When his golden-haired, blue-eyed brother Jimmy mysteriously died in Vietnam in 1975, gay filmmaker Peter McDowell was just a kid, growing up within his family’s “veil of silence.” As an adult, armed with a video camera, Peter embarks on a quest to uncover the possibly queer brother he never knew. Plotted like a terrific detective story, Jimmy in Saigon follows Peter’s search for the truth about the strikingly enigmatic Jimmy—a rebellious kid drafted into the war, who stunned his family by returning to Saigon after his tour of duty to enjoy “hedonistic pleasures.”
The film will screen at Frameline 46 San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival at the Castro Theatre June 19 at 1:15 p.m. It will be available for streaming online June 24 – 30. For tickets and more information go to www.frameline.org
Gaysonoma’s Gary Carnivele recently interviewed director Peter McDowell.
Gary Carnivele: Congratulations on the success of “Jimmy and Saigon” Peter.
Peter McDowell: Thank you.
GC: Tell us a bit about your education on professional background
PM: I’ve been interested in film my whole life. I made some short films as a kid and an ended up interested in opera. Then I got my degree in arts administration and arts management and I ended up working for a short time for the San Francisco Opera in the early 90s. Then I went into a big career in arts management in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. I made a few short films in San Francisco in the 90s that were in Frameline in ’94 and ’95. Then, I kind of let the filmmaking go for a while and it wasn’t until 2010 that I decided to take it up again with the with this project.
GC: Talk about your brother Jimmy and the impact his life and experiences had on you and your family.
PM: I’m originally from Champagne Urbana Illinois, the college town in the middle of Illinois about 2 1/2 hours south of Chicago. I’m the youngest of six children. Good Catholic family. Most of my siblings and I were born in the 50s and 60s. My brother Jimmy was the oldest in the family born in 1948. He was almost 20 years older than I and he died in 1972 when I was five years old. He was 24 when he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in Saigon, Vietnam and of course I was just a little kid I remember when he died. I remember the terror and agony in my house when everybody found out. I’m not sure I was aware of who he was at that young age. I have some lovely pictures of the two of us together that prove that we definitely spent time together. I’m so sorry that I don’t really remember those times. I’ve always been very drawn in by history and wanted to know a lot more about Jimmy.
GC: In 2010, you decided to make the film. At the time did you see the structure of the film or did you just think I want to start investigating what happened and I’ll see if there’s a film there?
PM: The latter. I decided to just go for it. The task that I gave myself was to try to interview everybody that ever knew him, almost 40 years after he died. Other people I contacted were floored to hear from me because they hadn’t been in touch with anyone in our family at all since he died. So I set off just trying to talk to all these people as well as members of my family and I really thought at that point that I would be going to Vietnam right away. My goal was to go to Vietnam and try to see if I could walk in his footsteps and retrace his steps and also try to find some people that he knew/. It took me a good six years. I started in 2010 and it took me about six years to get to Vietnam.
GR: What surprised you most about Jimmy’s service in Vietnam, his decision to return soon after the end of the war, and his life after he return to Vietnam?
PM: I’m lucky that my brother left behind about 200 letters and he wrote tons of letters to my mom. My mom is the most fabulous pack rat who saves everything. Thank goodness she had his letters. One of my brother’s friends is a former librarian and stored in archived all of his letters from Jimmy. I have this sort of treasure trove of letters and I tried to piece together his life. A couple of things surprised me and it was very surprising to everybody that he went back as a civilian. He was in the army, did his duty and recieved an honorable discharge. Then within six months he decided to return to Vietnam, which was unheard of – nobody really did that at the time and then I noticed some inconsistencies of things that he was saying to some friends but not to others. Some things that he said my mother were actually not true and so I realized he was probably hiding something if he was making up some things
GC: Were you prepared for what you would find out in Vietnam or were you truly surprised?
PM: I really had no idea. I was looking for people that knew him and I didn’t know whether they would be alive or dead. I didn’t know if they would still be living there or know the answers to my questions. I cannot say publicly because you have to go see the film to find out whether they’re alive or dead or whether I found them or where they were. I didn’t necessarily know that much. I had some hunches and some suspicions. I came upon a major discovery in 2018 that changed everything and allowed me to finish the film.
GC: Talk about some of the people you did meet in Vietnam who you would like to talk about that won’t reveal too much about the film. There are some fascinating twists and turns.
PM: One of the things I found out about my brother is that he loved living there. Maybe I would love it too and it was very kind of heartwarming to me that that when I went for the first time. I went twice but when I went first time in 2016 I truly am almost immediately felt that love for the country and I found it very curious and hopeful and energetic and fun and really engaging. There’s a segment of the film where we see me going down this rabbit hole – little streets – to try to find anything. I met so many people who said come with me in an effort to help me on my quest. There were a lot of false starts. I eventually met a couple of Vietnamese women who are a combination of super strong women, who’ve been through a lot, very empathetic, very earthy and very intelligent. Many of the people I was coming across were people who lived in great poverty and without formal educations so I was really impressed by the level in which we communicated about deeply emotional things, about the level of emotional intelligence. Some of these people have been through unspeakable trauma of losing family members, losing children, losing their property, losing everything. Essentially the same between the late 60s until the early 90s was really just hell in Vietnam and I think people lived through so much and the people that survived and are still around today to talk about it have this real resilience that I admire. It’s remarkable that the Vietnamese are so resilient and so willing to forgive. You know most Americans who lived through the Vietnam war zone are traumatized by what happened so it’s just hard to fathom how these folks felt.
GC: Did you come to an understanding as to why Jimmy felt so safe going back to Vietnam?
PM: I think safety means different things to different people. I think he knew he was in danger physically because of the war but I think emotionally he felt kind of at home and comforted and protected by being in Vietnam. There’s a line in the film – it’s in one of his letters – where he writes: “I can’t stand the United States.” Jimmy was 24-years-old when he wrote this. Jimmy is going through a lot of angst. A lot of people were feeling at the time of the Vietnam war in the counterculture movement real frustration. I’m really fascinated by the fact that this is the 50- year anniversary my brother’s death. He died on June 6, 1972 exactly 50 years ago so it really gives us a moment to take a pause and look back and see what was happening 50 years ago and if I, a gay man, look back and see like what happened in the world over the last 50 years. Well, a lot of things didn’t happen until after Stonewall. The first pride marches kind of started around country in the 70s but it was the landmark American Psychiatric Association ruling that being LGBT was not a disease also in the 70s, so it was a really fertile time for a change. It was a time that I am I am deeply fascinated by.
GC: You’ve really been raking in the laurels at film festivals all around the world. What are some of the experiences where you were present and able to gauge the reaction of the audiences?
PM: Thank you. It’s been an incredible experience. Our world premiere was at the British Film Institute Flare Film Festival which started off as the London LGBTQ Film Festival. It was an absolutely rapturous experience, partially because I think that it was one of the first things to really come roaring out of the pandemic – not to say that we’re totally post-pandemic but in London in March we felt comfortable going out in public and feel comfortable going into theaters and so we had a screenings at the BFI Southbank space in London. I haven’t been to London in 14 years and I was blown away by the kindness and the warmth of the British audiences. People came up to me afterwards to talk about the film people lit up my Twitter account account and was added as part of their best so London was just an exceptional experience. From there we went to Miami and had a great time in Miami at the Outshine Film Festival estival there to the lovers phone customer which is apparently the oldest festival festival Europe and I was in Torino Italy for the week and we ended up winning the top award
GC: That’s really impressive! You have attended Frameline with two short film, but this is your first full-length film at the world’s biggest LGBT+ film festival. How excited were you to learn that “Jimmy in Saigon” would be screened there this year.
PM: I was over the moon! San Francisco is my home away from home. I currently live in LA but I lived in San Francisco twice. I lived there in the mid 90s. I worked at San Francisco Opera and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I’m really fond of the city. I also came back briefly in the 2000s and lived in Berkeley which I also love so it’s really important for me to be able to showcase the film in the city where I have so many friends and I have so much love. The Castro Theatre just takes the cake for me. The film has been screened in a lot of 100-seat theaters around the world, which is great and I love them for that nice intimacy but this will be the first time in a huge theater. The Castro has 1400 seats, so it will be great to see how it looks in and sounds in the historic theatre.
GC: What’s the date and time of the of the screening?
PM: It’s on Sunday, June 19 at 1:15 p.m., which is Father’s Day and Juneteenth which is you know not really related to my film but it’s a day of celebration and healing and I hope people can come out to see a film that is also both a celebration and ultimately healing.
GC: Tell us about your family members’ reaction when you informed them of your decision to make the film and then what their reaction was when they first saw the film?
PM: The genre of documentaries that I made it’s called personal documentary it’s considered an unique art form because the filmmaker will put themselves in the phone because they know the audience wants to know the experience of what’s happening. 12 years ago, I went to my mom and I said I want to do this project, I want to use the letters you wrote and received. It’s an oral history of my family. I said I wanted to interview everybody whoever knew my brother and my mom was on board with that. She gave me a lot of names of people. I bought a camera and sound equipment, using my last couple bucks. I started interviewing everybody that I could, including everybody in my family. My mom has been incredibly participatory in the film. I interviewed her many times. She doesn’t want to see the film. She made a security line in the sand. Jimmy was her first child and she is still really broken up about the fact that he died at age 24, so she can’t bring herself to see it. She sort of apologized to me profusely for that. I don’t want it to reflect on her love for me or my film and I totally get it. I totally appreciate it. One of my brothers is hesitant to see it, but he might come around. My other brother, John, is actively involved in the film as the film’s composer. He wrote the soundtrack to the film. We worked on it every day for a year, so he’s seen it many times. My sister and I attended the Sonoma International Film Festival where “Jimmy in Saigon” was screened. My other sister who’s seen an early version of it but hasn’t seen the finished film yet. My family is super supportive and happy about it. There’s a little bit of the film about some of their initial resistance and when I revealed that it wasn’t just a history project but rather a work of art that I would like to share with the public. That took a little bit of adjusting to realize that your family stories would be out there and Jimmy’s story would be really, really out there.
GC: What are you hoping audiences take away from “Jimmy in Saigon?”
PM: I would say that I created this first and foremost as a cinematic therapeutic device for my family. People asked me did I get the closure or the healing that I hoped for and I say I don’t really believe in closure. I mean, no death is something that’s come to some sort of acceptance but it’s really hard to come to closure. I will say that I do think that our family has whether it’s related to the summer not I think our film families come closer together. A lot of audience members are really touched because they had a type of trauma in their family. I recently met some people that were in tears when I just told him about the story of the film and they said my uncle or my nephew sexuality or drug abuse or you know you’re right all these things that are really sad and deep and close to our hearts and most families haven’t I think people are really reacting to that. I even know a couple of men who had lovers in other countries where they had done it had difficulty with him being able to legally continue the relationship and they had tears in their eyes as well so I think it affects a lot of different people and I’m really pleased with
GC: In your documentary you touch on a good number of universal themes that many people can relate to. Most everyone’s lost a family member, many people have family members or close friends who had to fight wars. Obviously, this is a well thought out documentary, but were all these themes you set out in the beginning to explore or did you find yourself going down roads while making the film that you didn’t see that you would be going down?
PM: Yes, I did. I think mostly the roads that I didn’t see it going down were there the roads of contextualization meaning like I thought I was just going to tell Jimmy’s story from beginning to end or my story and making the phone but we realize we were putting it together that we needed to contextualize the story because I’m 54 and a lot of people in their 20s 30s maybe 40s and some teenagers they don’t really I know what the Vietnam War was like what the political climate was like in the 60s and 70s they may not have known how it was for gay people and even in the 80s which I talk about my coming out so you know a lot of them are sort of contextualization and laying out of history not only you know you are some world history but also my family and my purse Understand it and that was that was not something I anticipated but I think it’s something that works well.
GC: What future film festivals will include “Jimmy in Saigon?”
PM: We just announced three more film festivals in kind of smaller but important cites were going to be in Bentonville Arkansas which is a film festival that’s run by Gina Davis and Sandra Bullock so that’s exciting in the sort of new arts hub in Arkansas. We’re going to be in Des Moines Iowa on June 24 and then will be in Nyack New York, which is just outside of New York City, on August 15. There’s a bunch more screenings in the US and abroad on our website: saigon.com. There’s a place for people to sign up for emails so that they can learn about upcoming screenings and any word on a distribution. We’d love to get it out as a theatrical release so that it could be in some art houses around the country. We’d love to get it on PBS in this country as well as educational TV in other countries and I know eventually it will be available for streaming. That doesn’t usually come at the beginning of a film’s lifecycle. Frameline is offering a limited number of tickets for a limited number of days to see it on their streaming format.
GC: I know you’re in the midst of promoting “Jimmy in Saigon,” but have you started to think about what your next project will be?
PM: I’m not ready to rush back into another film project. I’m kind of like a parent that is just getting settled into parenthood. I do love documentaries and I love music and I’d love to make a music documentary, maybe multiple music documentaries. It was brought to my attention that “Jimmy in Saigon” is 70% music and I thought that was very touching as my brother Jimmy loved music. There’s a band that I love that I would love to make a documentary called The Roches. Love to throw my hat in the ring to make that documentary.
GC: I love the Roaches! Such a great band. I’ll be looking for that, fo sure. Thank you so much for joining us tonight Peter and best of luck with “Jimmy and Saigon” and all your future projects. Please come back when the next film is released.
PM: Thank you, Gary, I really enjoyed talking to you.