In 1972, filmmaker Peter McDowell’s older brother Jim went to Vietnam and didn’t come back. His family avoided talking about Jim and what happened to him, and McDowell, who was five years old at the time, thought his brother had been killed fighting in the war. Jimmy in Saigon chronicles McDowell’s journey to find out what happened to his brother, interviewing friends and family, going through over 200 letters as well as photographs, home movies, and other archival materials, and visiting Vietnam.
For those who weren’t there, it’s important to understand that there was a military draft during the Vietnam War, and young men were assigned lottery numbers based on their birthdates. Jim had a low lottery number, meaning a high probability of being drafted, but was able to avoid being called up by enrolling in college. Then he forfeited his student deferment by dropping out of college after his junior year, and it wasn’t long until Uncle Sam’s “greetings” (his draft notice) arrived.
Despite some discussion about becoming a conscientious objector (his family was against it), Jim enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Vietnam. He served his term of duty without incident, was mustered out, and returned home to his family in Champaign, Illinois. Many soldiers had similar experiences (if they were fortunate), but then Jim then made an unexpected move, returning to Vietnam as a civilian. He died there a year later, at age 24, under mysterious circumstances.
Jim was a free thinker who often didn’t see eye-to-eye with his family. He mentioned the hedonistic pleasures available in Vietnam as the reason for his return, but they assumed he was actually in love with a woman whom he was going back to see. Jim also expressed his dissatisfaction with life in the United States, and with what he saw as a conformist, materialist existence that was the ideal for many, including his parents, and they were surprised by the anger he expressed toward their values and way of life.
In Jimmy in Saigon, McDowell takes viewers along the same discovery process he experienced (although it took him 11 years, while we get to experience it in just 89 minutes). This approach works well, particularly for viewers too young to remember the 1970s (trust me, it was a different time in many ways). In the process of investigating his brother’s life and death, McDowell discovers a different story than the one he was expecting. He also discovers a lot about the era in which his brother died, including what the draft meant for young men who were subject to it, what the experience of serving in Vietnam was like for ordinary soldiers, and how the reality of the war added to the unsettled feeling experienced by many young people at the time. | Sarah Boslaugh
Jimmy in Saigon will be screened on Oct. 22 at the Silas Theatre of the School for Visual Arts, and is also available on streaming throughout the 34th Annual NewFest, which runs Oct. 13-25. More information about film programs, special events, and passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.