is as American as mullet hairdos and braces. She grew up in Pulaski, Tennessee, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent.

But Heidi wasn’t born in America. She didn’t come here until she was three or four. She was born with the name Mai Thi Hiep in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an American father, although her father disappeared before she was born.

She came to America as part of an operation called Babylift, which itself could make for an interesting documentary. Children like Hiep were brought to the U.S. as war orphans, but observant Americans noticed that many of these children were describing the families they left. But as I said, that would be the subject of a different movie. It is only the background for this story.

Heidi began looking into her adoption records when she was in her early twenties. She found a letter from her mother at an adoption agency. With the help of a friend, Tran Tuong Nhu, she arranged for a trip to Vietnam — a homecoming and a reunion.

Houseguests and Fish

If the film ended here, it would still offer drama and tension, but no surprises. Daughter From Danang sticks with its subjects a little longer and tells a deeper, more true-to-life story.

The reunion is joyful and the family feasts and sees the sights. But Heidi decides to stay a while longer after her friend goes home. Heidi is now alone in a strange land where she doesn’t speak the language, separated from her husband and two children.

A little pressure is all it takes to make Heidi collapse. The food begins to stink, and her family begins to suffocate her. The final straw, however, is when her half-brother asks her to send monthly stipends to the family.

Too Much To Ask

As Heidi explains, her adoptive mother didn’t give her unconditional love. Maybe all she was looking for was another chance with a different mother. But instead of unconditional love, she finds herself among a houseful of strangers, all begging for a handout.

It’s completely understandable, but sad nonetheless, to hear Heidi say she regretted the trip back because at least her memories had been fond. Now the memories are shattered by an ugly reality, and Heidi is all out of mothers.

The most perfect, noblest person would take the request for aid in stride and offer to help where she could. But none of us are perfect, including Heidi. I found myself asking whether I could have done any better. Given her circumstances, I probably could not.

Documentary Style

Daughter from Danang is shot on video and blown up to 35mm. Because the picture is square, it doesn’t take up the full screen. Watching it on video probably won’t diminish the experience.

Directors Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco shoot the reunion trip, which makes up the core of the film. They supplement this footage with interviews shot a couple years after the trip, with Heidi and her family recounting the events that took place during the trip. There is also some archival footage of the Babylift operations and some still photos from Heidi’s childhood.

The film builds tension by cross-cutting between Heidi and her mother as the reunion trip approaches. Both women get more and more nervous as zero hour draws near. This keeps the film interesting for the first two-thirds. By that point, we are so involved that Dolgin and Franco can explore more subtle and complex emotions.

Like most people, I can’t say whether Daughter from Danang deserves to win the Best Documentary Oscar because I haven’t had the opportunity to see most of the nominees. But on its own merits, Daughter from Danang deserves a strong recommendation, and a congratulations for the honor of a nomination.

 
Daughter from Danang will show on PBS’ “The American Experience” April 7 at 9:00.