The Friendship Village

The Friendship Village was created near Hanoi by a group of veterans of the war in Vietnam for children with Agent Orange-related birth defects. This powerhouse 2002 documentary weaves the riveting battlefield experience of Village founder George Mizo into an inspiring account of ordinary people moved to make a difference without waiting for their government or a well-funded charity to step up.

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Insights from the Director

Vancouver native Michelle Mason began her career in television news, but soon found herself disillusioned. “There must be people out there who want to hear the good things people are doing,” she recalls thinking. Stationed in the D.C. bureau of the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the mid-1990s, she met activists achieving incremental change. “Those are the stories I wanted to tell—the little heroes making a difference every day whose stories are never in the headlines,” Mason says.

The opportunity presented itself after she met her husband, an American military analyst. He regaled Mason with stories of George Mizo, a Vietnam veteran and longtime antiwar advocate who had founded the Friendship Village, a facility outside Hanoi for children with deformities and disabilities stemming from their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. The Village was an extraordinary act of generosity and kindness, especially considering that Mizo suffered from illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

After hearing about Mizo for years, Mason finally met him in 1997. “We stayed up one night talking, and he told me his life story and I realized I had the subject for my first documentary. It took me about a year to convince him to let me do the film. As he grew more and more ill, he realized the film could be a way to communicate the point of the village after his death.”

Without a second thought, Mason left what she calls the “depressing” world of television news to record Mizo’s soul-stirring tale of personal transformation and document the inspiring work of the Friendship Village.

“I’ve always been a mix of idealist and pragmatist, and the film affirmed for me that’s the way forward,” Mason asserts. “You have to imagine what’s possible, but you also have to do the work to realize that vision. Maybe that doesn’t mean raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and building a village in a rice paddy somewhere, but every day, when you go out in the world, carrying that vision forward. It can be as simple as how you interact with the bus driver. We must be the change we seek in the world.”

Mizo died at the age of 56 in the spring of 2002, just weeks before Mason finished editing the film. The Friendship Village stands as an exemplary tribute to a brave and committed man as well as, alas, a timeless reminder of the cost of war.

Audiences at community screenings in the ensuing months routinely asked how to contribute, so Mason created the nonprofit Vietnam Friendship Village Project Canada with some friends at her kitchen table. “It was always my intention that the film could be used by whoever to raise funds for the Village, but also raise awareness around other areas,” Mason says. That certainly has been and continues to be the case, in the educational market and beyond.

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