Insights from the Director
The California born-and-bred daughter of a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father, both Silicon Valley engineers, filmmaker Jackee Chang rarely talked with her parents about their formative years. All she knew was that her mother had left Vietnam a year before the fall of Saigon. “In the Asian-American culture we focus on surviving, making a living and having a better life,” Chang explains. “We focus on the future, not the past.”
When she came across an article about the Friendship Village in graduate school, while looking for an idea for her thesis film, Chang was stunned. “I think I’m a pretty aware person, but I had never heard of Agent Orange victims existing in the present day,” she admits. “I always thought that was something in the past.”
The Los Angeles filmmaker prepped her camerawoman and female translator in advance about the emotional challenge of shooting families and individuals living with birth defects and disabilities. Chang spoke a little Vietnamese and understood quite a bit but, taking nothing for granted and driven to erase the distance between herself and her subjects by any means possible, she packed a specific piece of gear.
“I knew I was a foreigner in the land,” she relates. “The black-and-white Super 8 brought me much closer to the victims. The camera was smaller [and] I was able to get closer. It enabled them to talk more and me to talk less and shoot more and get closer. I was sitting side-by-side mostly, and that really helped. I learned that being more physical, being close to them, was important to make them feel like everybody else.”
Chang’s smiling onscreen presence lends Through Their Eyes an unexpected buoyancy. We can see her good intentions transmitted to the people she meets, but we don’t see the strain she was under.
“Part of me felt like I was bringing false hope, and that was hard to deal with on a daily basis,” she confides. “Some families would ask me, ‘Is America going to do anything? Are we going to get any help?’ There is a responsibility once you bring hope into a house, that change will happen. That’s what the film is about—hope and change. And the biggest burden is we can’t guarantee it.”
Just as we cannot watch Through Their Eyes and remain unmoved, the filmmaker returned from Vietnam with a new perspective. “I’m definitely a different person now,” she says. “It made life a lot more precious. This whole thing about patience, and waiting and accepting your fate, became more dauntingly real. There are things we cannot control [but] there are a lot of things we can control, and take action for what we can do.”
Chang’s journey, perhaps not surprisingly, also shifted her relationship with her parents.
“Now the dialogue’s open,” she declares. “They know that me and my sister want to know the history.”