Broken Journey: Mending Dreams
(56 min. documentary. VHS video) 1992. Produced and directed by Jim Landels. Co-directed and translated by Hanh Tran. Distributed by Film Australia, Eton Rd., Lindfield, 2070, Australia; 02/4138777; FAX 02/4165672.
Reviewed by Peter McGregor, University of Western Sydney, Australia
Hanh Tran tells the story of the journey of a middle-class southern Vietnamese family whose dreams were shattered with the defeat of the U.S. in Viet Nam in 1975. The victory of the communist-led forces and the 'liberation' of the southern half of the country constituted for Hanh's family a massive dislocation of their plans and expectations, of their journey to the future. This candid and intimate documentary reveals both in retrospect the powerful impact of that break, but also the recent transition towards a recuperation, a mending, of the dreams. This family can't be taken to represent the diversity of life experiences in such a post-colonial, war-torn and still extremely poor country. Nevertheless it is indicative of both recurring Vietnamese traditions and of a society in transition. Hanh and his older brother were able (i.e., old enough) to undertake university before 1975. Hanh himself came to Australia in 1972 under the Colombo Plan, and stayed on until the return trip in 1990 which is the occasion for this film. Meanwhile, as his father Dinh (a relatively senior South Vietnamese official) spent eight-and-a-half hard years in a reeducation camp, his eight younger siblings were unable to complete their education or to find meaningful work in the new Viet Nam. The family, living in Ho Chi Minh City, was divided in two for a while, as half were forced to try to live in a New Economic Zone. Through the strength of Hanh's mother Phuong, the family managed to hold together and survive. The impressiveness of this kinship bonding is accentuated for us by its relative absence in contemporary mainstream Caucasian Australian society.
The Vietnamese philosophy of tu te (kindness) is only too apparent: "Beauty comes from bringing harmony, joy and humanity (generosity and altruism), into your dealings with family, friends and neighbors." With his family unable to get work and reduced to living in considerable poverty, Hanh worked hard in Australia to save to send them money. But it wasn't the poverty that Phuong saw as tainting the family name, rather the shame that would come from bad behavior; the opposite of tu te. She expresses both relief that her kids didn't become corrupt, but also concern, for instance, for her daughters, that "decent men aren't available [as husbands], and the available men aren't decent." Although the next oldest brother to Hanh did leave home, joined a gang and turned to crime, he has now reformed and come home. He had felt unable to take on the father's role in the family when his father was away in the camp. Dinh, a devout Buddhist, is more tolerant of the politics and conditions in Viet Nam than the rest of the family. Paradoxically, by being sent to a camp in the North and in spite of this own suffering and sickness there--he nearly died--Dinh came to see how hard conditions for ordinary people in the North were. While it is Phuong who will probably find living in the U.S. much more difficult than will her husband--he is fluent in English (and French), while she is not--it is she who is adamant they must leave Viet Nam to find any future for their kids: for her Viet Nam is no longer theirs; it is now "the VC's country."
This film reminds one of the origins and definition of the term "documentary." According to John Grierson, in founding the documentary film movement in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, the purpose of a documentary is to educate, to inform. The primary and dominant function of a documentary is to build understanding, and hence social consensus by communicating, by sending clear messages. Now, why has this film been made? Certainly not as a cultural commodity to sensationally entertain, or to make a name for its producers (e.g., Sylvannia Waters); nor as a didactic piece of propaganda telling the audience what to think (e.g., Pilger's documentaries about Cambodia); nor as a work of art, a predominantly aesthetic experience. Grierson defined a documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality." This film's aesthetics rarely draw attention to themselves; its message is too complex, diverse and personal to be propagandist, and its concern with life and reality makes its contents painful and demanding to receive. Unfortunately, its potential audience may be restricted accordingly.
The documentary use of film, as with photographs and even with letters, in (auto)-biographies can be a kind of "insurance against memory," or a "consolation when change is inevitable" (to appropriate comments Hanh has made elsewhere). Given he is a photographer and a filmmaker, Hanh presumably wanted to construct an account of his family on film. Hanh was only too aware of the gaps between the letters he received from his family (which did become more transparent post-Doi Moi), and the realities of Viet Nam. Hence his return journey was initially one of rediscovery, and then of reconciliation. And this film was to be an integral part of that rediscover/reconciliation process. While Hanh concedes his family may not have been fully aware of the filmmaking process they were involved in, the camera and microphone gain an access to the family's life--via their trust in Hanh--that is quite astonishing in its frankness. Hanh had dreamed of making this film for over fifteen years, and it shows; it is made with loving care. It is an act of reconciliation on several interconnected levels: between Hanh and his family; between the mainstream Australian public and immigrants from 'other' cultures; and between Hanh and contemporary Viet Nam. Hanh had felt unable politically to return to Viet Nam until the opening up of the country that has occurred since the Sixth Party Congress of 1986, and the liberal Doi Moi reforms that followed. This included, for instance, the family being accepted as eligible for emigration to the U.S. because of Dinh's detention; and the longer the sentence, the greater the eligibility! (Several unsuccessful applications since 1977 for the family to migrate to Australia should challenge the myth that Australia's immigration rules are biased or too easy, especially for Asians.)
Hanh, on the one hand, successfully intervenes in a family crisis which could've threatened their departure plans; on the other hand, he "confesses" to his privileged position within the family, and offers both advice coming from that privilege, and continuing financial support. Tears are shed and pain shared as this film bravely incorporates family problems that lesser films would evade and hide. This film reveals the depths and complexities and differences between the otherwise monolithic and universal image of the migrant/refugee. Hanh wants to challenge the way migrants are seen in Australia (as an anonymous, alien mass; as, for instance, either political or economic refugees). Hanh's family fits neither simplistic stereotype. Again, while his family is not meant to be typical or representative--and what family is representative, anyway?--An understanding of their story illustrates some of the complexities of migration. This film offers an alternative perspective: it illuminates why and how people come to emigrate. Furthermore, while Hanh's family may have been "torn apart" by he war, he turns upside-down the dominant, limited and possibly racist assumption that people in his position are "torn between two cultures." Rather, he sees his position as an advantage, namely the enriching and fertile experience of having a foot in two cultures.
Hanh is aware of some of the destructive impacts the communist takeover had on his family and others. For example, he believes the communist government may regret its lack of leniency towards anticommunist Southerners in its policy of reeducation camps. (Initially one million people were interned.) However--perhaps like his father--Hanh has an understanding and empathy for the problems Viet Nam faces and is actively involved in lobbying for its reconstruction. (As a member of the Australia-Viet Nam Society [AVS], he was recently the key organizer of a benefit night for the Fred Hollows Foundation's work in Viet Nam. He is also coeditor of the AVS quarterly magazine, Vietnam Today.)
It is a very personal film, a film just about Hanh and his family, that allows an attentive and interested audience both a special intimacy and an opportunity to realize how, in what is for most of us, an "other" culture, the personal is political. In the tradition of Michael Apted's Seven-Up series, and their international imitations, we look forward to the sequel.