Insights from the Director
“Vietnam was the war of my generation,” notes Janet Gardner, who was in college when the National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State in 1970. For many Americans who came of age in that turbulent time, though, the Southeast Asian country faded from sight in the ensuing decades. In Gardner’s case, the conflict left a permanent imprint.
Galvanized by the unacknowledged legacies of the Vietnam War, Gardner segued from print journalism to documentary filmmaking. “As a journalist, I was taught to be fair to both sides, to both perspectives,” she explains. “Generally in films about Vietnam by the U.S. media, the Vietnamese perspective was seriously underrepresented.”
From a contemporary perspective, it doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial undertaking to show postwar Vietnam through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. But the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam, which lasted until 1994, cast suspicion on any American who so much as visited.
Gardner’s first few trips to Vietnam in the late 1980s were strained by the embargo and U.S. government limitations. But if anything, American indifference to telling Vietnamese stories only made Gardner more determined. Gardner embarked on a documentary trilogy with Vietnam-born co-producer Pham Quoc Thai, beginning with A World Beneath the War (1997) and continuing with Precious Cargo (2001).
Third in the series, The Last Ghost of War was prompted by the lawsuit filed in American courts by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. In essence, the film attempts to confront the United States’ and the chemical companies’ belated acknowledgment of the ongoing effects of the herbicide on the Vietnamese people.
Despite this, Gardner feels optimistic about the potential of Vietnam to overcome the legacy of Agent Orange. “There are many NGOs working in Vietnam, more than a hundred American ones, and they’re all trying to do good work in [education and cleanup]. I’m hoping that they will turn their resources towards the children.”
Gardner, naturally, embraces these positive developments in light of the work that she, Pham and many others have done to inform the American public about the plight of the Agent Orange-afflicted Vietnamese. She shrugs off credit or compliments, implying that her films aren’t acts of courage so much as conscience. Gardner says, “You know what the wonderful journalist Gloria Emerson said, ‘It’s almost unbearable, but to turn away … is to compound the crime.”