Pham Quoc Thai, B.S. ’76, creates powerful documentaries about conflict and reconciliation
By Ann Whitcher
A native of Vietnam who arrived in the U.S. in 1971 to attend UB, Pham has produced a number of award-winning documentaries, mostly in collaboration with his frequent partner, Janet Gardner of the Gardner Documentary Group, a New York City firm with a special interest in Indochina. In October 2002, Pham returned to UB following a 26-year absence to screen two films made with Gardner and to revisit some of his old haunts, including the former Norton Union on the South Campus, now Squire Hall of the School of Dental Medicine.
"As you know, UB was a university that had its turbulent times during the Vietnam War before I arrived in the early 1970s," Pham says during our interview. "Norton Union was one of the buildings where I spent a lot of my time while I was here. On the second floor, there was the ‘browsing library’ (I don’t even know the official name), where I was able to read a lot of different newspapers, magazines from around the world and listen to music. Then there was a small movie theater where I saw some very good films, not to mention the ‘Rathskeller’ in the basement [of Norton] for social get-togethers with friends and for beer consumption."
Arriving at UB, Pham enrolled in a business program, one that his father had embraced for practical reasons, but that his son found less enticing. "My father wanted me to study management, which he thought would help me to have a better future," Pham explains. "But I had a different calling in fields like history and social sciences. This is why I remember Professor John Larkin of the History Department, whom I called to say ‘hello’ while at UB."
In leaving Vietnam, Pham not only had to learn a new language and culture (he also speaks French fluently, in addition to English and Vietnamese), he was also obliged to deal with the fallout of an escape undertaken for political reasons. "I came to the U.S.A. with the excuse of ‘studying,’ a euphemism for evading the draft in the now defunct South Vietnam," he says. "The general sentiment at the time among the Vietnamese was that the American presence was an occupying force. Personally, I did not see it as a duty for me to join the Americans in fighting my own people or to defend successive corrupt South Vietnamese regimes propped up by American money and military power. At that time, I—as well as many others—didn’t know why the Americans were there. Democracy was a very vague notion, given the brutal reality of war and oppression by the government of South Vietnam."
Though his academic inclinations were at first unfocused, the university provided a place to study and to learn. "When I discovered that I had permission from the [South Vietnamese] government to leave and study abroad, my father and I were both overjoyed that I could escape the meat-grinding machine going on at the time," says Pham in a reference to the war and the rate at which young men were dying. "My father, who had six other children, told me that ‘if you wish to go abroad to study, you must be self-supporting.’ There was no other way. He said, ‘We can provide you with a plane ticket, some clothes and a little money.’"
Help came in the form of tuition assistance at the university. "I’m grateful for what at the time was called a ‘tuition waiver’ for the four years I was at UB," Pham says. "Without it, I would have probably been on the street the next semester. My main concern was to earn enough money for my lodging, my food and my books. And nothing else."
After graduation, Pham still faced obstacles in launching a filmmaking career. The first three years after receiving his B.S. in management were tough economically; he was for a time unemployed, then worked in a Rochester factory doing menial work at low wages. He was working for what is now the New York State Department of Health, when his career took a sudden turn toward documentary work.
"I met Janet Gardner in 1991 at an NGO (nongovernmental organization) forum on Vietnam; she and I were both in the antiwar movement at different places. At that time, she was looking for a partner who could speak Vietnamese and understand the culture, so that a film on Vietnam could be produced. Our cooperation brought about our first film on Vietnam, Vietnam: Land of the Ascending Dragon, in 1993. This film introduces Vietnam in broad sketches to a Westerner. So it’s more of a travelogue on Vietnam than a serious documentary.
"On the shoot for that film in Vietnam," continues Pham, "we came across some tunnels dug by villagers for survival just north of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which gave us some ideas for our next film, A World Beneath the War, produced in 1997. This film is the one that connects to me the most. It tells the story of a painter who was assigned to work in that area during the war, and 25 years later took his son back to show him where he had worked— his son had learned about the war only in books. To me, this film is the war in microcosm—a small village that held a technologically advanced enemy at bay and survived despite great odds."
Though well received, A World Beneath the War used narration to guide the audience. Conversely, a film like Precious Cargo, which Pham and Gardner screened during their UB visit, "gives me more satisfaction because the story is told by the characters in the film itself. There is no narration."
Precious Cargo follows the adoptees of the 1975 U.S. "Operation Babylift," when 2,800 South Vietnamese children were transported to American homes, seemingly overnight. Now in their late 20s and early 30s, these adoptees are seen returning to their homeland, visiting orphanages and maternity hospitals, confronting overcrowding and poverty and wrestling with complex feelings of loss and gratitude, connection and detachment. In Precious Cargo, wrote the New York Times, the filmmakers "provide an exquisite window into the aftermath of war and what happens to children when the soldiers stop fighting."
Also screened at UB was the Gardner Group’s Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia, a 1999 film that depicts how beautiful physical movement became a metaphor for Cambodians surviving what the narrator calls the "methodical cruelty" of the infamous Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime, the radical communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Ninety percent of the country’s royal court dancers were executed or died of starvation or disease. It is their plight and the heritage of the surviving dancers that the film examines so forcefully.
While Vietnam and the Vietnam War have so far been Pham’s primary concerns, his overall goal is "to produce films that have historical contexts, social implications or meanings from a progressive point of view." Looking at documentary ideas for the future, Pham would like to create a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, as viewed by C. David Thomas, the U.S. Army Vietnam veteran who now directs the Indochina Art Partnership in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Initially, we learned about an exhibition of drawings of the face of Ho Chi Minh by Thomas, who is also coauthor of a forthcoming book on Ho," says Pham. "We wish to make a film with him since he seems to revere Ho and rightly so—a legendary figure in the modern history of international communism and the leader of the former enemy that he was taught to hate. As of this writing, however, we have not found any substantial financial support. The project therefore has been on hold."
The delay in the Ho Chi Minh film project illustrates what Pham explains is a common predicament for documentarians. "There are so many people who want to do a documentary, yet so little money is available for funding," he says.
Asked if he has a documentary style or approach he would recommend to others, Pham says simply, "It should be as close to reality as possible." One senses that in documenting the conditions that lead to, or follow, human suffering, he has found his true calling.