"Ignorant' filmmaker brings Agent Orange plight to light

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The Vietnam War raged when John Trinh, then Trinh Long Hoang, was growing up in Vietnam.

But he knew nothing about its most insidious impacts until three decades after it ended in 1975.

In 2005, he read about the US government rejecting the lawsuits of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and woke up to the issue.

"When I saw the images of the victims on the Internet, I was stunned and I felt that the US was evading its responsibility to compensate the Vietnamese victims."

Trinh, who moved to the US in 1987, when he was 30, said he really knew nothing about dioxin until 2005. The idea struck him then to make a film on Agent Orange and its victims.

He started researching the chemical and working on the movie, trying to show the cruelty and long-lasting impact of the war. He wrote the script in three months and came back to Vietnam for the first time since he'd left 19 years earlier.

He knew little about filmmaking, about as much as he did about Agent Orange earlier until he began to look into the issue.

But when the Vietnamese American transformed his ignorance into commitment, he did much better than he would have hoped.

His documentary, "Agent Orange Thirty Years Later," also introduced as "A war no one wins," has won a lot of sympathy and awareness from the American people as well as the world community for victims of the US herbicide in Vietnam.

Coverage of the tragedy of Agent Orange and its continued effects receives scant media attention in the US. 

"The movie made me understand clearly the strong will of Agent Orange victims and their tolerance of the American people who had sprayed the toxic substance," Trinh told the Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper on the sidelines of the second International Conference on Agent Orange Victims in Hanoi earlier this August, as Vietnam commemorates 50 years of the tragedy.

"I felt proud that I have Vietnamese blood in me."

The award-winning drama-documentary, directed and produced by Trinh, a member of the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles, tells the story of Agent Orange victims from different parts of the country and across different generations, from adults to children and grandchildren.

Many of the victims live with horrible deformities, fear, loneliness, pain and poverty, and they are tortured with life choices like having to abort their babies and suicidal thoughts.

"It is more of a drama than reportage, or an observation," Trinh said in a statement introducing his film. 

"I did everything I could to finish the movie. I want to thank all the victims who were willing to share their pains and wishes with me."

The amateur director said he was surprised by the applause the movie received in the US immediately after it was released in late 2008.

Given that Trinh says he neither had experience in any aspect of filmmaking nor has much money to invest in it, the film has done extremely well.

It has been screened at 20 film festivals around the world including in the US, Europe, and Asia from 2008 until now.

It has won international film festival awards including "Best Documentary" at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in July 2009 and "Absolute Winner" of A Film For Peace at a film festival in Italy last year.

Many people have cried after watching the movie and many others have become angry about the crime the US has committed, Trinh said.

"I have told some of the audiences that the Vietnamese people don't want to take revenge. They just want their victims to receive the compensation and support they deserve," he told Lao Dong.

Critics at the Reel Earth - Environmental Film Festival where the film was introduced in 2009 also said that despite the horror, the film is at times "intensely moving and beautiful, showing also the better side of human nature, qualities like kindness, compassion, and forgiveness."

Trinh said his wish is that the US government admits that it was wrong in using Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and atones for the crime by compensating all victims of the toxic chemical.

US individuals and organizations have tried to help mitigate the tragedy's impacts and though the government has of late provided some funding toward dioxin clean up operations, it has refused to accept responsibility or provide direct compensation to the victims of Agent Orange.

The movie has been sent to US President Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives, Bill Gates and other famous people in the US.

"I have not received any feedback from them yet," Trinh said.

"Maybe they are confused and do not know how to answer."

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