Case Study Daughter From Danang

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Daughter from Danang, nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, is roughly 78 minutes in length. As discussed elsewhere, the film tells the story of Heidi Bub, an Amerasian woman raised in

Tennessee who travels to Vietnam to meet the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. Elements of the film include live-action shooting, archival footage and stills (including personal artifacts), and interviews.

Filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco shot in Vietnam for about a week with Bub and did additional shooting in Vietnam after she went home. After they returned to the United States, they conducted a follow-up interview with her. "Everything happened quickly, and we were really just gathering material," Dolgin says. "We came back with the story we had and then started doing research for the backstory of Bub's experience in the U.S., the babylift, and what the mother's experience might be, and it wasn't until after we accumulated all of that and started looking at it that we said, 'Wow, we've got a lot of material here, what do we do with it?'"

At that point, the filmmakers began approaching financiers, who wanted to know how the film would be structured. "They weren't asking for a script," she says, "but they wanted a clear sense of how we were going to tell the story." The filmmakers didn't want to tell a strictly chronological story, one that would begin with Bub's Vietnamese mother giving her up (in 1975) and move forward to the reunion (in 1997). "We were playing with the concept of memory; it's so capricious," Dolgin says. "Heidi's memories of her past with her mother—she says at different times in the film, 'I had such great memories' and 'The memories are so painful, they're all going to heal when I go to Vietnam.'" Because of this, they decided to structure the film around Bub's trip to Vietnam, using moments within the trip to motivate her memories of the past. "Working with that structure allowed us to figure out what story to craft out of this very complicated journey that we had all been on," she says.

The film took about a year to edit (Kim Roberts edited), and the final version offers an excellent example of three-act dramatic structure as applied to a documentary film. Note, however, that the timings and outline that follow are an analysis done by me, not the filmmakers. Dolgin says that the process of structuring their film was more organic, and that although they tried outlining material on the computer, "ultimately, having an Avid or any of the nonlinear (digital editing) systems, you can do so much of that trial-and-error with the actual material that it just made more sense to work that way."

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