Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dang Nhat Minh Brings to Life Liberation Struggle Doctor's Diary

The diarist, Dang Thuy Tram (left).

UPDATED with audio links: To listen to the entire Subversity show on Dang Nhat Minh, including the USC panel discussion, click here: .

To listen to just the USC panel discussion: click here: .

Vietnam's top filmmaker, People's Artist Đặng Nhật Minh, has made a moving anti-war film based on captured diaries of a National Liberation Front doctor, whose intimate and revealing thoughts about war and the Party are put on paper in between treating soldiers during the "American War." The diarist is a young surgeon, Đặng Thùy Trâm, known as "Thuy." Tragically, at age 27, she was killed by an American bullet through her forehead, in 1970. The film, Don't Burn (Đừng Đốt) is Vietnam's entry to this year's Academy Awards.

In her diary, only two volumes of which survived the war, Thuy rails against the American invaders (whom she calls "devils") while wondering why the Party took so long to admit her. Was she too bourgeois? In a telling entry, she admits "Bourgeois sentiments are always suspect. It's strange that I still prefer to be like that than to be clear and simple like a farmer." The Party later did admit her and she is now considered a martyr in Vietnam. The diary has been published in the U.S. as Last Night I Dreamed of Peace.

"Don't Burn" not only brings to life events described in the diary, but also brings the story up to date, showing how an American soldier, and his military family, came around to read the diary of an enemy doctor, in the process struck by the futility of warfare. The film describes how the diaries ended up at Texas Tech, whose library contain the largest non-governmental collection on the war, and shows how Thuy's family came to read their daughter's writings almost four decades later.

Thuy's father was also a noted surgeon and his mother a pharmacology lecturer specializing in medicinal plants. Thuy gave up her dream to be a ophthalmologist and instead, like many of her compatriots, went south to serve the state.

The parallels with the film director's own family upbringing are stark. Dang Nhat Minh's father, Dang Van Ngu, was also a noted doctor, leading efforts to fight malaria with penicillin. Indeed, he also was killed by the Americans, in 1967, a year before the entries in Thuy's recovered diary begin.

Dang Nhat Minh himself has stated: "I have no regrets at all about being a film director as it is destiny. But if I could choose again, I would rather be a doctor and follow in my father's steps." Both father and son have won the Ho Chi Minh Award.

This is the first film to portray the views of America's "enemy" so starkly.
It seeks to reconcile the two nations who fought so bitter and deadly a war.

Dang Nhat Minh & Kieu Chinh at USC 23 January 2010. Photo © Daniel C. Tsang 2010

And perhaps as a sign of possible reconciliation between Vietnamese in the homeland and here, director Minh was embraced warmly by Little Saigon's most famous film personality, Kieu Chinh (left), after a recent showing at the University of Southern California(USC).

Indeed, in California the past few weeks, the film has been shown to audiences young and old in northern and southern California.

Dang Nhat Minh answers a question during panel discussion at USC. Photo © Daniel C. Tsang 2010.

On KUCI Subversity's 1 February 2010, from 9-10 a.m. we discuss this film and diary and present the panel discussion after the film showing at USC, with Director Dang Nhat Minh. Also on the panel are Oh, Saigon director Doan Hoang (whose film was also shown that day), interpreter Gianni Le Nguyen and USC Prof David James, who kicked off the session. Thanks to Prof. Viet Nguyen, who co-organized the "Dreaming of Peace: Vietnamese Filmmakers Move from War to Reconciliation" event, for permission to record that session and air it. Prof. Nguyen prefaced the showing of Don't Burn with a moving tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. by quoting from the civil rights leader's writings against the Vietnam War.

The Subversity program airs on KUCI, 88.9 fm in Orange County, California, and is simulcast via Podcasts will be made available later and posted here. See trailer of Don't Burn.

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