The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

Taking Personal Documentary to Extremes:
Be Good, Smile Pretty

BY MARC LEEPSON

We were fortunate to meet and chat with Tracy Tragos at the National Convention in St. Louis. She was on hand to host four showings of her compelling documentary, Be Good, Smile Pretty, to receive two awards for her film (from AVVA and from VVA), and to sign posters of the film for those in attendance.

Tragos' extremely personal film is both uplifting and emotionally draining. Tragos, a former writer/producer for a division of DreamWorks SKG, the multimedia company, produced, wrote, and directed the documentary, and went into debt to do so. The film, which was named Best Documentary Feature at the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival in June, will be shown on Veterans Day, November 11, at 10:30 p.m. on the PBS television series "Independent Lens."

When we say "very personal," we are not exaggerating. This film is as personal as it gets. That's because of the subject matter and the approach Tracy Tragos takes. Her movie documents Tragos' effort to find out about the life of her father, U.S. Navy Lt. Donald Glenn Droz, an Annapolis graduate who went on to command a swift boat and was killed in the Mekong Delta in 1968 when she was three months old. Tragos trains her camera intently on herself, her mother, her grandmother, and her uncle, among others, as they undergo some extremely emotional moments.

The prime reason for the wellspring of raw emotions Tragos catches on film is the fact that Tragos family barely spoke about her father as she was growing up. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to know that deep feelings bottled up over three decades can cause great anguish when they are finally released.

Tragos' journey of discovery began in March 2001 when she stumbled across an account on a web site of the incident in which her father was killed. That led her to confront her mother and grandmother and to make a journey to talk to her father's Annapolis classmates and those he served with in Vietnam. Remarkably, Tragos was able to find still photographs and film footage of the aftermath of the event, along with radio transmissions of the engagement. Her recreation of what happened on the river is a chillingly remarkable achievement.

Another scene in this film filled with special moments takes place in the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a fellow swift boat skipper and friend of Don Droz. Ever since he made the national limelight as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970s, Kerry has presented a measured, polished politician's demeanor to the world. But Tragos shows a side of John Kerry that has rarely, if ever, been seen in public.

The scene in the Massachusetts Senator's office with Tragos and her mother, Judith Droz Keyes, is the antithesis of a politician's photo op. There is genuine heartache and anguish etched in Kerry's face as he speaks of his friendship with Don Droz to his widow and child. The tears that flow from all three are heartbreakingly unrehearsed and vividly convey the anguish of war among its survivors.

That is but one of many moving and revealing scenes in Be Good, Smile Pretty. It's a unique contribution to the legacy of the Vietnam War.

For additional information on the film, go to www.pbs.org/begoodsmilepretty

ITALIAN-AMERICAN HEROES

The documentary, Italian-American Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is a 45-minute film that pays tribute to American soldiers from World War I to the Vietnam War who were awarded the Medal of Honor. The film was produced by the New York State Commission for Social Justice, the anti-defamation branch of the New York State Order of the Sons of Italy in America, in its ongoing effort to fight bias against, and promote a positive image of, Italians and Italian-Americans.

The documentary does just that by telling the stories of the MOH recipients, using war-time footage and some interviews. The Vietnam War Italian-American MOH awardees profiled in the documentary are: Army PFC Lewis Albanese, Army SSG Jon Cavaiani, Army CPL Frank Fratellenico, Marine PFC Gary Martini, Army SFC Louis Rocco, and Navy LT and chaplain Vincent Capodanno, who served with the 1st Marine Division.

The film also pays tribute to Army Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in July 2002. Versace, a Green Beret intelligence officer, was captured by the Viet Cong after a fierce firefight and held for two years during which he was repeatedly tortured and then was executed.

For more information on the documentary, go to www.nyscj-osia.org  or call 800-322-6742.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE

The creators of the 2001 film, Aftermath: The Remnants of War (Cinema Esperanca International), are making the award-winning Canadian documentary available to non-profit groups. The film, co-produced by Storyline Entertainment and the National Film Board of Canada, is based on the 1997 book by Donovan Webster. It is an up-close look at war's physical and emotional repercussions in five countries, including Vietnam.

It begins with, of all places, France, where 16 government teams of "de-miners" work clearing unexploded ordnance, including poison gas canisters, from World War I. The film also goes on location to Russia, where the unaccounted-for remains of millions of Russian and German soldiers are buried, and to Bosnia, where it examines the psychological problems of de-miners.

The Vietnam segment examines the continuing problem of Agent-Orange health problems in that country. Director Daniel Sekulich takes an in-your-face approach, complete with lingering close ups of severely deformed children, in sketching what narrator John Jarvis calls "an environmental horror."

The film describes America's war in Vietnam as one of "escalation, desperation, and eventual defeat," and includes slow motion war-time footage of Operation Ranch Hand Agent-Orange spraying operations. We are then given on-screen interviews with anguished parents of blind and deformed children and interviews with Vietnamese doctors and other health officials who explain the extent of the ongoing problem. More than a half million children have been adversely affected by Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals sprayed during the American war, the filmmakers say, and Vietnam has become "the largest container of dioxin in the world."

To learn more, go to www.onf.ca/aftermath or email associate producer Tricia Lee at film_maker@canada.com

A TRIBUTE

The Travel Channel in May featured an excellent documentary on Arlington National Cemetery in its "American Icon" series. The one-hour film was hosted by U.S. Sen. John McCain, whose father, grandfather, and two great uncles are among the 175,000 Americans interred at Arlington, one of the most-visited shrines in the nation, with some five million visitors a year.

The film examines Arlington's history and traditions. The land originally was the northern Virginia estate of Robert E. Lee, and became a cemetery during the Civil War. The film pays a good deal of attention to the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns. And it takes note of many of the famous people buried there, including President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, the Challenger astronauts, Medger Evers, Joe Louis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Abner Doubleday. That's in addition to 66 of the people who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

AMERASIANS

Every documentary has a point of view and a point to make. The point of the Erik Gandini's 1999 film Amerasians is that someone is to blame for the plight of the tens of thousands of mixed blood, American and Vietnamese children left behind in Vietnam after the American war. Gandini's film lays the lion's share of the blame upon the fathers of those children.

He does so by making the film's point of view that of several Amerasians who are now young adults, and were able to immigrate to this country. Those young people, who work in one high tech plant in California - or at least did in 1997 and 1998 when the film was made - tell of their difficult lives growing up as street orphans in Vietnam and their not-smooth transitions to life in the United States.

The voices of the Amerasians make up the bulk of the film. There is very little narration, and that is in Swedish, with English subtitles. Only one American Vietnam veteran is interviewed, and he comes across as unenlightened. The film is available for rent or purchase from its distributor, The Cinema Guild. Go to www.cinemaguild.com for details.
 

   

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