perspective

A few months back, I translated eight interviews
from survivors of the My Lai massacre for a PBS documentary.
It was the most heartbreaking project I’ve ever worked on.

 

Mr. Cong:

On March 16, 1968, at 6 o’clock in the morning, my mom woke all five of us children up to eat breakfast, to go to work and go to school. At that time, all of us had just woken up. That was the start of the guns from the American camp into the village, nonstop for more than half an hour. That was when my entire family was unable to eat or drink. All six of us hid in the shelter until 8 o’clock.

At 8 o’clock, that was when we were in the shelter and heard all the guns shooting and the grenades blowing. And then houses burning, smoke all over. Around 8:30, three American soldiers came to my house. That was when my mom and the five of us children came up from the underground hiding place. That was when there was a language barrier. We came up from the shelter and greeted them into our village, but the Americans did not respond. They shoved all six of us down back into the shelter and threw a grenade into our shelter. And then they used machine guns to shoot us. My entire family was blown into pieces in the shelter.

At that time, my family, their skin and meat were in pieces. The shelter collapsed. I was lucky because I laid in the curve of the exit door to get outside. That’s why I wasn’t killed. And when the people from the other village rescued me from the shelter, I was covered in my mother’s, sisters’, brothers’ blood and pieces of meat, all over my body. They cleaned me up to bring me to the medical area.

On the way to the medical area, I saw my neighbors, the people in my village; the streets were strewn with their dead bodies. All I saw were dead bodies. Burned houses, and dead bodies, dead animals. During that time, it felt surreal.

Out of my whole family, I loved my youngest sister the most. She was just two months old. When my entire family died in the shelter, my little sister was still crying. She cried for about two minutes afterwards. And I could not help her because she was lying under my mother’s stomach and my mother; she laid over her to try to cover her from the shooting and the grenade. After that, in the afternoon, when they brought me up, I asked them if my sister was still alive because I had heard her crying. They said no; they were all dead.

And they brought the five of them and my mother up, put them on a flat board that was used to dry rice. That means they took one of the flat boards to pick up their flesh, and laid them on there. But when I saw this, while I was lying there hurt, when they were dressing my wounds, when I laid there, I saw them carry the pieces of flesh on the flat board, dig a hole and buried them. I thought, just like animals. No caskets. We couldn’t tell whose body it belonged to who, just like throwing away trash.

 

Pham Thi Thuan:

On the morning of March 16th, I woke up. I slept with my two children. I woke up first. I woke up to cook breakfast and feed my children. My children were still young. One was four years old. The other one was two years old. I just finished cooking. We hadn’t eaten yet. At that time, a helicopter came and it flew around. Later on, I heard shooting all over. My children and I were scared so we ran down into the shelter. They kept shooting for a while and when then they stopped, we got out of the shelter. When we got out, I saw a helicopter landing. The helicopter flew and flew, then landed and dropped the soldiers down.

They shot in the upper village and then here, they rounded us up at Trang Ba and made us walk from inside the village, across the rice fields. I pulled my kids to go with me. I dragged my kids, but they still hit us, still kicked us down. Big group of people, it was really crowded. My parents were in there too. A lot. And then they told us to go to the ditch. When we got to the ditch, they told us to stand up. We thought if we just stood there for them to round us up, they would let us go home.

Finally, they took Mr. Le’s family out there. Mr. Le’s family, his house was over there. They brought a lot of people to the ditch and killed all of them. At that time, Mr. Le had already come back from the monastery. He was blessed by Buddha. He put his hands together and he asked Buddha to bless them, to bless them over and over like this, but they still killed him. They shot that group of people first. When I got out there, I was rounded up and I saw blood running down the water. It was all red. I thought we would die. I would not live.

At that time, I didn’t know how to run. If I ran, they would shoot me. If I wanted to escape, I couldn’t. At that time when I went out to the ditch, they told us to sit down and we sat down. They made us stand up and we stood up. They told us to sit down, we sat down. Stand up, we stood up. They kept telling us to do this a few times, until they told us to stand up one last time. They held their guns and they pointed and they shot. Where they pushed, they shot right there. They pushed us down, they shot us in the head, in the stomach. At that time, I held my children down in the ditch. A few women, they fell. They shot them first. They fell on top of me. They covered me at that time.

My daughter, Lien, I used my breast to cover her mouth so she wouldn’t cry. When she cried or screamed, I pushed her into me liked this, I pushed her into my tummy and my older daughter, I pushed her head and my head together in one place. When they shot the second, at that time, the people and the children were not crying or screaming. The third time, I think it had been a while, I didn’t get hit yet. A few people covered my back and only my head was not covered. I kept my head down.

The second time, I laid there and I looked to the side. I saw my father walking around. In my stomach, I wanted to tell him, “Please lie down dad. If you do, you’ll live.” But I didn’t dare say it. I was scared they would shoot me. If they heard me, they would shoot me. I just let my father walk around and they went over there and shot him. Half of his head blew away.

At that time, the third time, everyone died. All had died. I laid there for a long time and my children, they said, “There’s so much blood and meat! Mom, blood and meat, they’re all over me.” And I told her, “Don’t say anything. Wait to see if we’re still alive or not.” I told her like that. The third time, they walked down there and they sat, but I didn’t dare go up. I was so scared, I didn’t dare go up there.

Finally, I tried to pull out my leg, out of the mud, from under the water. When I pulled up, I looked around. At that time, I saw Mr. Than. His forehead was covered in blood. I told him, “Brother Than, can you see if they’re gone? And we’ll run up there. Maybe we’ll still be alive?” He looked around, he didn’t see them and from down in the ditch, he stepped over the people, he walked. At that time, I took my two children to go up. The little one under my tummy, I thought maybe she suffocated, maybe she died. At that time she was two years old, I thought maybe she suffocated. I pushed my breast in her mouth, plugged her nose. I carried my two-year-old and I pulled my four-year-old up and we walked. We stepped over stomachs, stepped over people, and we went up.

I walked for a long while and finally arrived at the edge of the ditch. I kept walking. Mr. Than, Mrs. Ho and I walked together, along with the two daughters of Mrs. Hai Ca. She was also alive, she followed behind me. We walked pass the houses. We ran out to the rice field. And the helicopters, they flew around my head and flew away. At that time, they stopped shooting. They didn’t shoot behind us. After that, to get out of there, I went up to the main road. I kept going and hoped the helicopters won’t shoot us. And we kept going, going until we arrived at Tinh Thien village. The people in the village, they looked at us, they told us to not wash ourselves, to see if we were hurt anywhere, but the blood was stuck all over.

At that time, I was so numb. My clothes were covered in blood and meat from the other people. I went down to the small river, went down there. I tried to wash my body. I was so lucky I wasn’t hurt anywhere and two of my children, they weren’t hurt either. When we went into Tinh Thien village, we stayed at one man’s house. He cooked rice for us to eat. He let us eat lunch and in the afternoon, I asked him to take care of my two children. I let my children stay there and I went back home. I told my children, “Let mom go back to bring back a basket of rice so we have something to eat. If we stay here, we’ll have nothing to eat.”

When I went back there, I saw my father, my sisters, my niece and nephew, all dead. I got home late at night. I was with a few people and my brother. We carried the bodies and went to Truong An to bury them. Because here, there was nothing left.

A lot of people, they just dug a big hole and they buried several people in it. They tried to bury them because of the smell. The cows and the oxen, they died all over. They died, they laid all over. When I arrived home, the cows and the pigs, they smelled so bad. It was vile. I couldn’t tolerate it. I didn’t know why I was still alive. And I think I told myself, “I am so lucky. I’m still alive."

 

life, sometimes, a lot of times, most of the time
may not be kind to us.

but whenever this happens to me,
i’m reminded that
those in my lai, at the very core, fought to live.

After thirty years, they found my grandfather.

During the Vietnam war, tens, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians became M.I.A.

My grandfather was one of them. For thirty years, my family has tried to track him down.
Last they heard, he was in Cambodia, but after thirty years,
they came to conclude he had passed away.

Recently people have been using the help of psychics to find their missing relatives in Vietnam.
My uncle Doanh decided he would try it out.
Now of course, my family believed this was all hooey and discouraged it,
but uncle Doanh insisted.

He flew to Vietnam this summer to a small village in the North.
There, lived an old psychic who wanted to take care of his village.
In order to see him, you had to stay with a household in the village.
They’d take care of you, feed you, house you.
In return, you’d give them, I think, 30,000 dongs (which is about less than three USD) a day.
The psychic felt that if you wanted to find your dead relatives,
you shouldn’t be staying at posh, fancy hotels.

In order to see the psychic,
each morning you’d go to his house with a piece of paper with your name and simply the phrase,
“I am looking for someone.”
That afternoon, he’d pick a slip of paper and help that person find their missing relative.
It usually takes about two weeks before your name was called.

The evening my uncle arrived, he had a really bad fever and became really ill.
The next morning, he turned in his slip of paper. That afternoon, his name was called.

When he went to see the psychic, the psychic told him,
“You are looking for your father.
Your family believes this is nonsense, but if you want to find your father,
you have to follow me to the very end.
If you bail out on me halfway, I won’t do this for you.
You have to follow me to the very end.”

My uncle agreed. The psychic began scribbling a map of mountains and oceans and told my uncle,
“Your father didn’t die in Cambodia. He’s in the South of Vietnam. Take this map,
go to the South of Vietnam and look around until you find a place that resembles this map.”

So then my uncle went on this wild goosechase with this scribbled map the psychic had given him.
Each time he came to a place that resembled the map, he’d call the psychic,
“Am I here?”
“No, keep going.”

For almost a month straight he did this.
Finally, he arrived at a little fishing village.
He called the psychic, who then told him,
“You’re there. Now ask around the village for the names of these three men.”
My uncle went around asking, but no one seemed to know who these men were.
He finally went to the main office in the village.
The workers there informed him that two of the men were deceased,
and gave him the address to where he could find the third man.

When he arrived at the man’s house, the man said to my uncle,
“How do you know my name? No one calls me by that name.”
(In Vietnam, people are often called by their nicknames throughout their lives, not by their real names.)
My uncle explained to the man his situation and why he was there.
The man told my uncle,
“In 1981, my two friends (the other two names the psychic had given my uncle), and I
found three bodies washed ashore. We buried them on top of the hill by the village.”

My uncle then traveled to the base of this hill and called the psychic,
“Am I here?”
“Yes. There are three bodies, one of them is your father.”
“From here I see five tombstones.”
“Two of them have already been dug out. Go to the top of the hill.”

When my uncle reached the top of the hill,
there were two large holes where two of the bodies had been.

He called back the psychic,
“How do I know which one of these three graves is my father?”
“Ask your father to help you find him. When you place your hand in the dirt,
you’ll find something that’ll tell you it’s your father.”

My uncle then asked out loud,
“Dad, please help me find you.”
He dug his hand into the dirt, and pulled out a bone.
He said he felt this overwhelming pressure in his chest and immediately knew it was his father.

The way people were buried, their body was placed on a wooden plank
and covered with a white sheet before dirt was placed over them.
After over thirty years, there was no flesh left, only a few bones and teeth.
But my uncle was absolutely convinced that he had found my grandfather.

There’s a bunch of theories to this whole situation.
For example, that the psychic was a fraud, just trying to make money out of wealthy foreigners,
but if that were the case,
wouldn’t he have insisted on more money for staying in the village households?

And then my mom told me about this other theory,
that there are a lot of lonely spirits in Vietnam, who want someone to properly bury them,
to love them, to pray for them, and might have gone to the psychic pretending to my grandfather.

My family, being the skeptics that they are, insisted on a DNA test.

 
The results:
I was told you need certain parts of the body in order to get 100% accuracy on DNA tests.
Because they were only able to use the bones and teeth my uncle found,
they were able to verify that it’s 87% my grandfather,
which to me, basically means, yes, it’s my grandfather.

The best part about this whole story? My uncle documented his trip on a little camcorder.

 
The map that started the journey.

0830

 
I think this would make an awesome documentary.
A man’s relentless journey to find his father,
the interviews, images of Vietnam landscapes, oceans, mountains…

Sadly, this isn’t the sort of story investors are interested in tossing their money into.
It’s usually about returned profit for them.
Don’t suppose you guys know anyone with 15k lying around collecting dust
and wanna be listed as Executive Producer on this project?

my first two documentaries

after making two narratives last semester,
i decided to try documentaries this semester:

1.
in the past, stories of asian women were often told by others,
specifically caucasian men.

“reclaiming our bodies” takes a look at four queer asian filmmakers
who are reclaiming their stories and retelling them from their authentic point of view,
while breaking apart gender representations
and giving voices to those often marginalized.

2.
and the peru one.. well, here’s the documentary, as promised:

if video doesn’t load, click here to view.

the premiere went really well.
it’s so weird to see something you’ve been working on for three months
go from a little 720×480 window to a huge theatrical screen.

and it was awesome to hear my friends, peers and peru immersion comrades
cheer and scream during the rolling credits.

i still have a lot to learn,
but i don’t think i’ll ever get bored of making films.

• • • • •

julie from the service learning dept. asked if i would be interested
in shooting another documentary in zambia this summer.
omg free trip to africa!
sadly, i had to decline because i’ll be in vietnam. :(