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One line synopsis
The stories of three Vietnamese-Australians who were among more than 3000 babies airlifted from Saigon orphanages at the end of the Vietnam War.
One paragraph synopsis
In April 1975, in the closing days of the Vietnam War, more than 3000 babies were airlifted from Saigon orphanages. Some people saw Operation Babylift as a humanitarian act, others as kidnapping. Thirty years on, this emotionally powerful documentary tells the stories of three of the 281 children brought to Australia. Through candid interviews with them, their adoptive parents, those involved in the airlift and Vietnamese families and politicians, this film explores complex issues of inter-racial adoption and cultural identity, and provides an insight into the political background behind this controversial operation.
One page synopsis
In April 1975, in the closing days of the Vietnam War, more than 3000 babies were airlifted from Saigon orphanages and delivered into the arms of waiting couples in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe and Australia. It was the largest act of adoption in history.
Although many Westerners saw Operation Babylift as a humanitarian necessity, many Vietnamese considered it kidnapping - particularly as some children were not, in fact, orphans.
Thirty years on, this powerful documentary tells the stories of three of the 281 children brought to Australia. Who are they today? And how do they feel about themselves and their past? Their personal experiences are remarkably different; their answers likely to surprise you.
Filmmaker Dai Le, herself a Vietnam War refugee, takes us on a journey of discovery that presents a human face to decisions made with “the best of intentions”. She accompanies one of the adoptees on an emotionally turbulent trip back to Vietnam, in search of her past.
Through candid interviews with the children (now grown), their adoptive parents, those involved in the airlift and Vietnamese families and politicians, this compelling film explores complex issues of inter-racial adoption and cultural identity as well as providing an insight into the political background to this controversial operation.
About the making of the program As children in Vietnam, Dai Le and Christina Tinker-Casson were strangers. Thirty years later in Australia a television documentary - Operation Babylift - has brought them together.
“Christina and I are daughters of Vietnam. She is an orphan and I a refugee,” says writer/director Dai Le in the opening scenes of the film.
In April 1975, Christina and Dai left their war-torn motherland in equally dramatic, but different ways.
Christina departed in a cardboard box – one of 278 Vietnamese babies airlifted to Australia. Dai was seven years old and fled the country with her mother and two younger sisters – winding up as a refugee in what was then known as ‘first port of asylum’ camps in the Philippines and then Hong Kong. Her family was finally granted refugee status and arrived in Sydney in 1979.
Despite her Vietnamese heritage, Dai “stumbled” on the story of Operation Babylift in 2000, when she was producing radio documentaries for ABC Radio National. Operation Babylift – when 2500 babies left Vietnam - was the largest mass adoption in history. It’s with amazement that Dai says: “I never knew about it.”
In the documentary, Dai Le and producer/cinematographer Helen Barrow accompany Christina back to Vietnam on a search for her parents, following up responses to advertisements she placed in a Saigon newspaper.
“It’s probably the most difficult thing she’s ever done in her life – and she does it in front of a camera,” says Helen.
The filmmakers were introduced to Christina when she was planning her trip to Vietnam and approached her to be filmed for the documentary. “We asked her to wait until we were ready to go,” says Helen. Christina agreed. Notes Helen: “It takes a lot of courage for someone to take part on the other side of the camera.”
Dai says the two-week trip was gruelling for Christina. “Every day she was forced to face something really confronting.” Dai said she also found it personally confronting as by necessity, Christina’s trip moved along quite speedily - at the filmmakers’ pace.
At an emotional point in the film, Christina meets with a woman she thinks could be her mother.
“We walked in that door with the camera rolling,” says Helen. “And we rolled for 40 minutes. We were there for that very first moment. That’s reality,” she says.
Christina is one of three airlifted children interviewed for the documentary. Christina and Martine Bach are from Adelaide, while Shane Bolt is from Perth. “We hope each of them is telling it from a different perspective,” says Dai. “Some have fared well; some not.”
“When Dai showed me the project I became interested in it for the story, but also because Dai is a Vietnamese person telling a story about her people,” says Helen.
“I have the right to tell this story,” says Dai. “We don’t often hear a Vietnamese voice talking about the Vietnam War,” she says.
“I am who I am today because I come from Vietnam; I have a really strong connection with it,” says Dai. “It’s my motherland even though I am no longer there and have moved away from home. I think I’ll die a Vietnamese, so to speak. Deep down in my heart and the words that I think I am a Vietnamese. For me it is has been reinforced more each time I go back. What Christina went through is the alienation of a culture you don’t know, even though it is where you were born.
“I left Vietnam at the age of seven. When I arrived here, I initially felt Australian. When you get older you realise you are not. You realise you are Vietnamese as well as Australian.
“I’ve got two identities,” says Dai.
About the filmmakers Dai Le – Writer/director/narrator
Dai Le has worked as a producer for ABC Radio National’s social history and features unit since 1997. A trained journalist, she began working for ABC Radio and TV in 1994. Dai worked on three different one-hour documentaries for SBS Television before Operation Babylift, directing Taking Charge of Cabramatta (1998), writing and co-producing Starting from Zero (2000) and both writing and directing In Limbo (2001). Dai’s radio documentary about Operation Babylift was a finalist in the UN Media Peace Awards.
Helen Barrow has worked as a cinematographer for documentaries since 1981, also working as a producer and director of TV programs and independent documentaries since 1997. Recent credits include Hired Assassins (FFC/ABC-TV) as producer/director and The Post (Film Australia/ABC-TV) as producer/cinematographer.