BFI Flare 2022 Film Festival Review: Jimmy in Saigon

Filmmaker Peter McDowell tells a deeply personal family story in Jimmy in Saigon, a documentary examining the mysterious fate of his late brother. Delving into family bonds, commemoration, and queer history, McDowell crafts an engaging and heartfelt piece that elegantly pays tribute to his brother.

When filmmaker Peter McDowell was five years old his older brother, Vietnam veteran Jimmy died in Saigon at the age of 24. Delving into Jimmy’s early life, his time during the Vietnam war, and his later life and relationships in Saigon, the documentary gradually explores the mystery of his story.

Opening by giving us a sense at the lack of clarity of Jimmy’s life in Vietnam, McDowell traces back to the veteran’s early life giving us a portrait of who Jimmy was thanks to contributions from his mother and a variety of friends. Exploring Jimmy’s disapproval of the war and his polarity with the values of US capitalism and bourgeois middle class existence, a sense of the young man’s disillusionment with the system is crafted. Yet, a shift in Jimmy’s thinking is captured through his letters to his family members where the young American’s growing love for life in Vietnam is shared. Life in seventies Vietnam is conjured up by a range of archive footage capturing life in the armed forces and Nixon speeches transporting us to the historical setting.

With still many unanswered questions about his brother’s life, McDowell travels to Vietnam in the hunt for more information about his brother’s post-war life where he comes into contact with some figures from his brother’s past. In this dynamic, parallels to McDowell’s own story of life as a gay man are explored – with heartfelt discussions with his elderly mother about her struggle to come to term with his coming out. There’s an added emotional impact in the film’s examination into Jimmy’s own relationships in Vietnam – particularly that with his partner Dung.

McDowell’s journey through Vietnam is fascinating, capturing a welcoming and gracious culture keen to support the filmmaker in his quest to get answers about his brother. Connecting with figures from Jimmy’s past brings a heartfelt sense of closure to his story – with McDowell honouring and paying tribute to a life that was previously kept hidden.

Jimmy in Saigon complements its eloquent story with touching animation from Vietnamese animator Triet Le whose work really accentuates the beauty of the film’s final moments.

Whilst the mystery of Jimmy’s story hooks us in, the touching human relationships at the heart of Jimmy in Saigon captivate. This is a gently touching piece compassionately shining light on a hidden queer life.

Jimmy in Saigon plays as part of the 2022 BFI Flare Festival.

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