Agent Orange: 30 Years Later

This openhearted yet unflinching film collects the unvarnished, unembellished testimonies of Vietnamese who’ve suffered great physical and psychological pain in the decades since their—or their spouses’—exposure to the herbicide. Avoiding sensationalism and cheap theatrics, the filmmaker asks us to see and accept the realities of chemical warfare.

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Insights from the Director

John Trinh was born in Vietnam in 1956, and arrived in the U.S. in 1987 after six months in a Philippine refugee camp. To this day, he is acutely aware that he came to this country as a refugee, not an immigrant. Now a highly regarded graphic designer and artist in Southern California, Trinh turned to the medium of film for the first time to give voice, in the most direct way possible, to Vietnamese people permanently and grievously affected by Agent Orange.

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Defoliated land near the former Tan Son Nhut U.S. Air Base in southern Vietnam.

“They are deeply hurt, physically and mentally, but they don’t seek revenge. They are asking for help. That I would bet my life on.”

One of the filmmaker’s signal accomplishments is giving the Vietnamese people the opportunity to relate their painful and deeply personal experiences. Trinh’s camera is sympathetic but unflinching, most memorably in his interview with an older woman who endured three abortions of fetuses with acute defects, and a childless marriage.

“She delivered her life story as if she had thought about it for a long time, as if she had been waiting to find someone to get it all out,” Trinh muses.

“It’s not something you talk about in the streets, to your neighbors. She was desperate, she was feeling pain all her life, she couldn’t hold back anymore. I happened to be the guy with good intentions that compelled her to tell the story she’d buried for so long.”

Nonetheless, it takes an extraordinary commitment for a filmmaker to willfully put himself in uncomfortable situations and, once there, challenge people whom he’s just met to reveal their innermost feelings for our benefit.

“When was the last time you asked a stranger how many miscarriages she’d had?” Trinh asks. “You’ll get smacked in the face. I had to do it. If I don’t have the story, I don’t have the film.”

Trinh’s impetus, though, was not that of an investigative journalist. “I made the film as an artist, and as an eyewitness,” he says. “It’s a dedication to all the victims of Agent Orange; the American soldiers, North Vietnamese soldiers, South Vietnamese soldiers, the innocent Vietnamese people – and of course the land and the environment.”

Trinh’s generous subjects demonstrated courage in being interviewed on-camera, but they were matched by the filmmaker’s bravery in seeking out and showing us what we never see.

“It broke my heart,” Trinh confides. “Holding my camera, I was shaking.”

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