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”.
«Tiana’s deeply personal wish to understand the Vietnam War gives a completely unique portrayal of the country’s modern history.»
Without a doubt, Silliphant tries to appeal both to Vietnamese and American audiences through the film’s stylistic forms. Her Hollywood background is evident in the film’s use of sensational effects, such as when the narrator opens the documentary with the words “Once upon a time …” set against dramatic string music mixed with the sounds of warfare. The film’s visual tone is an energetic combination of archival material intercut with Silliphant’s personal recordings stretching from the 1980s to the present, which alone makes the film worth watching.
As narrative, Silliphant has chosen a very open, at times essayistic approach, as if admitting that she actually does not know whether the American involvement was entirely positive or negative – only a few of the film’s interviewees seem to have a clear answer to this. The film being a sequel to the director’s previous documentary on the subject, From Hollywood to Hanoi (1992), only adds to the sense of not understanding the full context, making the audience lose track at times. The fast moving editing and the apparent inexhaustibility of the source material does not help much either. The overwhelming breadth of images makes the process of selection a topic in itself, as the director’s challenge in making the film is not just an attempt to find clues in chaos, but also a desire to understand what it means to be Vietnamese.
Identity pending. To underline her own identity, the filmmaker explains to the camera, “I speak English, think English, but dream Vietnamese”. “Empty your mind, be shapeless, be water,” Silliphant also says, struggling to leave behind all her prejudices as she travels around her country of birth. During her journey, no single statement weighs heavier than any other; there are no preconceived views in which an expert has greater authority than a randomly chosen cyclist. Everyone has something to tell. But as Silliphant emphasises that she needs blank sheets of paper to understand the issue, the audience has had its fill of information. It would have been better if the filmmaker varied the pace somewhat; pausing for reflection in order to sharpen her focus. One of the film’s points is that the lack of direction is an unavoidable consequence of the complicated situation. The calculations will not or are not supposed to add up – but regardless the viewer will feel abandoned, as if not having paid enough attention in history class.
«The Vietnamese would rather forget about the war, while the Americans remain obsessed.»
During the post-production stages of the documentary, General Giáp died at the age of 102, so was sadly unable to watch the film’s final version. A poem was Silliphant’s initial entry to meet the General. Her documentary also bears witness as to how art can facilitate dialogue across language, culture and ideology. Perhaps this is why towards the end of the doc, Silliphant once again performs her composition, and maybe this is the reason she ends the poem with the words: “New understanding”.