Vietnam: The Secret Agent

The first feature-length documentary about Agent Orange and its physical and political effects on Vietnam vets, Jacki Ochs’ Vietnam: The Secret Agent (1983) remains as riveting and powerful as the day it was made. Tracing the affected veterans’ battle to procure medical treatment from an obstinate Veterans Administration, and compensation from the herbicide’s equally defiant manufacturers, the film stands as a singularly valuable historical record. Not only that, it has lost none of its emotional power (Special Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival).

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Insights from the Director

In 1980, a mutual friend introduced filmmaker Jacki Ochs to Frank McCarthy, then director of Agent Orange Victims International (AOVI). McCarthy talked about the late Paul Reutershan, the Vietnam veteran who had founded the organization, as well as numerous other GIs who suffered from symptoms and diseases that they were convinced were due to chemical exposure.

Agent Orange_dioxin_Vietnam_ochs3“I had just come off working on an anti-nuke film,” the New York filmmaker remembers. “I was moved because it was an environmental poison story. And as a former antiwar activist, I was disappointed by the way soldiers returning from the war were treated. It just seemed like a story that nobody knew about and which needed to be told.”

The Secret Agent includes a succinct, accessible history both of the war and the use of dioxin in Vietnam, employing a wealth of archival military footage. In the interest of balance, because the chemical companies are not exactly heroes in this saga, Ochs was determined to get an interview with someone from Dow Chemical. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy.

“We persisted and they said, ‘We want to talk with you first without cameras,’” Ochs relates. “It was more of a debate, many hours long. They would only do an interview if we submitted a list of questions in advance that were subject to their approval. They also wanted the right to change things in the edit. We decided it was very important to film them, so we agreed to everything except the editing. We assured them that if they had any issues they wanted to address in the final cut, we’d consider them.”

Ochs’ resolve and strategy paid off with some of the film’s strongest moments. Unlike today’s corporate honchos, who are supremely skilled at giving long interviews and saying nothing, the Dow executive is stunningly straightforward. His appearance is galvanizing, in part because it’s clear that he doesn’t realize how audiences will receive his comments.

“Dow sent us back a letter of praise,” Ochs recalls, “which we included in our press kit, which in the long run did not make them terribly happy. They believed in their point of view, so when they saw it in the film they thought their point of view was convincing. When they saw the film with an audience, they were shocked at the response.”

Dow learned a lesson, albeit the wrong one, namely not to discuss the issue on camera ever again. “The door slammed,” Ochs says. “I felt bad for other journalists.”

Ochs is currently finishing up the extra features for the DVD re-release of The Secret Agent, including a timeline encompassing the scientific, legislative and judicial developments related to Agent Orange, as well as the events, that transpired after the film’s ending. There will be a short piece on artists (including some Vietnamese Americans) who use Agent Orange in the context of their work, to show how it continues to resonate and ripple through the culture.

Ochs certainly remains affected, more than a quarter of a century later.  “It was traumatic to some degree,” she says, “in that we interviewed hundreds of veterans, we saw all kinds of horrible effects of this chemical, we saw stonewalling on the part of the government. So it left a mark. And I still carry that, to some extent. It created a sense of urgency [in me] that hasn’t gone away, on all sorts of issues.”

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