Beyond the Oscars: A Look Inside ‘Chau, Beyond the Lines’

Published February 22, 2016 in Episode 41

At the War Remnants Museum in Sài Gòn’s District 3, groups of tourists pass by large American war machines, displayed outside, before they get to the images of children survivors of Agent Orange, exhibited inside: graphic displays of Vietnamese children with deformities, a large image of a white American girl with a missing arm.  A sign say, “Historic Truths" next to more images of Vietnamese children with disabilities in hospital beds.  

The museum is owned and operated by the government and decidedly one-sided. The information presented showcases Hà Nội's anti-American and anti-South Vietnamese propaganda. 

But an older Vietnamese woman visiting with her teenage daughter says the exhibition’s narrative doesn’t go far enough. “I think the purpose of these images on Agent Orange is to show everyone the results of the war on the Vietnamese people who lived in the affected area,” she says. “But for me, these images are not enough. They do not tell the whole story.”

Forty years after the war, Agent Orange is still a big topic in Việt Nam, with news appearing often on state television showing a story of a family or land affected, and then a plea for the American government to give reparations.

While the Vietnamese government has been criticized for using Agent Orange as a propaganda tool, across the ocean, the U.S. has been accused of using reparations as a bargaining chip. American media have largely ignored the topic all together. But a 34-minute documentary titled “Chau, beyond the lines” by American director Courtney Marsh is renewing focus on the controversial issue.  The film has been nominated for the 2016 Academy Awards in the Documentary Short Subject.

The film’s trailer opens with a bleak landscape of grey skies and mountains in the far distance. Lê Minh Châu narrates how his mom's exposure to Agent Orange by drinking water from a river eventually was passed on to him.

Châu is a teenager living with deformed arms and legs and with dreams of being a professional artist. Director Courtney Marsh gives viewers a glimpse of his daily life and follows the young man as he pursues his dreams growing up in Hòa Bình Village.

Hòa Bình, or Peace Village, was founded in 1990 as part of Từ Dũ Obstetric and Gynaecological Hospital in Sài Gòn. It is one of 13 care centers in Việt Nam for children suffering from the affects of Agent Orange.

The documentary weaves between scenes of Hòa Bình Village and the War Remnants Museum where Châu participates in an annual youth art contest.  

As the War Remnants museum is run by the government, so is Hòa Bình Village. Filmmakers in Việt Nam must jump through many hurdles to obtain permission to film, especially in government spaces.

In a guest post on the blog Women and Hollywood for the website Indiewire, Marsh recounts how she, as a 21-year-old graduate fresh out of film school, went to Việt Nam. Her original goal was to make a documentary about abandoned children living in the streets.

She writes,

Because we had to get permission from the government to legally shoot in Việt Nam, word got around, and a Vietnamese television producer met us at our hotel. He thought our subject matter was fine but trite, so he offered to take us to a “peace village” tucked away in the back of a maternity hospital.”

It is unsurprising then that the film fits neatly in the Vietnamese government’s narrow discussion of Agent Orange.     

Nguyễn Hiếu, a young film enthusiast from Hà Nội, shared his review upon learning of the Oscar-nominated documentary of his country. “I am happy to see a film about Việt Nam and Vietnamese people who suffered the most through the war,” he says. “So this is a very well-publicized issue and to see an American director, who spent time and effort to make this film possible, is encouraging. But then when you think deeper about it, if this Oscar is won, the film crew and director would get the recognition they deserve, but what about the Agent Orange victims?”

According to various estimates, the U.S. Air Force sprayed about 40 million liters of Agent Orange over Việt Nam.  A study by Columbia University estimates that between two and five million Vietnamese people were exposed to the chemical spraying and its effects. The study also indicates that more research should be conducted to investigate further effects on Việt Nam and its people.

Hòa Bình Village receives funding from the Vietnamese government and is in constant need of additional funding and staff. Doctor Nguyễn Thị Phương Tần has been the director of the village for the past 20 years. She says the village has cared for more than 400 children since it was founded.

“The Village is home to 60 children right now,” she shares. “We care for many children who are transferred from other places and children who were born at the hospital. We care for them from birth to adulthood. If they are able to, they’ll go to school to improve their future prospects. For the majority of the children here who can not function normally, the hospital cares for them the rest of their lives.”

In fact, director Marsh spent eight years filming Châus life at the village. She volunteered there for one week before deciding on this subject-matter for her film. Despite the commitment Marsh made to the project, Hiếu says he still prefers a Vietnamese director.

There have been multiple films and songs and other art mediums about Việt Nam and lots of times, the artists are not from Việt Nam but from a different country,” he says. “I feel if it’s possible for a Vietnamese artist to be recognized for talking and doing working on Việt Nam, it would be even better.”
— Nguyễn Hiếu

Though the director can hardly be blamed for having been nominated, Hiếu’s comments speak directly to the on-going lack of diversity at the Oscars and what it means for the portrayal of sensitive and layered topics. For two years in a row, no person of color has been nominated for any of its prestigious acting awards, hence the current trending hashtag: #OscarSoWhite.

The failure of the Academy of Motion-Picture Arts and Sciences to seek and recognize diversity in front of and behind the camera means the stories presented lack the depth and perspectives needed to tell an inclusive narrative.

Hiếu adds, “You just have to keep hoping that one day, full equality will be achieved and something such as the Oscars will be more diverse than it is right now. But right now we just have to accept that the entire film industry and Hollywood is completely done by white people.”

While the film does not offer much new information on the topic of Agent Orange itself, and nothing Vietnamese people haven’t seen or heard before, it does offer an inspiring story of a child who continues to pursue his dreams in spite of the many challenges he faced, since birth.  

Doctor Tần from Hoà Bình Village remembers Châu's childhood. He was 17 when he left the village. “Living in Hòa Bình village, Châu was an active child who easily trusted people. Meaning it was easier for him to believe other people than himself,” she recalls.  

Now 25 years old, Châu lives in Sài Gòn and is working full-time as an artist. He even has an agent and Marsh’s documentary likely played a role in his recent success. But many others who suffered are not as fortunate.

American groups such as the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC) and Veterans for Peace (VFP) have over the years campaigned for reparations and justice for those affected by Agent Orange during and after the war.

The effects of the herbicide are still very much present, especially in the lives of Vietnamese children such as Châu who are born with physical disabilities. It is ever so important for media, as well as storytellers, to have more adequate coverage of the topic beyond simply an emotional appeal.  

Việt Nam has co-opted the issue for propaganda purposes, placing broad blame on the U.S. while failing to admit to its own wartime atrocities. The United States’ broad denial of the herbicide’s effects is a continuing controversy. Neither stance truly serves the true victims and survivors--but they should be explored.

Dr. Tần adds, 

I hope that all countries in the world will join Việt Nam in its efforts to help the victims of Agent Orange from the war. Specifically, one should visit Việt Nam to see the consequences of war, and from there help Việt Nam’s efforts to demand fairness and justice for the victims of Agent Orange today.”

Unless real attention, justice and care are given to individuals and communities who suffer from such dangerous weapons of war, it is likely that similar weapons could be employed again or perhaps already have.