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Gone but Not Forgotten

BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival

Jimmy in Saigon (2022)

Why would someone choose to make a documentary without being capable of facing the issues the documentary is about? This is the only question for Peter McDowell’s “Jimmy in Saigon” – Jimmy being the director’s two-decades-older brother, who died in Vietnam when Peter McDowell was five. The movie took over a decade to make and, despite the amount of time and work that went into it, utterly fails to address its own topic. This is due to the Peter McDowell’s failures as a documentarian, but also to his personal refusal to own up to his own behavior.

Older brother Jimmy McDowell fought for a year in Vietnam in the early ’70s but did not die in the war. After his year of post-draft mandatory service was up, he voluntarily returned to Saigon as a freelance journalist, lived independently in the city, and died suddenly from septicemia in an American military hospital. The movie’s high point is when Peter McDowell interviews the doctor who treated Jimmy McDowell at the very end and remembers him as an unusual case. Jimmy McDowell’s letters home have obviously been pored over by the family for decades, but his more honest letters to friends indicated a serious drug problem, as well as a mysterious young woman he was living with, who had a brother. And the news about the brother is where the movie falls apart completely, to the point it’s surprising it was included in BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival.

Peter McDowell came out as a teenager to a deeply religious and conservative family that was not supportive, though they did come around eventually. Despite being a middle-aged adult, at no point does he imagine the world might have been harder on and even less accepting of Jimmy McDowell, who was an entire generation older. The cultural pressures of their childhoods, much less the different worldview in Vietnam, are both totally ignored as Peter McDowell goes on a years-long quest for explicit evidence that he wasn’t the only gay in the family. But life rarely contains smoking guns, and while the subtext of what is learned about Jimmy McDowell is very loud indeed Peter McDowell deliberately ignores it, because it doesn’t quite fit the narrative he wants to tell.

Instead the whole documentary hinges on a moment when an elderly Vietnamese man who has offered kindness, information and hospitality to the film crew wonders aloud and cluelessly why Peter McDowell hasn’t found a wife. There’s an awful pause before Peter McDowell replies that he’s just picky, and the female fixer exchanges knowing glances with the other women in the room before translating. This is jaw-dropping. What kind of gay filmmaker making a gay documentary about whether or not his brother was also gay yeets himself back into the closet at the earliest opportunity? A coward and a bad filmmaker, that’s who. You can’t expect honesty from strangers who owe you nothing while lying about yourself. As the search progresses and an elderly woman on an oxygen tank in Des Moines, Iowa, is introduced, the angle makes a nasty shift from Peter McDowell’s search for the truth about Jimmy McDowell to a search for Peter McDowell’s acceptance of himself. It’s as narcissistic as you can imagine, and for Peter McDowell to do this to strangers who showed him and his family nothing but kindness is crass, cheap and demeaning.

Personal comments about a filmmaker are almost never appropriate, and if the movie’s denouement had been different Peter McDowell’s appalling lie about his pickiness might have been forgivable, but instead he deserves every bit of vitriol that’s coming his way. What was framed as an act of empathy and understanding is actually exploitative and selfish – kind of like the Vietnam War all over again. Why did no one talk Peter McDowell out of releasing this? With this failure of a documentary he’s embarrassed both himself and the memory of his brother.


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