By all appearances, filmmaker Tiana is much more Hollywood than Hanoi: She’s outfitted in a bustier-style top and Christmas boxer shorts decorated with ho ho ho’s. As she applies mascara and confidently poses for photos, she enthuses over a recent Vanity Fair shoot. And once the glamour-op has passed, she shifts into entrepreneurial mode, selling both her film and her political outlook.
Born in Saigon, Tiana became a Viet-Kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese,” in 1966, when she moved with her family to the D.C. area and later to San Jose, Calif. Though she adopted a quintessential West Coast lifestyle—she starred in low-budget karate movies and an exercise video called Karatecise With Tiana—she says she never established a cultural identity in the U.S. or her homeland; her ennui motivated her not only to visit Vietnam but to capture her travels in a documentary that became From Hollywood to Hanoi.
“I first went back in January of 1988, and at that time I had to go to Paris to get a visa—that’s how unusual it was,” Tiana says. She filmed four different trips using Vietnamese film crews and three different cameramen, and she insists that From Hollywood is the first American film ever shot on location in Vietnam.
Tiana is critical of American-made Vietnam fantasies ranging from Rambo to Platoon. “Right now,” she says, “I feel particularly thoughtful and introspective about them….If you asked me for a film that would give any insight into the culture and the people, I would have to recommend From Hollywood to Hanoi—there are no others.”
There’s a reason why there are no others: Even an activist like Tiana acknowledges that U.S. films depicting Vietnam favorably remain “box-office poison.” Still, From Hollywood intersperses horrifying newsreels from the war with footage of today’s North and South Vietnamese talking about their wartime recollections.
If she’s encountered resistance from U.S. audiences (the film has already screened in several cities), Tiana doesn’t admit it. From Hollywood‘s credits thank the Vietnam Veterans of America, and she insists she’s gotten support from “every Vietnam veteran who has taken the trouble to come into the theater.” In fact, she maintains, “It is life-altering, the ripple effect of the film. Whether you see it or not, just that there is a film about healing and reconciliation and family reunification by a Vietnamese about the Vietnamese-American experience, it just triggers people.”
Among From Hollywood subjects likely to trigger discomfort in some Americans is Amerasian resettlement; several Amerasians speak in the film, their appearances rather unsurprisingly heralded by the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” Since the film’s completion, says Tiana, at least one of them, Ali Tran, has moved to America, where he’s a janitor for IBM. The discrimination he faced in Vietnam and now in the States angers Tiana: “Congress passed a law in 1988—if you look remotely American you can apply to come. We sent people over there encouraging these kids to come. When they get here, guess what? He [Ali] showed me—they get a bill for their plane ticket. He has to pay it back from his $5-an-hour. They get a fucking bill!”
“Not only that, why didn’t we negotiate to bring them over when they were little?” she continues. “The French negotiated for their Eurasians after Dien Bien Phu in ’54, so when you go to Paris, you meet doctors, lawyers, people in government….What Amerasians are in investment banking?
“[An American couple] said to me, “Oh, when you go, see about adopting an Amerasian for us,’ and I’m going, “You mean, an Amerasian grandchild of GIs? These kids have kids of their own.’…See, we froze in time. [In] ’75, we kicked women and children off the helicopters, we had to split, the bamboo curtain came down, we didn’t wanna know.”
Other issues such as the trade embargo and lingering questions about POW-MIAs also spark righteous indignation: “Citibank is in Vietnam…AT&T is there…[but] the Red Cross has not been in Vietnam, that’s all that this trade embargo now does. Somehow the public thinks, due to the Reagan-Bush years and Rambo, that they’re still holding our boys. I say that’s a racist thought, to think that these evil communist leaders are so stupid…that they would let us find our poor soldiers coming out in chains. If they were that evil, they would have killed them a long time ago.”
“If we believe that they’re reasonable, then lift the embargo, put in an embassy, and go over and talk to them like we talk to every other government in the world, including the government of Tiananmen Square.”
Tiana says that although some viewers have suggested that the Vietnamese government told her what to film, that was hardly the case. She insists that if her itinerary had been determined by Vietnamese politicians, she would not have visited and filmed Agent Orange wards or survivors of the My Lai massacre. “They would rather put the war behind them and move into the economic battle zone, whereas before I can put my demons, my ghosts behind me, like the Vietnam vet, I have to go through a cleansing, closure, there has to be a cathartic healing.”
“I am building a bridge of friendship between our two countries because I am Vietnamese, I am American, and we are tied in blood,” she says. “When I try to reunite the two countries, I am trying to reunite myself.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.