A soldier looks skyward, ready to pull out a grenade pin with his teeth. A young boy at a funeral holds up a portrait of the dead man, his father. A protester offers a flower to a helmeted military police officer. These images, and many others, have been seared into America’s memory. Our history is branded with a capital V, and it doesn’t stand for victory. But these collective remembrances are, like our own personal recollections, subject to revision. How have the intervening decades changed the way we see these images?
For the Vietnamese-American filmmaker Ham Tran, who was eight years old when his family immigrated to America in 1982, Hollywood’s portrayal of the war is sorely lacking in Vietnamese perspective and a sense of the war’s continuing effects on the people of Vietnam. His first feature film, Journey from the Fall, deals not just with the war itself but with the consequences of the fall of Saigon — internment camps for South Vietnamese soldiers, the flight of nearly a million “boat people” from Communism. It is “a survival story … of the Vietnamese-American experience.”
With Peter Davis, director of the Academy-Award-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds, talk of the Vietnam War keeps turning into a discussion of more immediate conflicts. Maybe that’s because The Nation recently sent him to Iraq to cover the war for the magazine. But it might also be because the tactics that Davis and others began to take during the Vietnam era — to show the reality of war in living, dying detail, and to question the reasons behind it — have not yet shocked the system into changing. His movie may have won an Oscar, but it didn’t manage to obviate Fahrenheit 9/11.
Says Davis, “I hoped the film might in some way help to prevent the kind of future that the war in Vietnam seemed to be prophesying … For a long time the lessons of the war seemed to have been learned, not because of all the films and all the journalism that was done about the war … but because people understood after 58,000 body bags that we had no real reason to be fighting that war. Those lessons were unlearned very quickly on September 11, which became a blow to the head, like an automobile accident from which you would awaken with amnesia.” Some things have changed, though: whereas the memorable images of Vietnam were usually of people on the front lines, Davis considers the Iraq War’s main icon — even more memorable than the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib — to be our smiling commander-in-chief, “looking like a quarterback that is delighted to be in the fray.”
Davis and Tran, along with Nguyen Ngoc Hanh, official photographer for the South Vietnam Armed Forces, will be participating in a panel discussion this Sunday at the Oakland Museum, Projecting Myths & Realities: How Photography and Film Shaped Memory of the Vietnam War Era. The 2 p.m. event, accompanied by film clips and stills from the panelists’ work, is free with museum admission. The Oakland Museum is at 1000 Oak St. See MuseumCA.org for hours and program information.