The Vietnam War swirled anew at UCLA Thursday night as Vietnamese and American film makers confronted an audience for whom the war has not yet ended.
About 200 angry protesters shouted chants and waved red and yellow Vietnamese nationalist flags outside the 270-seat Melnitz Hall, while inside Vietnamese and American film and television producers tried to explain their depictions of Vietnam to a crowd that ranged from warmly receptive to antagonistic.
One conclusion drawn by the eight panelists at the symposium on "Images of Vietnam: A Dialogue Between Vietnamese and American Film Makers" was that film makers need to move away from combat-oriented films and explore human issues that deal with how the war affected people in both countries.
The turbulent session began an hour late, as audience members from the packed house were required to pass through metal detectors and were frisked by state police because of a reported gun threat.
The symposium capped off "The Vietnam Film Project," a series of six films from Vietnam presented at UCLA earlier this month. The project was organized by the UCLA Film and Television Archive; the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation With Vietnam, based in Madison, Wis.; the East-West Center in Honolulu and the Asia Society in New York.
In a clear demonstration that the North-South Vietnam conflict has not ended for Vietnamese living in this country, Vietnamese crowd members inside the auditorium used the microphone to deliver sharp blasts against Nguyen Thu, general director of the Vietnamese Film Department; Hai Ninh, director of the Hanoi Film Studio, and film director Nguyen Hong Sen.
Harsh comments were also hurled at American film maker and panelist Oliver Stone, who directed the Academy Award-winning "Platoon" and the upcoming "Born on the Fourth of July," about the outspoken Vietnam veteran and activist Ron Kovic, who was in attendance.
After viewing film clips from each producer on the panel, the panelists talked about the significance of Vietnam in film and television.
"Vietnam was the most important experience in my life," said Steven Smith, co-producer and writer for CBS' Vietnam series "Tour of Duty." "It never goes away. It's in you. When I feel I can't write another word about Vietnam, something else comes up. You can never exhaust the material because everyone there has a personal story or tragedy."
"Reaching across the battlefield and connecting with that other person as a human being is the greatest challenge of any film maker," agreed producer Bill Broyles of ABC's "China Beach." "Sure, there were bombs and explosions. But the most powerful thing in Vietnam was the enemy. He's the one who lighted the Zippo or pulled the trigger. We have to portray both sides of the enemy line."
The first indication of the storm brewing in the auditorium audience--made up in part of Vietnamese student protesters, as well as several prominent Vietnam activists, including Pentagon Papers figure Anthony Russo--occurred when Kieu Chinh, a former actress in Vietnam now living in Studio City, decried what she said was the omission of the South Vietnamese in American films.
"As Vietnamese film actress, to be honest, I was little bit disappointed with stories told (in American Vietnam films)," she said in measured words, speaking as a lone voice for the scores of protesters, many of whom were disabled Vietnamese veterans, who continued making anti-communist chants in a candlelight vigil outside. "I was born in North Vietnam, and I witnessed the war. But never have I seen the South Vietnamese portrayed in your film stories."
The audience erupted in emotional applause, as Chinh stood and bowed slightly.
"I think somehow soldiers have forgotten the comrades they fought with side by side for so many years. . . ," she continued, still standing. "I only hope in the future wave of films about war, film audiences will see human beings in Vietnam, instead of cliches about prostitutes and mama-sans."
Many of the comments of the Vietnamese film makers, who spoke through an interpreter, were lost in the translation. Overwhelmingly, they conveyed a peaceful message, one of optimism and an appreciation for the opportunity to open the channels of communication between the two historically divided countries by sharing film, which Chinh called a "language that transcends politics."
"We hope to create a dialogue here that will help us to get to know each other better," Thu said. "The more we can share, the more we can understand. . . . All our energies are focused on changes in Vietnam. I hope the films we show you reflect those changes."
Once the microphone was turned over to the audience, however, exacerbated Vietnamese protesters lashed out at the panelists in both English and Vietnamese, prompting verbal exchanges between those in the audience and causing English-speaking members of the crowd to cry out for faster translations.
Intensifying the emotion was the date of the symposium: two days before the anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975, which signalled the end of the war. (The panel discussion initially was to have followed the Vietnamese film festival, but the Vietnamese film makers were not able to clear their visas with the State Department in time and the event had to be rescheduled.)
Earlier in the week, arsonists set fire to a pickup truck in front of the Westminster editorial offices of the Vietnamese-language Nguoi Viet Daily News and scrawled a threat in Vietnamese saying, "Nguou Viet. If you are VC (Viet Cong). We Kill," officials there said.
"I left Vietnam in 1979," Quang Dang defiantly shouted into the microphone, his voice quavering. "I think in the United States, film producer has the right to do whatever he wants--say 'Down with Reagan,' and then go home at night and sleep safely. . . . Not in Vietnam! I had chance to see communist film. Police locked the doors and forced us to watch the whole film! That's still common practice in Vietnam!"
"I don't know of any country in the world that forces people to watch films," Thu responded. He drew jeers when he said that Vietnamese directors may make whatever kind of film they like once the concept is approved by the government.
"How can you understand what the life and reality is in Vietnam when you live over here?" Thu asked the audience.
"These films were not made by puppets," Stone affirmed. "They were made by artists."
One protester bitterly challenged Stone to present the real Vietnam and make a film or documentary about the Vietnamese re-education camps.
At one point, Stone burst out: "I don't know why you people think you have a monopoly on anger and truth! I can turn the tables; you're not the only people in the world that have experienced suffering. . . . You go on and on about your victims. When are you going to find the love in your heart to forgive and move on?"
"The war is over," said Patrick Duncan, Vietnam veteran and director of the feature film "84 Charlie Mopic" and a producer for the HBO "Vietnam War Story" series. "It's a wound and it's time to heal it. These films I saw from these Vietnamese gentlemen helped to heal my wounds from the war. Those who see them only as communists, please go see their movies."
At the end of the two-hour forum, police led the audience out a side exit to avoid conflict with demonstrators in front of the building who had already thrown objects at one visiting Vietnamese man when he pushed a nationalist Vietnamese flag out of his path to get by.
"We need to begin to see these people who were once our enemies as potential friends," Kovic said quietly from his wheelchair as he waited outside the theater. "Even though I was paralyzed from the chest down, I harbor no bitterness or hatred. We have to reach out with love and understanding and deal with a complex and highly emotional war. We need to find friendship where there was only suffering and pain."