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and Vicente Franco
Twenty-two years after Operation Babylift, an Amerasian woman raised in small-town Tennessee goes back to the country of her birth, looking for connections and finding mostly cultural dissonance. For whatever reason—too many expectations, too little experience of the world beyond her “101 percent Americanized” life—she winds up wishing she “could turn back the clock and not know any of this.” Heidi Bub’s story, as it happens, is one plenty of Americans might prefer not to have to know, and if Daughter From Danang occasionally overdramatizes the telling, the documentary nonetheless captures moments of genuine, wrenching anguish. Bub, born Mai Thi Hiep, is the child of an anonymous soldier and a Vietnamese woman, Mai Thi Kim, who took a job (and a lover) at a U.S. Navy base to avoid police harassment after her husband disappeared into the ranks of the Viet Cong. At war’s end, terrified by rumors that Amerasian children were being burned alive, Kim surrendered the 7-year-old Hiep to the organizers of Operation Babylift, which carried thousands of such children—as well as some actual orphans—off to America and the arms of adoptive parents. (The included archival Babylift footage is, to the modern eye, horrifying for the blithe barbarity it captures.) And although many of those new-made families doubtless prospered, Hiep—soon to be Heidi—landed in the home of a single mother who kept her emotional distance and taught her new daughter to deny her heritage. Their eventual estrangement left the adult Bub rudderless, looking for the unquestioning understanding she thought only her real mother could offer. And so the journey back to Danang, the meeting with Kim, and the collision of Western affluence with Eastern ideas about family and responsibility—as well as the inevitable misunderstandings about who wants what from whom. It would be easy, given the structure of Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s mildly didactic film, to chide Bub for being less than ideally open to her native culture, or to judge her birth family for seeming to care as much about her relative wealth as about their rediscovered relationship with her. But no matter where you lay the blame—on the individuals, on the differences that divide them, or on the great, unrighted policy wrongs that brought them to this place—the raw fact of their pain is shattering. And that, at least, the richly personal Daughter From Danang presents respectfully, unsparingly, and without an agenda. —Trey Graham