Jimmy in Saigon is now showing at BFI Flare.
Peter McDowell was just five years old when his parents received a telegram in 1972 notifying them of their eldest son’s death. Jimmy lived in Saigon following his draft to serve in the Vietnam War. However, Jimmy’s death was not due to the war; in fact, his tour had ended some time before he chose to return to Saigon as a civilian. The telegram informed the family that Jimmy had died from an infection and heroin use. These words were a badge of shame for a middle-class Illinois family already confused by Jimmy’s need to return to Saigon following his call-up and tour of duty.
Before his death, some of Jimmy’s letters to friends and family would shed light on his inner thoughts, for example, his rejection of growing American consumer capitalism and his desire to immerse himself in Vietnamese culture. While at the same time, others would point towards freedom in sex and drugs not afforded to him in the United States. But Jimmy’s real reasons for escape remained shrouded in mystery, his family erecting a wall of silence that was too painful to break down. However, for his younger brother Peter, Jimmy’s life remained a puzzle that needed resolution. As he grew, this need further intensified as his brother’s ghost silently haunted every family discussion. Therefore, armed with a camera, Peter sought to uncover the truth behind his brother’s death, slowly building a feature documentary that would shed light on Jimmy’s life, loves, and choices.
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The result of Peter McDowell’s search to uncover the truth behind his older brother Jimmy’s death is an assured and deeply personal journey of healing. Here McDowell delicately unpicks the events surrounding Jimmy’s death through investigation, travel and long-overdue conversations that lead to revelations about his brother’s hidden sexuality and need to escape his middle-class American life. He uncovers a story of hidden love and a tragedy that still haunts his American family and the Vietnamese lives he touched. Here McDowell’s loving and richly detailed documentary is a long-overdue eulogy to a brother lost in Saigon as he explores the barriers that led many gay and bisexual men to find personal freedoms abroad.
JIMMY IN SAIGON (2022)
As with any documentary built upon patchy information and events, there are still gaps in our understanding as the film ends. But the level of detail and exploration McDowell achieves over a decade is nothing short of outstanding. Here the unfolding story is bound by the need to finally grieve his brother’s passing and honour the life he kept hidden. The result is an assured documentary debut embedded in a love that never died and a need to remember, understand and celebrate a sibling who kept his life and loves hidden from those he left behind.
An assured documentary debut embedded in a love that never died and a need to remember, understand and celebrate a sibling who kept his life and loves hidden from those he left behind.