Junior Sunshine Ludder, has a lot to smile about these days: Her name which roles on the screen right after the director’s name at the end of the newly released documentary “Daughter From Danang.” Ludder, 26, a college major, worked on the movie for two years of the four-year production as the associate producer/ assistant editor in the documentary, which has been highly acclaimed domestically and internationally in the film circuit.
“Daughter From Danang,” 80 minutes long, takes us back to 1975, as the Vietnam War was ending to shed light on a part of the war that is often forgotten: Operation Baby Lift. Under this tragic operation, thousands of orphans and Amerasian children were brought to the U.S. for their “safety.” Producer Gail Dolgin and Director Vicente Franco documents the story of one of those children-Mai Thi Hiep a.k.a. Heidi Bub, and her Vietnamese mother, who gave her up following the Vietnam War so that she might have a better life in the United States. Twenty two years later, Heidi leaves her home in Pulaski, Tenn.-where she grew up as an All-American southern girl with her American mother-to journey to Vietnam to reunite with her birth mother. The story unravels the pain, the culture clash and fleeting hopes of both mother and daughter of regaining the bond and love they have lost.
This film has won the Golden Gate Award in the Bay Area Documentary category at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Filmmaker’s Award at the Durango Film Festival, Best Documentary at the New Jersey International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The Chicago tribune has hailed it as one of the most … “profound documentaries… seen in years.” Ludder, who has worked on several films before, including “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town,” never expected the wide acceptance the film would gain and has continued to garner. We sat down one Sunday afternoon to discuss her role in the movie, what the film means and why it is an important part of history that should never be forgotten.
Q: You were credited with Associate Producer title in this film, how did you get involved with “Daughter from Danang”?
A: I was working on another documentary called “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town” in the Bay Area. I was the production coordinator in that film. The filmmakers from the Wal-Mart film and this current one knew each other and it was as simple as making a recommendation. When I first started working on “Daughter From Danang,” I wasn’t officially an associate producer. It was before the film had any funding. Gail would pay me out of her pocket and I was coming in a couple times a week just trying to help her get a lot of things off the ground. I came in about a year after their [Franco and Dolgin] trip to Vietnam.
Q: What exactly does an Associate Producer do?
A: There was definitely a lot of project management involved. You are dealing with everything from trying to find musicians that would be appropriate to compose the music to doing research for the archival footage that ended up in the film. I was one of the people who gave editorial suggestions to the directors and the editors and would regularly review what the editor was working on. I was also an assistant editor on the film. I was working closely with the editor in terms of footage and details of actual footage.
Q: Did the concept of the film draw you to this project?
A: The concept definitely drew me. When I first met Gail- the producer, who was the person I worked with the closest in the entire period-she showed me a sample tape they put together from their trip to Vietnam. It was like maybe fifteen minutes. I watched it and I was immediately compelled with the subject matter. I felt like it was a really important story to be told. I felt very connected to it and really wanted to help make this movie happen.
Q: Why did you feel a sense of connection with the subject matter?
A: A lot of reasons. I felt that it was important especially for an American audience to deal with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which in terms of Heidi’s experience represents a lot of the fallout from the war. I really had and to this day continue to have a lot of sympathy and compassion for everybody involved in this particular story. I just have this really deep compassion for them and hope that somehow it could be meaningful and useful to other people.
Q: Of all the different venues the film was shown in, which one were you most excited about?
A: The film definitely went certainly beyond by wildest expectations in terms of its success at this point. The first festival we applied to was Sundance and it was for us the biggest festival in the United States. When we found out we got into Sundance it was, like, huge.
Q: What was your experience seeing the movie for the first time with an audience?
A: It was fabulous; I’ll definitely always remember that. It was at Sundance and I went to one of the early screenings. It was a10 o’clock at night. We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up. But the place was packed, everyone stayed the whole time. It was exciting. It was great to hear people’s responses, to hear people laugh or gasp in horror or hear them respond in ways through the editing process you wonder if people are going to respond or not. It really brought the whole experience together for me. It was like OK, this is why we do this. This is where the audience comes in and makes it all very alive.
Q: In your research for the film, what would you say was the most shocking part of the Vietnam War?
A: I think the whole Operation Baby Lift itself. I think a fair number of Americans who were adults at that time knew about Operation Baby Lift. I even noticed that it was more of West Coast knowledge. A lot of people on the East Coast didn’t know about it as much. The planes landed in Seattle and San Francisco so people here knew about it more because it was right in their back yard. When you get down to the level of what happened with children it’s not so easy to say oh well, what ever, things like that happened. When it comes down to kids it’s hard to step away from it. Operation Baby Lift-the way it happened, why it happened, the ramifications of it and all of those levels leading up to it-is pretty fascinating.
Q: Tell me about Gail, the producer and Vicente, the director. What other films have they done?
A: They are mainly documentary filmmakers. They have made one film together prior to this one called “Cuba Va!” I think that was their first collaboration together prior to “Daughter form Danang.” Other then that they both have worked on a variety of films, almost all documentaries.
Q: Is filmmaking something you want to do in the future?
A: I think so. I have really enjoyed it. I have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of it. I don’t know if it’s the one thing I will do for the rest of my life but its something that I can certainly see myself continuing to work with.