The audiences cuing up outside Bay Area theaters for the San Francisco International Film Festival – continuing until May 2 – are not only getting the first and sometimes only look at films from around the world, they are getting a chance to see and hear makers of those films in person.
Star-power Hollywood figures are arriving alongside little-known film masters from foreign countries flying into the Bay Area, and local filmmakers also get in the spotlight. In the AMC Kabuki theater in S.F.’s Japantown, Kevin Spacey had audiences roaring with his crowd-pleasing vulgarities while in the adjacent theater Berkeley-based documentary filmmaker Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco got ready to speak to a more subdued, standing-room-only theater about their film “Daughter From Danang.”
Berkeley’s “Daughter From Danang”
The film’s story begins in 1975 when the United States instigated Operation Baby Lift, a plan to bring Vietnamese orphans into the U.S. after the war. Many of the children were not orphans, given up by desperate parents hoping for a better life for their children. One such child was Mai Thi Hiep, arriving in American at age seven and renamed Heidi by her adoptive mother in Pulaski, Tennessee.
The chances of Baby Lift adoptees rediscovering their birth mothers is a needle-in-a-haystack scenario, but Tran Tuong Nhu, a journalist living in Berkeley, reconnected Heidi with her mother Mai Thi Kim. While arranging a meeting of mother and daughter, she met Dolgin at a bar mitzvah and Dolgin immediately wanted to make a film about it.
“We went expecting to film a wonderfully joyous, healing reunion,” said Dolgin. “The trip didn’t turn out that way.”
The second half of the film – which the filmmakers have asked not be revealed in detail – follows Heidi’s struggles with her new-found family and the irreconcilable cultural differences. Her week-long stay in Vietnam becomes increasingly difficult, climaxing in an emotional breakdown.
Dolgin said she and Franco – and Heidi – had no idea what they were going up against as they watched and recorded the corrosion of the happy reunion. “We created a film that reveals itself to the audience in much the same way,” and it’s a film that audience want to talk about at length afterwards.
Speaking to the packed theater at the Kabuki last Wednesday, Franco said going to Vietnam put their integrity as filmmakers, and their compassion, to the test. There was a moment when Dolgin and Franco had to decide whether to keep filming or drop the camera and become emotionally available to their subject. In retrospect, they said the feel their decision to keep going was the best thing, if perhaps most difficult, to do.
The audience had questions about Heidi’s lack of preparation for the trip to Vietnam. Tran Thuong Nhu, who acted as consultant and translator for Heidi and the filmmakers in Vietnam, explained it’s impossible to adequately prepare for such a meeting. Most Operation Baby Lift adoptees, she said, have a hard time returning to Vietnam.
Dolgin said Heidi’s difficulty in part came from her Tennessee upbringing. As an immigrant in Pulaski, the seat of the Ku Klux Klan, Heidi was told to deny her Vietnamese roots. “She learned early on how to shut doors,” said Dolgin.
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Jewish “Minute Matrimony”
For a lighthearted take on culture clashes, Berkeley filmmaker Yoav Potash offers his “Minute Matrimony” in the SFIFF short-film program “They Came From the Bay.” The cartoonish comedy has for its premise a drive-through chapel where couples rushing to get married can order a cheap and quick marriage like they would a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake. Its till-death-do-U-part, while-U-wait joke expands to a bizarrely vibrant celebration when a nearsighted Jewish man drives up with his black fiancée clad in African prints to order a funky gospel version of Havah Nagilah.
Potash said he got the idea for the film while walking through a supermarket on Thanksgiving and was struck by the bounty of pre-prepared food. His film is a giddy embrace of American-style, pre-packed love and a sly send-up of cultural stereotypes.
Addressing the SFIFF audience after the screening, Potash began by announcing his own engagement. (He later joked that his wedding is probably going to cost as much as his movie.) After assuring the viewers his intention was to make people laugh, a question came up about his use of racial stereotyping.
Potash cited a George C. Wolf play, “The Colored Museum” as an influence to create “stereotype silhouettes” of commonly perceived racial and cultural precepts, and then “sneaking in something to think about.”
Outside of a prosaic message of acceptance as rewarding, what Potash is giving his audience to think about is the musical virtuosity of bending Havah Nagilah into a full-chorus Baptist gospel performance. He said that was a central challenge in the filmmaking, and he worked as hard getting the song right as he did on the rest of the film, meticulously arranging and recording the ensemble. It’s part of what Potash described to his audience as “a grand experiment when our stereotypes of black and Jews come together.”