Jimmy in Saigon explores the mysterious life and death of Jimmy McDowell, a 24-year-old Vietnam veteran who died as a civilian in Saigon. Director Peter McDowell uncovers family secrets surrounding Jimmy’s drug use and sexuality, getting to know his brother, who died when Peter was only five years old.
Losing a loved one is hard; losing a sibling before you ever got to know them must bring a strange emptiness that is difficult to replace. Your family knew this person, but you never really got the chance. This is where filmmaker Peter McDowell finds himself in his documentary Jimmy in Saigon. McDowell’s decade-long personal journey to discover his brother’s life is as heartfelt as they come. Weaving a delicate tale with letters, interviews and wonderfully accentuated by some poignant animation from Triet Le.
McDowell leaves no stone unturned in his dedication to finding out as much about his brother. As more information eases his way, he finds too many parallels between his life and Jimmy’s to stop. Even when he encounters the inevitable dead ends that a 40 year gap would present. dead ends. As someone who came out to his family, McDowell rightfully feels a need to inform others of his brother’s story, wherever that leads. That knowing, there is little use in keeping such secrets as Jimmy did with everyone back in America.
The 200 letters that Jim sent to his family help us navigate through the bulk of the film. We listen to his endless thoughts, as narrated by Jim and Peters other brother. Slowly, we begin to get a clearer picture of who this young man was. Despite this, there is so much left unseen. Too much time has passed for us ever to get the clearest image of what happened in Vietnam. As we get to the end of Jimmy in Saigon, you wish someone would miraculously pop up and give Peter all of the information he desires.
But as said, 40 years is a big gap to fill blanks with for Peter and his family. So Peter and his team do their best to pick up the smallest morsels of information. At times finding spaces where Jim took some of his pictures, to working out clues hidden in letters. It is small steps forward, but you are entirely invested in their journey.
What we do get, though, is utterly fascinating. When Peter is able to connect with people who are still alive, we see the emotion pour out of them. Just by showing several photos, memories and love comes out as people see Jim and members of their family who he knew. It is difficult not to get emotional in those moments. People who those living thought they would never see again even in photo form, are suddenly presented back to them. It is as wonderful as it is poignant. These photos provide Peter a gateway into learning more about Jim and those who were close to him. He gets to learn so much more about the brother he never got to grow up with.
Yet, pain is omnipresent throughout the documentary. Grief is something that cannot be shaken off lightly, it lingers deep within you forever. Peter never got to know this man, who almost certainly would have been a great mentor to him in adolescence. Peter becomes so wrapped up in finding information that he finds himself having to know more about Jim’s death.
His family have been through the ringer regarding it that some form of closer is needed for him. Even if his mother does not want to know, due to the fear of having old wounds reopened. So, towards the end of Jimmy in Saigon, the heaviness that has been hanging around for the duration finally comes upon us. It is clearly a difficult scene that Peter puts himself through. But it is one that he feels he must, to get the answers he needs.
Jim was a man taken far too soon and only just beginning to find peace in a country he felt understood. With that said, there are so many revelations throughout the film that you are constantly engaged. Waiting for what else this mysterious and interesting story will unveil next, and honestly, some revelations truly hit you emotionally.
As much as Jimmy in Saigon is about searching for a brother, it becomes a story about finding yourself and being the person you need to be. Even if it is, like for Jim, just for a few years. McDowell wants to lift and get rid of the shame of hiding who you are to others. Yet scars remain and some cannot be ignored, no matter how hard you try. McDowell goes to great lengths to celebrate his brother’s life and ensures that those who feel like they are in Jim’s situation now need not think that they are alone.
Jimmy in Saigon is a discerning film that pays tribute to a family member lost all too soon. A film full of love that strikes the right respectful and intimate tones. We are left with a composed film that leaves you continually captivated. A wonderfully touching film.
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