How did you choose to document Heidi's story?
In many ways we like to think of the film as having chosen us. We weren't
actively looking for a Vietnam-related subject, we didn't decide to
research Operation Babylift nor did we do an extensive search to select
a potential primary character whose story we wanted to tell.
In fact, here's how it all began. Gail was at a party and ran into
her old friend, journalist T. T. Nhu. Gail and Nhu had known each other
since their days as activists working to end the Vietnam War. Nhu had
recently returned from a trip to Vietnam and was describing her experience
of delivering a letter to a Vietnamese mother in Danang who hadn't heard
from her Amerasian daughter in 22 years. As she described the emotional
intensity of the scene, Gail remembers feeling her documentary filmmaker's
heartbeat accelerate. She expressed to Nhu that she thought it was unfortunate
no one had traveled with her to document the moment. Nhu responded saying
that Heidi was planning to make the trip to meet her mother -- maybe
we wanted to come along. Gail instantly knew there was a film to be
made about the ensuing mother-daughter reunion and immediately called
Six weeks later we were in Vietnam.
We weren't quite sure of the scope of the film that might result from
the trip, but there was no time to waste wondering. If we joined Heidi
Bub on her return to Vietnam, we would at least be able to capture the
reunion and what we believed would be a re-connection by Heidi with
her long forgotten Vietnamese roots. The cultural divide between Pulaski,
Tennessee where Heidi had been raised since age seven and her family
and background in Danang seemed rich in possibilities. Our motivation
as filmmakers is always inspired by passion-driven stories and the opportunity
to step into the unknown and capture life as it reveals itself. In this
case, we certainly were as unprepared as Heidi for what was about to
We all believed that the reunion would be a healing story, a kind of
full-circle coming home. The war
in Vietnam was long over and we could create a film that, we believed,
would ease the collective pain that is still connected to the war. The
tragic drama of Heidi's reunion with her mother, however, reminds us
that wars don't end when peace treaties are signed and bombs stop falling.
It can take generations to heal from the wounds of war.
How did you develop the close relationship with Heidi
that's evident in the film?
We met Heidi two days before leaving for Vietnam. We had asked her
to spend a few days with us because we knew we needed to do a pre-trip
interview in order to have a bed of material to play against the changes
that we anticipated happening once she was in Vietnam. And, of course,
we were strangers and needed to meet! From the first evening we spent
together, there was a remarkable rapport between the crew and Heidi
-- a trust and familiarity that allowed us to begin the filming with
an openness and intimacy that pervades the film. We think this was a
result of a number of things -- Heidi's genuine outgoing personality
and perhaps most important, the fact that we were the first people to
ask her in detail about her past. The story that had been locked inside
for so long began flooding to the surface. In many ways it re-enforced
our experience as filmmakers that most people have stories they want
to tell but have very few opportunities to find anyone who will listen.
What were Heidi's feelings about being the subject
of your film?
When Heidi agreed to let us accompany her and film her trip, she, along
with us, believed everything was going to be happy. She wasn't exactly
sure why we wanted to come along and she was caught up in the excitement
of a reunion after 22 years. She didn't give much thought to the consequences
of turning it into a feature-length documentary. Once we returned, however,
she expressed hesitations about sharing what happened with the world
and questioned whether we should continue with the film. She said that
she was ashamed of her behavior with her family but that she had been
so overwhelmed by the whole experience she just couldn't control her
reaction. She feared that a film would expose her to audiences who would
condemn her, making it all even more difficult to handle.
We felt great compassion for Heidi and didn't in any way want to coerce
her into going forward with the project. We believed the film could
have a great impact on many people but more importantly we didn't want
it to have a negative impact on Heidi. After many months of talking
together she agreed to proceed. But we weren't totally convinced. We
wanted her full support. We showed her a 17-minute sample that included
the most dramatic moments of the film -- good and difficult -- and told
her if she wanted us to stop, we would. We would only continue if she
believed there was something in it for her. After viewing the tape she
said yes, we should make the film. Of course we asked why, what did
she believe was in it for her? She told us that it was forcing her to
really look at her past, that she wouldn't have done that if it wasn't
for the film and she knew some part of her wanted to remember it all.
As she told us, her life, until then, had felt like a bunch of pieces
of a puzzle floating unconnected in her mind. In making the film, we
were helping her fit them all together as well as helping her find missing
What does Heidi think of the completed film?
Once the film was completed, we sent her a copy and it took her over
a month to look at it. When we won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance
Film Festival we called her to share the excitement. She said, "I'm
so happy for you. You worked so hard for so long, I'm glad you won...
and... I guess I better take a look!" Finally, a few weeks later, she
gave us her opinion, "I think you made a really good film... I just
wish it wasn't about me."
We've shared many e-mails and letters with Heidi from viewers who want
her to know that they feel compassion for her, that they don't judge
her. Hopefully this response will help her feel less isolated and more
forgiving of herself. We believe this would be an important part of
her healing, enabling her to open the door to her family that as she
says in the film, has remained closed, but not locked.
What did Heidi expect in finding and meeting her mother?
And why wasn't she better prepared for the encounter?
Heidi was so ecstatic and anxious at the prospect of reuniting with
her long-lost mother that anything else associated with the trip to
Vietnam was probably of less importance to her. And everything was happening
so quickly. From the time she found out that her mother was alive and
had been looking for her for all those years to the day she left for
Vietnam was barely four months. In hindsight, she thinks perhaps it
might have been better if she had waited a little longer.
In preparation for the trip, she exchanged a few phone calls and letters
with her mother. She had many phone calls and e-mails with T. T. Nhu.
She understood that her family needed money and she was excitedly planning
to help them. She put a lot of attention to buying presents and prepared
cash to carry with her as a gift. Nhu explained to her that it was customary
in Vietnam for children to care for their parents when they got older
and while Heidi wanted to help, she wasn't quite sure how the cultural
expectations applied to her. After all, she explained, she'd been gone
for 22 years and everything Vietnamese had been taken away from her
as she was turned into a white Southerner. As she said in the film,
one of her biggest fears was that she would offend someone by doing
the wrong thing since she had been "101%" Americanized. She wasn't personally
motivated to start reading books about Vietnam or looking at films or
even contacting other Babylift kids who might have already made a trip
back to Vietnam. Heidi was going home to reunite with her mother. That
was much more significant for her than going to Vietnam.
T. T. Nhu has often wondered whether Heidi could have been better prepared
for the trip. While Heidi bombarded her with questions about how to
respond and behave in certain situations and learned some basic greetings
and phrases to say to her family, her full attention prior to the trip
was really concentrated on the personal and emotional aspect of seeing
her mom. In fairness to Nhu, we believe there is no way a person can
be totally prepared for how they might react when the emotional stakes
are so high. Things might have been different if Nhu hadn't left early
to visit some of her family in Hanoi. If she had stayed, she could,
perhaps, have been the bridge between the family's request and Heidi's
breakdown. Besides the emotional buildup, Heidi wasn't receiving complete
and accurate translations.
By the time of the "breakdown" scene, however, she had also reached
her limits in terms of feeling isolated and was terribly homesick for
her own children and husband. We tried to supply as much support and
comfort to Heidi as we could, but ultimately, she felt deeply alone.
We think it's important to also remember that Heidi had never been separated
from her own children before -- her youngest daughter was only nine
months old -- and she had never really traveled outside of the United
States, in addition to having grown up in a small community with little
diversity. The culture shock was enormous.
What happened to Amerasian kids who were left behind
At the end of the war thousands of Amerasian children were left behind
to face a very uncertain future. It is our understanding that they were
hated by the former North Vietnamese because they were children of the
Americans, their old enemy, and they were discriminated against by former
South Vietnamese because they were a reminder of the war they had lost.
In general, they were rejected and shunned by the society, often abandoned
by relatives and called, bui doi ("children of the dust") and
con lai ("mixed-blood" or "half-breed"). While they weren't all
rounded up and burned, as Heidi's mother had feared, their lives were
It might have been different for Heidi because when her mother's husband,
Vinh, returned from fighting with the Viet Cong, he said he would have
raised Heidi as his own. Since we have learned that Vietnam is a patrilineal
society and one's position in society is passed down through the father,
Vinh's connection to the Viet Cong may have helped Heidi escape the
ostracism experienced by others.
How does Heidi's experience compare to that of other
adoptees finding their birth parents?
We understand from experts in the adoption world that reunification
of adoptees with birth parents is often not a happy dream come true.
It's not unusual to find that the results of reunions after years of
separation and cultural differences do not meet the expectations of
either the child or the parent. In fact, it's often an explosion of
dreams colliding with reality. This is true not only in the case of
separations caused by the Vietnam War, but also in similar situations
in other cultures as well as reunions between families of the same background.
Was the family's request for money unusual? How do
you feel about Heidi's reaction?
It is our understanding that Heidi's family's request for financial
support was not out of the ordinary. Experts in Vietnamese culture agree
that traditionally the member of the family that lives abroad constitutes
the life-line for the rest of the family. And the request for help is
considered quite normal. For many returning Vietnamese, the ability
(emotionally and materially) to help is regarded as an opportunity to
contribute to their family's well-being. Contributing to the ancestral
tomb is often considered the greatest gift of all.
The truth in that, however, doesn't make us feel judgmental towards
Heidi's response. None of us have walked in her shoes and we couldn't
honestly predict how we might have reacted. We might think we know,
but our thoughts are necessarily bound to our own experience.
How much money did Heidi's family want?
We're often asked this, and we don't really have a figure. We know
that Heidi's mother isn't working and her husband receives a $20 per
month stipend from the government for having fought with the Viet Cong.
The average income in Vietnam is about $400 a year. A little bit goes
a long way, so any amount of money sent by Heidi would help her family.
Some viewers have condemned Heidi for representing an aspect of American
culture that they believe is selfish and individualized. They wonder
why she just couldn't give a small amount of money to her family. But...
we don't think her resistance to sending money has anything to do with
the amount they might need. It's our sense that Heidi's reaction had
much more to do with having lost the dream she'd held onto -- of what
she would feel like once she found her mother. As she says in the film,
she returned to Vietnam hoping to be the child -- the child who had
been sent away at age 7. Yet she was asked, in many ways, to be the
mother and her mother was the child. In addition, she was reminded of
how her adoptive mother, Ann Neville, had told her she "owed her for
the life she'd given her." Heidi wanted to give to her family. She didn't
want to feel she "owed" them.
The tragic breakdown for Heidi was complicated by so many things: her
expectations for the visit, her limited knowledge of the culture, her
guilt at the opportunities she'd been given by growing up in the U.S.,
her anger at having been abandoned as a child, her experience with her
adoptive mother and her desire for unconditional love. By the time her
brother asked her for money to support her mother, it was not really
the surprise of his request or the amount they might have needed that
caused her to break down. We believe it was just the straw the broke
the camel's back. Heidi emotionally collapsed and she continues to be
apprehensive about opening the "unlocked" door because of a fear that
she'll be overwhelmed by the power of her feelings and the potential
request, and unable to hold onto any boundaries.
In addition, it seems to us that Heidi still believes that her family's
request for money diminishes the love they feel for her. It is our understanding
that the need for money and the expectations of getting money from a
family member who has more than you (especially if the live in the U.S.)
is so woven into Vietnamese culture that it in no way undercuts true
love. As Heidi's mother explained in the film, if Heidi had grown up
in Vietnam she would have understood this and she hopes that in time,
What was filming the "breakdown" scene like? What
are the ethics of filming such emotional and intimate moments?
Documenting Heidi's trip carried an enormous emotional charge for us
as filmmakers. From the very first moment in which mother and daughter
embraced, we were exposed to a high degree of intensity in front of
our camera. It was hard to hold back our own tears -- and often we didn't.
Of course, the "breakdown" moment was without a doubt the biggest test
of our ability to control our personal emotions while at the same time
continuing our work as documentary filmmakers. The complexity of the
situation hit us with an unexpected force as we witnessed the pain that
Heidi and her mother were experiencing.
There was no way we could have prepared ahead of time. It took us by
surprise. Suddenly we had to find a balance between the respect we owed
to Heidi and her family, the compassion we felt for everyone in the
room, and our own emotions and reactions to the pain everyone was feeling
-- all this had to be balanced with our commitment as documentary filmmakers
to capture the moment without intruding, affecting it as little as possible
with our presence. If anyone had asked us to stop, we would have immediately
turned off the camera. But our work was to document the raw truth as
it revealed itself to us -- it was life in the making. And it was probably
one of the toughest tests we have had to go through in our lives as
filmmakers -- and as human beings. We all face each moment without prior
knowledge of the outcome. It is this challenge that stimulates our work
as documentary filmmakers -- filming life itself.
As filmmakers we often find ourselves in situations in which we need
to decide what's more important: to get the shot, or to preserve the
privacy of our protagonist's intimacy. And we have to decide as we go,
often without time to deliberate. We hope that in moments in which there
is no time to make rational decisions, we can trust our intuitive integrity.
We like to believe that filmmakers are no different from any other human
being and as human beings we all have the obligation to be ethical.
How did filming the reunion affect the trip and the
We're aware that every time we bring a camera to any location we are
modifying reality in some way. Having said that, it was obvious to us,
and it is probably obvious to viewers, that both Heidi and her family
were at ease with the camera and the crew. We were welcomed into their
lives and we always tried to respond respectfully to their graciousness.
We'll never know how things would have developed for Heidi had we not
been there. But if we hadn't been there, we, personally, wouldn't have
had the chance to experience and learn about the power of such an intense
and raw human emotion. And neither would viewers, especially people
related to the adoption community, have had the opportunity to be touched
by the way life unfolds sometimes in such a magical, sometimes in such
an unpredictable way.
Ultimately, without the camera, Heidi wouldn't have had a document
of this profound moment in her life when her worlds collided. Being
able to witness the experience again and again as time goes on will,
we hope, give her more insight into her own life. She'll be able to
see things with a new perspective, hear much that she might have missed
and ultimately connect her past with her future.
How did you create such strong rapport with Heidi's
The first time we saw the family was when Heidi and her mother rushed
to embrace at the Danang airport. It was such an emotional moment that
no one really had any concern about or interest in the film crew. In
fact, we became "bonded" with the family at that moment and for some
reason Heidi's family believed that we were partially responsible for
her return. Their generosity of spirit held strong throughout the visit.
They welcomed us into their homes and hearts. And while we don't know
when we might have the opportunity to share our homes with them, they
certainly remain well-seated in our hearts and minds.
In the trip's aftermath, how has Heidi changed? Has
she been in touch with her family?
We believe Heidi's journey is not really over. She is still struggling
to make sense of it all. As far as we know, she continues to describe
herself as a Southerner without clarifying herself beyond that. She
doesn't openly identify as a Vietnamese American, mostly, as she explains
to us, because she just doesn't feel like that's who she is today. But
she doesn't deliberately hide the fact either.
As for being in touch with her family, she finally sent a letter with
Nhu who was visiting Danang in summer 2002. Perhaps, someday, Heidi
can make another visit. We imagine that traveling with her husband and
daughters would make things easier. Or, maybe sometime her mother could
visit her in the U.S. Either scenario, to us, offers the possibility
of a mother-daughter connection that we believe would allow them to
establish a relationship built on the love both so deeply desire.
Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco welcome your comments and questions. You
can reach them directly via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.