Searching for meaning in something as meaningless as the Vietnam War, will inevitably invoke poetry to make sense of it all.
Director, actor and lyricist Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant was born in Saigon, Vietnam, but fled to Virginia with her family as a child to escape the conflict that consumed her homeland. Growing up as the first Vietnamese immigrant in her state, Silliphant was harassed by the children around her, who blamed her for the deaths of innocent Americans in the war. To protect herself, she chose to learn karate and, after some time, became Bruce Lee’s only female apprentice. Through her karate master, she was introduced to Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, which marks the start of her life as a documentary filmmaker. Spending more than twenty five years making a doc on Vietnam, it inevitably also became a film about own her life. Tiana’s deeply personal desire to understand the Vietnam War provides a completely unique depiction of the country’s modern history.
A unique perspective. Among the many incredible moments in this story is Silliphant’s friendship with the famed General Vo Nguyen Giáp. The reclusive Giáp, also known as the ‘red Napoleon’, owing to his singular efforts in Vietnam’s fight for freedom from both the French and the Americans, routinely refused visits by journalists. Or so Silliphant was told when she first went to see him. But she did not give up. She sent Giap a poem she’d written about the country’s sufferings and was surprised when, shortly afterwards, she received an invitation to meet the war hero in his home. This helps the documentary gain a perspective rarely seen in portrayals of the topic, as Silliphant and Giáp begin a lifelong friendship.
We are introduced to Vietnam’s national narrative, with liberation from French suppression coming in 1954, largely through the brilliant tactics of General Giáp. In an interview, Giáp explains that he meticulously studied Napoleon and the French revolution – in a sense, stealing the French formula and then using it against them. Yet as the country was in the process of being overtaken by the Communists, the Americans intervened. The United States was criticised by many who felt there was cynical opportunism in this strategy; that the US only wanted to show their might against the Communists following its defeat in Cuba, and that their position in Vietnam was only a small chip in the big game called the Cold War. However, the Vietnam War soon became too lengthy and bloody to be considered a success, both strategically and symbolically. It also contributed to the birth of a generation of leftist intellectuals via the 1968 Paris revolt, which further weakened the US’s international integrity and clarified to all their imperialist motivations.
While France became one of several nations that slowly but surely surrendered their colonial aspirations, the US remained on the offensive. What makes the documentary relevant is that, even today, the United States has far from toned down its aggressive imperialism, though now aimed at other parts of the world. Perhaps the filmmaker’s husband is right when he states: “The Vietnamese would rather forget about the war, while the Americans remain obsessed”.
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