The United States-Vietnam War appeared on television at the time and later in Hollywood movies. It is being interpreted again through documentary film as part of an international effort to bring attention to the devastating and continuing health effects of the American wartime use of the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam. This article analyzes documentary films about Vietnam and their representation of Agent Orange, disabilities, children, and gender.
United States Air Force planes fly across mountains of green forest; behind them, fine white streams of chemical spray fill the sky. The planes fly alone or in formation covering wide swaths of the entire landscape. These images of the herbicide spraying during the United States-Vietnam War are ubiquitous in media material about Agent Orange, the most heavily used of the fifteen herbicides sprayed during the war. This representation of the war does not include guns, grenades, tanks, bombs, or dead (...) bodies. Instead, contemporary documentary filmmakers offer images of airplanes and chemical barrels to provide evidence of another weapon of war, pan dead and leafless forests in an otherwise lush landscape of green, and zero in on children’s deformed bodies to show the lasting environmental and health effects of Agent Orange. In this essay I share preliminary thoughts from my new project on Agent Orange and film in the United States and Vietnam. The bulk of social science writing on Agent Orange has focused on American veterans and their fight to secure benefits, while film scholars have analyzed the Vietnam War in Hollywood movies and television. I investigate documentary film, the transnational activism that generates these films, and the representations of gender, disabilities, bodies, history and culture within them. Here I offer a close reading of two turn-of-the-twenty-first-century documentaries about Agent Orange in Vietnam. (shrink)