Vietnamese Americans speak on Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War”

Scene from “The Vietnam War,” the 2017 documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

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By now, you’ve heard of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new 18-hour documentary, titled “The Vietnam War.” If you’re like me, your understanding of the Vietnam War is through film, pop culture and basic history classes. It comes from the tiny tidbits you can pull together from your refugee parents’ anti-Communist sentiments — tiny, because it’s still too painful for your parents to retell their experiences.

I know that I, as a millennial Vietnamese American, have developed biases and preconceived notions of the war, coming to understand it only through certain narratives. But when I discovered Burns’ and Novick’s documentary, I realized that the film, made by a non-Vietnamese filmmaker, would be considered a definitive resource on the Vietnam War. I wanted to take in all opinions — especially those of my community — before taking the filmmakers’ accounts at face value.

So a week ago, I started researching, beginning with opinion pieces on the documentary. At first, I found reviews written by non — Vietnamese Americans on mainstream media publications praising the documentary for its extensiveness, its ambition, and its hopefulness.

But I dug deeper, and reached out to Vietnamese American professors, writers, and scholars. E-mailing them for feedback, I received responses filled with sadness, hurt, frustration, and much disappointment:

“It’s been frustrating and disheartening to see the usual (and expected) media claims that this documentary is so brilliant.” 
Bich Nguyen, American Book Award-winning author and professor at the University of San Francisco
“Sometimes I get tired of being the professional Vietnamese who is always called on for his opinion on anything related to the Vietnam War. So I have refrained from commenting on the documentary in hopes that other professional Vietnamese will step forward and speak out, ensuring that we have a diversity of opinions from a diverse community.” 
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at the University of Southern California
“I think it’s incredibly important for Vietnamese Americans to critique and voice their opinions on what will surely be an American mainstream resource for the Vietnam War.”
 — Aimee Phan, author and professor at the California College of the Arts

Bich Nguyen, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Aimee Phan are right. If Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary is going to be cemented as the mainstream resource on the Vietnam War, Vietnamese Americans have to make sure they help narrate history as well.

Reading their thoughts, I’m determined to watch this documentary in context, keeping in mind the voices of my refugee parents, to whom this documentary is a personal pain point.

Rather than being an end-all be-all, this documentary should become an opportunity to highlight what people like my uncle, aunts, grandparents and my parents have to say.

This film purports to shine a spotlight on Vietnam; I intend to use it to shine a spotlight on those who do not have the opportunity, the privilege and the platform to have their side of the story honored.

Inspired by Bich Nguyen and Viet Thanh Nguyen, I have gathered articles from the Vietnamese American community here.

It’s a chance for us to explore the documentary through the lens of our own community — considering, encouraging and uplifting the hidden opinions that have been published by the Vietnamese people.

  1. Beth Nguyen on how this documentary is another space for Americans to focus on American pain and leaving Vietnamese people being secondary to their own story.
  2. Aimee Phan on how “The Vietnam War” offers the same narrative but shows little perspective of actual Vietnamese people themselves.
  3. Thanh Tan on how he had to lower expectations — understanding the film’s audience was geared mainly for an American one to understand the American role.
  4. Tatiana Sanchez interviewing veterans, South Vietnamese people and other community members who are disappointed and angry about the “The Vietnam War.”
  5. Mai Lam, who is featured in the series, hopes that the documentary reminds us that war is a scourge and should only be fought as a last resort.

Natalie Bui is an editor for The Slant.