Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem

Moved to take up filmmaking after the death of her husband, an American veteran whose cancer was likely caused by exposure to the dioxin-contaminated herbicide during the Vietnam War, Masako Sakata gracefully weaves her husband’s story—and her wrenching loss—with the ongoing impact of Agent Orange on Vietnamese families with disabled children. The Japanese director might have been inspired to embark on a personal journey of discovery and healing, but her revealing, openhearted 2007 documentary speaks to all of us.

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Insights from the director

In 2003, less than a month after being diagnosed with liver cancer thought to be linked to his exposure to Agent Orange as a G.I. in Vietnam, photojournalist Greg Davis was dead at 54. His grieving wife of 33 years, Masako Sakata, grappled with how to productively move forward.

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Young boy practices walking using a bamboo railing while his mother cheers from outside their home in Cam Nghia village.

“I went to Maine to spread his ashes in one of the lakes where we used to spend summers,” she recalls. “I happened to find out there was a film workshop in that small community. I had not even touched a professional camera before.”

“I had no concrete plans for a film,” she confides. “I was desperate to find some kind of consolation to deal with the loss of my husband. I just wanted to find out what was happening with the aftereffects of Agent Orange so many years after the spraying.”

So with a camera and a plane ticket to Vietnam, Sakata embarked on an uncertain, open-ended journey. Seeking to meet Agent Orange victims, Sakata was astounded at the number she encountered throughout the country. At the same time, she was touched deeply by the love that families lavished on the victims, amid all the other hardships they faced. Gradually, she began to emerge from her cocoon of grief.

She returned home with many more tapes than she’d anticipated. “I did not know how to put the footage together to make a meaningful story,” Sakata notes. “I did not want to make a catalog of disabled children. Then someone suggested that I make it a personal story. First I was hesitant. How could you make such an enormous socio-political disaster into a small personal story? But I thought of all the home videos in which Greg’s voice and images were brought back to life, and decided to try to incorporate them into the film. Then the story started to flow.”

Rather than minimizing the catastrophic effects on the Vietnamese, as Sakata feared, Greg’s presence in Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem expands the scope of the film to encompass the military that deployed dioxin. Because he also suffered the effects, the film evokes a kind of internal dialogue between American and Vietnamese victims.

“I don’t know what my life after Greg would have been like had I not had a chance to make this film,” Sakata says. “It kept me going, helped me heal, and taught me many lessons.”

Sakata’s initial concern about incorporating her loss, and potentially downplaying the suffering of the Vietnamese people, vanished as the documentary took shape in the editing room.

“Once the film was complete and I had the chance to witness audiences’ reactions,” Sakata recalls, “I became more optimistic that we are endowed with power to change,” Sakata says. “This has given me courage to move on.”

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