My Lai Inside, by Christoph Felder
documentary, ca. 90min, english subtitles, Production: CFF for arts-tart, copyright: CFF 2018

"Absolutely splendid documentary..."

Howard Jones, University of Alabama


The background of this story is based on an heinous atrocity of worldwide infamy, which horrifies people at a number of significant levels: a massacre, which had its fiftieth anniversary on March 16, 2018, recalling the time when the self-proclaimed Liberation Army tortured, raped and murdered 500 unarmed civilians. The foreign power in question refers to the scene of this crime against humanity as My Lai 4. It’s actual name is Sơn Mỹ and it lies within former South Vietnam. The matter of concern here is not about the Vietnam war as such, but about the claim to omnipotence asserted by the superpowers to this very day and their failed global policy. Therefore it is about the consequences of these ill-fated decisions on the victims directly affected by them, when viewed from a safe distance, 50 years after the experiences suffered during the war. Furthermore one has to take account of the fact, that the victims’ behavior is deeply affected by these experiences even now. The question remains of how to contend with the deed so long after the deed was perpetrated.

There have not been that many equally well documented cases of crimes committed on a massive scale, that also reach so far back in time and whose victims have been subject to investigation and close questioning over the years, allowing conclusions to be drawn on the long-term effects of the so-called posttraumatic stress syndrome, though, sadly, only by those on the side of the perpetrators. Up to the present time: it is Duc who is struggling. He is struggling to assimilate both the pictures that appear before his inner eye and those produced by the mechanical eye of Ron Haeberle’s camera. He needs outside help, if he is to reconcile, what is inwardly felt and what is cold fact even, if he is as yet unaware of this reality. He needs the photos as the concrete physical expression of his anguish. He wants to own them, thereby inverting the power struggle between himself and the photos. By gaining control of the photos he will gain control of everything they bequeath to him. He will then be able to project newly formed interpretations and memories into pictures which he could - quite literally - hold in the palms of his hands. Until this juncture no access to what he was seeking was open. The inquiry of the filmmaker, in his new home country of Germany, now offers him a new and previously unhoped-for second chance of finding it.

 Even though his hope may be vague and intangible, the photos afford him the promise of ordering things in his mind and having a guideline through the course of past events and the remainder of his life. Their role is to remove his state of impotence, redeem the spirit of his murdered mother and help him to fulfill the duty of a good son. He needs them to satisfy the demands of Vietnamese tradition with regard to protecting and honoring deceased relatives, as these are alive and actively involved in the same world as that of the living according to Vietnamese traditional beliefs.

These endeavors, whether conscious or unconscious, ultimately serve the goal of securing a clearly established identity. He wants to reencounter the key figures who met him briefly when he was a small boy in Sơn Mỹ: Ron Haeberle, to name one of them, the originator of the horror scene recaptured by his camera, and, to name the other, Larry Colburn, one of the few heroes who was present at the scene of action and who is the last remaining soldier in a three-man helicopter crew, which saved the lives of several people.

Here is the film, that is to accompany him in the pursuit of his aims. Finally, however, it becomes the driving force of his self-made plot and even the catalyst of Duc’s strategy to subdue the past. This goes so far as to lead him to misuse the film as a vehicle and tool in the service of purely personal aims. His own experience of suffering appears now as a legitimation for ruthless self-interest.

What begins as an empathetic study of the victim develops into a journey directed not just to, but also into the midst, of the innermost depths of human souls and broaches the question where to trace the line between being a victim and being a perpetrator. Who is to blame and what is the extent of personal responsibility? Even the filmmaker himself, his attention drawn by an article to the principal character of the story, who was then living in his own vicinity, was unable to extricate himself from all these twists and turns and needed to muster all available reserves of energy and resources to complete the film.

Thus suddenly and without warning he finds himself to be a part of some image- regenerating monster and in consequence must face up to the weary task of reworking the material. He shares the vision of disclosed horror with the person whose portrait he draws, and himself receives mental pictures which well up from his imagination and not from his memory. He experiences directly and palpably what the consequences are for those involved on both sides of the conflict, even after so long a period of time.

A trauma was unleashed that gripped an entire generation, and remains today one that continues to affect a nation. Were any lessons learned from this terrible event? Do we draw any from the lives which have been marked by suffering for fifty years?

In this film we encounter the ostensible victims, the life savers, those inflicting suffering and those documenting, but also misrepresenting the facts relating to it, indeed the entire power apparatus of those times, in some cases by direct means and in detail, in others, more cursorily and indirectly. Nevertheless, on that day they were all present inside My Lai, and will carry My Lai inside themselves until their last days.

Text: David Felder Translation: Julian Scutts