March 3, 2003

After Travelling the World, 'Daughter from Danang' Arrives at PBS

Vietnamese mother Mai Thi Kim and her Amerasian daughter Heidi Bub meet at the airport in Danang. Photo by Gail Dolgin.

In the year since winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for Daughter from Danang, producer/director Gail Dolgin and director Vicente Franco have taken their film to over 60 domestic festivals. The documentary has been seen on five continents, has enjoyed a 20-city theatrical release in the US, and on April 7, will air on the PBS series American Experience.  The film is a co-presentation with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with the National Asian American Communication Association (NAATA).

Daughter from Danang, which took seven years to make, follows Vietnam-born, American-raised Heidi Bub as she makes her first trip back to Vietnam in 22 years to find her birth mother, Mai Thi Kim. The film that emerges is at once "a Vietnam story, a family story, a mother-daughter story, a cross-cultural story and, of course, an adoption story," says Dolgin. "We always thought that having such a wonderful venue like PBS would allow for us to reach thousands of viewers. And as much as we have been in many festivals this year and have had theatrical distribution, we feel that all of that is raising interest. Hopefully, the broadcast will allow the film into people's homes rather than having people leave their homes to seek it out."

Even so, both Dolgin and Franco feel blessed with theatrical distribution. "It was Sundance that planted the seed and distributors started contacting us, as well as [programmers from] other festivals," Franco notes. "The interest for the film actually started there. We wanted to put it out there for the public because festivals provide films for a specific audience. And theaters provide for a different audience. They don't really provide for even a small percentage of viewers who will see the film on television. Still, a theatrical screening creates a certain prestige and a certain reputation, so it's an honor to have a documentary shown in theaters." The film is being distributed by Balcony Releasing in association with Cowboy Pictures.

Dolgin and Franco both know that it's still a struggle to get a documentary on the big screen. National successes like Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine test and raise viewers' expectations of the film form. Yet most documentaries don't reach this multi-theater level of distribution, even if theatrical release is guaranteed by a distributor.  "[Some films] have the support of a very powerful distributor behind them, so I don't think it's enough for a documentary to be of good quality and have a good message and a good story to get out to the theaters," says Franco. "A lot of the time, the support of an organization behind you does the work."

 "There's also a lot of money for promotional campaigns," Dolgin adds. "We couldn't run an ad in any major newspaper, not even for a weekend! We simply didn't have that money! Then it becomes a chicken-and-the-egg thing: You need the money to bring in the audiences, and the audiences bring more theaters in because there will be greater box office sales. It's really a challenging dilemma."

Still, both note that the presence of documentary films in theaters demonstrates that they are viably marketable. "Nowadays, people are getting more used to seeing documentaries in theaters, which is definitely a good thing, and it's therefore easier for the theater owners to accept documentaries," Franco observes. "This is a moment in history where there is value in putting documentaries on the screen."

Indeed, viewers and critics alike have welcomed and praised this film. At its Sundance premiere last year, a 10:30 p.m. screening attracted a packed house and inspired a standing ovation before the Q&A started. Bub was not at the screening, nor has she appeared at any subsequent screening. "We've been inviting her to come with us, but she has declined time after time," Franco notes. "We were hopeful that she would actually accept one of the invitations, then she would realize that there's a lot of support out there for her. But we're not able to have her see that." Over the past year, many questions in the Q&A sessions have had to do with Bub--how she feels about her situation in the film and how she is doing now. "Heidi was a very open person from the beginning [about the filming]," says Franco. "She had the need to tell this story because she had never really told her story before. But she still has issues of embarrassment and guilt, and doesn't want to put herself out there in front of an audience. Actually, most of the responses we get in the Q&A are in support of her!"

"Heidi was carrying this bubble of a dream about meeting her mother," Dolgin recalls. "Once that moment of meeting her mother happened, that bubble had to have popped and reality started to emerge. We had this sense of her mother's needs and Heidi's reactions, and it was palpable at the airport. It's not clear from that point on the direction that things were going to go, but I think that for everybody there was that moment of  ‘we're no longer in a dream.' The real documentation of the story unfolding began [at that moment]."

In the film, Bub seems overwhelmed by her new family as soon as she steps off the plane. "It was a lot about body language," Franco remembers. "What happens in the visual world in which we work is that images talk. Faces would have certain expressions, there would be movements and reactions to attempts to hold hands, there's Heidi's reactions to the tactile manifestations of the culture. It was obvious that something was going on within her."

Another pivotal scene occurs as the climax of the film. After 10 days in Vietnam, in which Bub tries to spend time with her family doing normal activities such as shopping for groceries and preparing dinner, her half-brother makes a request for money that leaves her floored. She breaks down and runs from the room. The aftermath seems to be the unraveling of her dream. "It's been a hard process for her," explains Dolgin. "Experts in Vietnamese culture agree that traditionally the member of the family that lives abroad constitutes the lifeline for the rest of the family. And the request for help is considered normal. We feel that Heidi couldn't separate the request for money from the love that she felt she needed. She has a lot of shame and embarrassment about this breakdown and wishes she could have acted differently."

Many moments like this caused Dolgin and Franco to continuously readjust their shooting strategy. "Gail and I thought that we were going to do a documentary on the celebration of a reunion between a mother and daughter," says Vicente. "But we realized immediately after we got to Vietnam that there was going to be quite more to the story.  Little by little, we realized that everything was going to be different than we thought. I don't think that is so unusual in documentaries. We tried to follow the story as humanly as we could. The story that you end up doing might be completely different in the end."

Heidi Bub had seen several cuts of the film before it went to Sundance, and although she wished the film wasn't about her, she thought the story was very powerful, and for that reason, she never told the filmmakers to abort the process. She has maintained, however, that she is not interested in being exposed to viewers' reactions.  Franco elaborates: "She doesn't want to have to explain herself, but to our minds, she doesn't need to be embarrassed or apologetic about anything. It was the only way that she could understand it at the time. If anything, we consider Heidi extremely strong and courageous for having gone to Vietnam to begin with, and for allowing us to document the process."

Dolgin and Franco hope new audiences bring to Daughter from Danang their own journeys and responses. After returning from Vietnam and her family, Bub says at the end of the film, "The door is closed, but not locked." The other hope is that the film will become a vehicle for her to leave the door open and continue her search for answers about her past and her future.

Lily Ng is executive producer of Happily, Even After, a feature film shot in San Francisco.