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VIETNAM: War Movie with Peace Theme Seeks to Heal Wounds

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - A Vietnamese film that is vying for an Oscar this month offers a glimpse into how Vietnam and the United States are healing decades-old war wounds, as well as how that war still generates emotional debate today.

A contender in best foreign language category of the Oscars, or the 82nd annual awards of the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on Mar. 7, ‘Don’t Burn’ is based on the wartime diary of 27-year-old Viet Cong physician Dang Thuy Tram, who was shot dead by U.S. soldiers in the early sixties as U.S. military involvement escalated in the country.

After Tram’s death more than three decades ago, the diary was found by U.S. soldier Fred Whitehurst, who handed it to his South Vietnamese translator, a sergeant. After reading some pages, the translator told his friend not to burn it, as “there’s already fire in it”.

“Last night I dreamed of peace. I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of peace and independence has burned in the hearts of 30 million people for so long,” read part of Tram’s diary.

Her dream of piece became the core of the movie, whose script was written by Dang Nhat Minh, who also directed it. ‘Last Night I Dreamed of Peace’ is also the title of the diary’s English translation, which was published in the United States in 2007.

That was a year after Whitehurst, who had kept the diary for 35 years, returned it to Tram’s family in 2006. It has since been translated into many languages, hailed by Vietnamese media and officials as the work of a young intellectual who had devoted her life to the revolutionary cause.

But there have been many movies around the theme of the war in Vietnam – – and Minh was determined to avoid making yet another war movie and turning Tram’s diary into a piece of propaganda.

“The film is not about the war. Instead, it is about the beauty and humanity of Tram,” said Minh, also known for the acclaimed war film ‘When the Tenth Month Comes’.

He said he wanted a film that could help further bring together the former warring countries, which in the past decades have reconciled diplomatic, economic and political relations although issues like the impact of the use of Agent Orange and remains of U.S. soldiers missing in action still linger.

The war in Vietnam took place from 1959 to 1975, a conflict that the U.S. government entered to stop a takeover of South Vietnam – which it and other allies backed – by the communist North. Referred to as the American War by the Vietnamese, the conflict led to the deaths of three to four million Vietnamese in the north and south and more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers.

The country was unified in 1976, after the North Vietnamese army captured Ho Chi Minh City, then called Saigon, in April 1975.

The film hints that reconciliation among the peoples of the two countries has indeed taken root, although it does not explicitly show facets like the friendship that developed between Whitehurst and Tram’s mother and sisters after he returned the diary and visited them several times afterward.

“It would have been difficult to make this movie without the help of American war veterans Fred Whitehurst and Robert Whitehurst who shared their wartime memories with me,” said Minh, adding that seven U.S. actors had roles in the movie.

Some of responses to the movie highlight how the peace theme in this war movie reaches out to audiences in the United States. Many overseas Vietnamese and lecturers and students have taken part in lively discussions after showings of ‘Don’t Burn’ in several U.S. universities, news reports say.

At the Cantor Film Centre in New York City, John McAutiff, managing director of the New-York based Conciliation and Development Foundation, thanked Minh for “a movie about war that doesn’t have hatred, only love, the dream of peace and the brotherhood of soldiers”.

But while U.S. audiences may have rapturous applause and tearful faces after watching ‘Don’t Burn’, overseas Vietnamese tend to be more sceptical.

Screenings of the film have raised questions about its having emotional appeal but failing to look deep enough into other key issues, including U.S. intervention in the region and the divisions that still remain between the north and southern parts of the country owing to their different political pasts.

Some Vietnamese students have remarked that the film shirked essential issues such as the legitimacy of the war, whether the conflict was a liberation war or a civil war, and the plight of the people and soldiers of South Vietnam after U.S. troops pulled out in 1975.

“It’s weird that the film is aimed at generating reconciliation between ancient foes,” University of California in Los Angeles student Tran Thanh was quoted as saying. “For most Americans, the war in Vietnam is already a thing of the past. Reconciliation with Americans is like hitting a door that has been already widely opened. It is with the Southern Vietnamese that reconciliation should go,” Thanh said.

“Viewers have their own thinking and I respect their different thinking,” said Minh, whose film also won the audience award at Japan’s Fukuoka International Film Festival in September 2009.

He added that there is an element that includes South Vietnam, since ‘Don’t Burn’ touched on the whereabouts of the South Vietnamese sergeant who kept Tram’s diary from being burned.

The film, however, does not shed light on what happened to this soldier, whose name is not mentioned. Some Vietnamese news reports said the soldier’s name was Huan.

“Tram’s diary would never exist without the civilised and humane attitude of a South Army sergeant. But he only deserves a word for form’s sake at the end of the movie,” said a bitter comment on Talawas, one of most prestigious independent Vietnamese websites.

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