This week, I felt inspired by The Friendship Village, a powerful film of peace and compassion, written, directed and produced by Vancouver, B.C.-based documentary filmmaker Michelle Mason. She told a small crowd at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt, BC how early, gruesome images of the Rwanda massacre, which she saw while doing a journalism internship at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news bureau in London, Eng., completely altered her career goals and life direction.
“I didn’t want to be a bystander,” she said. “I didn’t want to bear witness. I wanted to show stories about people who stand up for things they believe in.”
It took different wars to catalyze their unique visions of peace, compassion, and committed action, but shared heartfelt goals brought Mason and the late George Mizo together in her poignant film The Friendship Village. The 2002 documentary reveals how Mizo, a former artillery sergeant in the Vietnam War, became an ardent peace activist, suffered through the effects of Agent Orange, and ultimately founded a school, clinic, and housing in Vietnam — The Friendship Village — for children and war vets in that country who had illnesses or deformities resulting from Agent Orange.
”Those of us who have seen firsthand that horror called war know how fragile life is, and how precious life is, and know that war is not the answer but part of the problem,” Mizo said during the opening ceremony of The Friendship Village in 1998.
The village, built in a former rice paddy 11 kilometres from Hanoi, provides medical care, education, meals, and rehabilitation for 120 children. The centre offers pediatric service for outpatients and Vietnamese war vets can stay for up to six months. A recent addition is a new building to address the needs of children with severe handicaps. The village has an organic vegetable and medicinal herb garden, water treatment facility, fish ponds, and fruit trees. The goal is to make the centre completely self-sufficient.
Mizo was one of four Vietnam vets who protested the war by waging a 47-day hunger strike, which prompted hundreds of supporters to join them. He received 10,000 letters a day.
It was difficult to see and hear the impact that the U.S. spraying of 72 million litres of Agent Orange (made by Monsanto, by the way) during the Vietnam War has had on generations of veterans and children. Babies with enlarged heads, the result of hydrocephalus. Children with twisted or missing limbs. Vietnamese war vets with horrible rashes and giant, pimple-like growths all over their chest.
Mizo’s own immune system was hugely compromised by Agent Orange, rendering him vulnerable to any infection. His symptoms began with a fever, rash, and delerium. He had two heart attacks and suffered constant joint pain. The U.S. denied him medical coverage as a war veteran because of his high-profile peace activism.
“I was told it [Agent Orange] was mosquite repellent. Don’t worry about it,” Mizo says in the film.
The film states that more than one million children in Vietnam have been born with birth defects as a result of Agent Orange. Experts expect that it will take between 500 and 600 years for the dioxin from this deadly herbicide to dissipate in Vietnam. One remote village on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which received some of the heaviest spraying, is considered one of the most toxic places on the planet due to the high levels of dioxin that remain in the area’s soil.
One of the most moving parts of the film for me was learning of the friendship and reconciliation between Mizo and Vietnamese General Tra Van Quang. The four-star general became Mizo’s ally in fund-raising efforts for The Friendship Centre. Decades earlier, during the Vietnam war, the same general led the attack on Que Son (also spelled KheSan) that wiped out all of Mizo’s platoon. Mizo was the sole survivor of his unit simply because he had been previously air-lifted out following his wounding in battle.
Mizo received the Vietnamese Peace Medal. General Van Quang told Mizo’s son Michael: “Never go to war.”
Mason says that it took a year to convince Mizo to be the subject of her film, since he is such a private person. But since he knew that he wasn’t going to live long (he died the same year that the film came out), he wanted to share his message with a larger audience.
“Hope is an illusion,” he says in the film. “You have to actively work it.”
An international body of eight support groups raises funds for The FriendshipVillage through grassroots efforts. Carol Stewart, a Sunshine Coast resident who hosted the film screening and Mason’s appearance, has represented Canada on the village’s committee.
As Mizo says in the film with characteristic humility: “We can make a difference in life.”
For more information on this project that heals the wounds of war, see The Friendship Village.
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Mason’s movie The Friendship Village reminded me of another compelling documentary that responds to war with a message of peace and forgiveness. In Regret to Inform, director, writer, producer Barbara Sonneborn sets out to return to the same valley in Vietnam where her husband was killed 20 years earlier. A female Vietnamese, a former war leader in the same region where the filmmaker’s husband died, shows Sonneborn where his unit was located. The filmmaker wonders aloud if the military command of this same woman could have resulted in her husband’s death.
Rather than focus on recrimination and bitterness, Regret to Inform interviews war widows from both the U.S. and Vietnam and reinforces a message of peace. It is a moving personal account narrated and shot with poetic lyricism. Even though this was her first film, Sonneborn appears to draw on her expertise as a set designer; the film’s rich visual appeal seems more a result of magic realism than mere cinematography. The documentary’s poetic sensitivity makes it feel far more like an in-depth read of a wrenching journal rather than a detached journalistic account. I can’t remotely imagine the pain that Sonneborn experienced when she received in the mail a tape cassette sent by her husband from the field, in which he speaks to her with love and candor. It arrived days after she received the knock on her door, at age 24, and learned that he was dead.