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Filmfest documentaries search for lost lives

“Be Good, Smile Pretty,” a documentary by Tracy Tregos, opens with a subtitle announcing that some 20,000 fathers were killed in the Vietnam War. After this startling revelation, we are introduced to Tregos and a picture of her own father, Donald Droz, who died in the war when the filmmaker was 4 months old. “Be Good, Smile Pretty” commenced as an artistic project when Tregos, idly surfing the Internet as an adult, entered her father’s name into a search engine. What she found was a vivid description of her father’s death on the Mekong Delta. Within 10 days of this discovery, Tregos had picked up a camera and begun shooting her film.

The goal of Tregos’ documentary is to paint as vivid a picture as she can of her father, both for herself and the audience. She begins with the precious few remnants of her father, kept hidden away in a locked chest by her mother – grainy photographs and home movies, scratchy audio recordings. What follows are interviews with those that knew Donald Droz – his widow, mother, brother, war buddies – and it is these interviews that constitute the bulk of the documentary. She travels all across America, hunting down those who knew her father. Tregos also appears in the project, providing candid self-reflection for the camera about the experience of making the documentary. What becomes clear in these self-disclosers is that, through all the interviews, through all the excavation of memories and the past, Tregos hopes she might somehow get to know her lost father, might somehow bring him back to life. In this regard, Tregos fails in her documentary, but it is this failure that makes the film so compelling, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

“Be Good, Smile Pretty” will be misinterpreted by some as a film about war. It is not; it is a film about grief. In fact, despite its intentions, the film is not about Donald Droz at all. A documentary, try as it might, cannot be about the dead; the living always steal the show. In this case, the film is primarily about the women left behind (mother, widow and daughter), the women told to “Be Good and Smile Pretty,” even after the sudden death of a son, a husband or a father.



Most important of all to this film, then, is the secrecy of grief and moral bewilderment suffered at the death of one who was young and who seemed to be apart from death, especially from death leaving behind no explanation of itself as a moral occurrence in a what-kind-of-a-world-is-this-anyway. This moral bewilderment is the closest the film comes to making a political statement about the war.

Although she is a professional writer, Tregos must have had a keen intuition when she relinquished the pen for the camera, for “Be Good, Smile Pretty” is a story that can only be told as a documentary. At a certain point, pain blocks speech. In the face of acute suffering, language breaks down. Where Tregos’




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film succeeds is in capturing those moments of debilitating and inexpressible grief, those private moments of choking pain when all there is are tears. It is no small feat, documenting the ineffable, and Tregos comes as close as an artist can to expressing the inexpressible.

Perhaps the most powerful of these moments come when the three women of the story (mother, widow, daughter) gather at the Vietnam War Memorial. Not a word is spoken. The wall stands silent and austere. The women weep. For thousands of Americans like them, the war memorial has become their wailing wall.

One of the interesting twists of the film is that it is ostensibly Tregos’ journey to discover a lost relationship with her father, but what gets flushed out instead is her relationship with her mother. There exists throughout the documentary a silent separation between mother and child. The mother, on the one hand, struggles to keep her life in order, resisting the torrential outpouring of feeling that comes with the memories of her lost husband. Her daughter, although she has her qualms, pushes her mother to remember, believing it somehow “must ultimately be for the best.”

In this regard, it is hard to remain sympathetic to the filmmaker. Tregos’ mother believes that, in confronting the memory of Droz, she suffers alone. In response, Tregos’ reveals to the camera that “I just don’t think my mother gets it.” This seems unfair. It is true that both mother and daughter suffer, but it is also true that they suffer different types of grief. For the two women, it is the difference between loss and absence. The mother mourns the irrevocable loss of the man. The daughter, who was 4 months old when Droz died, mourns the absence of the man. It is clear to everyone but Tregos which is the more powerful of the two.

Which is not to say we don’t feel sorry for Tregos, nor is it to say that her suffering isn’t real. At the end of the documentary, Tregos recounts a dream she has about being with her father. She is a child again. As she runs into her father’s arms, she dreams that under his shirt there are stitches that “just barely keep him together.” There has always been talk about the magic of movies, about how film can “bring something to life.” Yet try as she might to conjure, Tregos’ dead father must forever remain so. In a way, her father, stitched together in Tregos’ dream, is Frankenstein’s monster, nothing more than the creation of his daughter’s project. In this case it is a beautiful portrait, but no matter how tender and careful she is in construction, the stitches are still there, never strong enough. This is Tregos’ pain.

“Be Good Smile Pretty,” was a quest Tracy Tregos had to undertake, even if from the beginning it was doomed to failure. It is the story of the search for a lost man and a lost relationship. It is a film in search of lost time.

In a way, Robert Moss’ documentary “The Same River Twice” also searches for lost time. The film revolves around the summer of 1978, when a group of youngsters (Moss included) worked as river guides in the Grand Canyon. They were young, intelligent and very nude, spending the summer living communally together on the rivers of the American West. Moss, recently out of film school, carried a camera with him and the footage he shot that summer constitutes one portion of the documentary.

The other portion was filmed 20 years later when Moss tracked down his friends to document how the span of 20 lost years had affected them. He shows them the film from 1978, documents their reaction, and then spends a few days with each, following them around with his camera. Interspersed within these portraits, Moss returns to footage from ’78, lest we forget the juxtaposition.

We are not surprised by what Moss finds 20 years on. Cathy and Jeff, two idyllic young lovers, have divorced. Danny, the wild spirit, now has a child. Barry, a local politician and businessman, is married and fighting cancer. Life beats on.

The documentary makes much of a riverside conversation from 1978, captured on camera by Moss, where the group debate whether to stay in the canyon for “one more day” or to pack up and move on. The implication, of course, is that in the end the conversation was moot, the group inevitably had to leave and face all that life and time bring – family, responsibility, illness, etc.

What is particularly surprising about Moss’ film is the lack of nostalgia felt by the adult-guides looking back. For them, the summer of ’78 was an Edenic time, yet there is little regret in leaving. They seem to understand that, although idyllic, the place of youth is not a place to inhabit. In this regard, the “Same River Twice” seems a curious, if not misleading title, for part of what the film is about is how the guides can never return to the river. After all, a river, like life, is always changing; you can never revisit the same spot. This sense of inevitability, of life’s relentless passage, serves as the narrative sweep of Moss’ documentary.

We leave youth and then spend our days growing old until we are eventually devoured by some disease or, if we are particularly lucky, by time itself – this is the reality the river guides face. Yet what Moss shows us is that, eventually, we learn to accept this, and this acceptance often makes us better people. The adult Barry, ravaged by testicular cancer, is a much gentler, kinder, nicer man than the his brash, youthful counterpart. The softness that makes us frail makes us tender.

What happens when we don’t accept the inevitable transition to adulthood? One of the guides from 1978, Jim, simply refused the responsibility. Moss tracks him down and, 20 years on, he is still a river guide. Part homespun philosopher (we see Chomsky on his bookshelf), part lunatic, he cuts a sad figure. Like Tithonus, who in Greek myth asked for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth, Jim, his Lear-like beard by now long and white, seems a child who continues to age. In the documentary, he acts as sort of a control group for Moss’ experiment – a portrait of what would have become the guides had they not taken the inevitable plunge into adulthood. A lifelong river guide, Jim is also our guide for the documentary, an impresario fully equipped with violin; it is his scratchy playing (in effect, a reluctant swan song for youth) that ends the documentary.

“The Same River Twice,” like “Be Good Smile Pretty,” was put together with infinite care. The 20 years between shootings allowed the filmmaker special insight into the comitragic nature of aging. In this way, the film documents a small but poignant chapter in the human drama. Towards the end of the documentary, at his child’s birthday party, one of the river guides, Barry, now recovered from cancer, looks around him and tries to explain. “This is what it’s all about, I guess.”


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