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The Sound of the Violin at My Lai

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Directed by Tran Van Thuy
Produced by the Central Documentary and Scientific Film Studio, Hanoi

”Best Short,“ 1999 Asian Pacific Film Festival, Bangkok
1998. 32 Minutes. VHS. Color.

Distributed by The Video Project
P.O. Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376

Phone: 415-241-2514 or 800-4-PLANET
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The Sound of the Violin at My Lai, winner of “Best Short” at the 1999 Asian Pacific Film Festival in Bangkok, opens with the story of former U.S. marine Mike Boehm, who plays his violin at the site of the massacre as an offering to the sprits of the dead, then stays to work for reconstruction and for the creation of a Vietnamese-American Peace Park. But Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Van Thuy’s documentary is not limited by nationality, nor by the past, though it is shaped by both. It is a story about a vil­lage, a story about war, about integrity in the face of atrocity, about rebuilding out of terrible destruction. It is a story made for Vietnamese audiences that speaks deeply to Americans.

photo of a middle aged man playing violin
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The film moves from past to present, between remembering and transformation. The sepia-toned images that accompany a straightforward narration of events are crisscrossed by bright-colored footage of laughing children at play. Scenes of school children running gaily down a village path once strewn with bodies are cut through by cameos of survivors holding famous newspaper photos of their mothers and sisters who died, reminding grandchildren never to forget. While one man sits by the tablet that marks the death of his entire family, other villagers work the fields and ply the river.

In one of the most touching segments of this very moving film, two women from the village share tea, fruit from their gar­den, and family photos with two members of a U.S. helicopter crew who intervened to rescue them and ten other people from the carnage. The occasion is the 30th anniversary of the massacre, marked by solemn offerings of incense by Vietnamese and Ameri­cans attending the commemoration, and by official ceremonies for the opening of the peace park. “We cannot forget the past,” Boehm says in his remarks, “but we cannot live with anger and hatred either.”

Perhaps it is safe to say that most teachers over the age of fifty remember “My Lai” (the internationally recognized name for a village known locally as Son My) as one of the most publicized dark moments of the war in Vietnam, as a place where U.S. sol­diers massacred 504 villagers on the morning of March 16, 1968. Perhaps it is also safe to say that many of our students have never heard of it. How shall we teach them? What shall we teach them?

According to U.S. National Standards for History, students should be able to “evaluate how Vietnamese and Americans expe­rienced the war and how the war continued to affect postwar poli­tics and culture” and “to explore the legacy of the Vietnam War.” This film addresses these issues, but more importantly, will add nuance to how the Vietnam War (commonly referred to by the Vietnamese as the “American War”) is taught in the United States.

According to director Thuy, the key message of the film is that a person, or a nation, must feel shame for its past mistakes and the pain of their own wrongdoing before they can heal the wounds. “It is not easy to build something out of such a disastrous past,” the film concludes. Not easy, but it is what the villagers must do, what the veterans must do, and what much of the world must now find a way to do. This gentle, unflinching film makes an important contribution to that end.

Note: The Sound of the Violin at My Lai is being piloted for adoption by 5th grades throughout Vietnam—providing interesting possibilities for exchange, both by students and teachers. Two other films by Tran Van Thuy that teachers in the United States have found useful are The Story of Kindness, an award-winning work that exalts kindness over power as it probes the gap between words and deeds, and has been described as having an ‘almost cult-like’ international following; and Story from the Corner of a Park, a more recent release, a sensitive meditation on the grace with which a poor family faces the difficulties caused by the care of their two disabled children, thought to have been affected by Agent Orange. For further information on Tran Van Thuy’s films, contact the Fund for Reconciliation and Development at or First Run Icarus Films