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TCFF 2022 Documentary Highlights: Jimmy in Saigon and More

Still from Jimmy in Saigon. Photo: Courtesy Peter McDowell

As the 2022 Twin Cities Film Fest screens more than 80 films at the ShowPlace ICON Theatres in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, over 100 films are additionally available on its online streaming platform at Following the sold-out opening-night debuts of the documentary Overheated and the historical drama Till, the programming includes dozens of excellent new documentaries, among them Jimmy in Saigon, Jack Has a Plan, The Smell of Money, A.rticifial I.mortality, and Gabi, Between Ages 8 and 13. 

Jimmy in Saigon (dir. Peter McDowell, 2022)

Peter McDowell’s extraordinary documentary Jimmy in Saigon is rooted in family tragedy and secrets, but it’s nonetheless ultimately an uplifting experience, full of insight and revelation. The filmmaker’s older brother, the “Jimmy” in Saigon, had been drafted into the U.S. Army as a young man, but in Vietnam something changed him. He rejected his family’s values, experimented with drugs and sex, and after leaving the military returned to Saigon as a civilian.

There he died, at age 24, under mysterious circumstances and to his family’s deeply felt shame. Jimmy’s death—unlike those of military heroes losing their lives in action and being rewarded with medals and memorials—became an unspoken family secret of sorts. Meanwhile, younger brother Peter, who was only five when Jimmy died, grew up without his older brother and learned to navigate his life as a gay man and artist on his own.

Peter’s search for Jimmy’s truth isn’t exactly one his family welcomes: while they don’t know the exact circumstances of Jimmy’s life and death in Saigon a half-century ago, they fear the scandals Peter’s search might reveal. For a straight family to cope with revelations of drug use and queer relationships hasn’t apparently become any easier with the passage of time.

McDowell’s documentary takes the narrative form of a detective’s forensic investigation, with Peter-the-filmmaker interviewing his own family, sharing archival photos, sharing his own experiences of coming out in the 1980s, and, eventually, traveling to Saigon himself and then back to the Midwest in search of Jimmy’s truth.

I won’t spoil for readers what Peter learns, other than to acknowledge that Peter learns that Jimmy was loved. And that that revelation is an important one. Jimmy in Saigon nimbly presents Peter’s search and Jimmy’s story both. The stigmatization of drug use and non-normative sexualities seems today almost even more fervent than it had been during Jimmy’s time in Vietnam, and McDowell’s moving film provides a unique perspective on a young man’s tragedy and a family’s reluctant relationship with the truth.

Jack Has a Plan (dir. Bradley Berman, 2022)

Jimmy in Saigon and Jack Has a Plan share a filmmaker’s debt to his subject, but the two differ radically in style and approach. Jack Has a Plan, a briskly-paced feature-length documentary directed by Bradley Berman, adopts a cheeky tone for its serious topic. Using public-domain footage from old B-movies, his subject’s old VHS home-videos, hand-drawn animations, and both the director’s and his subject’s voice-over narration, Jack Has a Plan tells the story of Jack Tuller’s diagnosis and longtime battle with a brain tumor.

Jack, whose career had him dancing, playing bass and guitar in, and producing music and videos, was diagnosed with a brain tumor that made processing some aspects of language impossible and induced mild seizures. Berman’s film alternates back and forth between Jack’s past, which is documented with those old home movies and other video productions, and the discomforting truth of his present: Jack’s tumor has grown and is growing, his seizures increasing in duration and frequency, and the only prognosis is an intensive chemotherapy he refuses to undergo.

And so that is Jack’s plan: to end his life.

For most of us familiar with palliative care and end-of-life decisions, we might associate those cases with the elderly and the infirm. While Jack is not a young man, throughout the film he’s perfectly lucid mentally and vigorous physically. The fact that for much of the film he seems outwardly perfectly healthy and competent—your average youngish boomer retiree-next-door—might have viewers, like Jack’s friends and family, question the wisdom of his decision-making.

It’s a three-year quest that Berman has documented as Jack, his friends (including Berman), and his family all struggle to accept. But Jack, despite the tumor’s increasingly ravaging effects, is nothing if not lucid and determined, and so begins what becomes a long goodbye.

And what a goodbye it is. Jack has some business to attend to, including finding and connecting with his biological father; comforting and planning for his loving, conflicted wife; and saying his last goodbyes to his other family members and friends. Also there is the practical matter of ending his life, for which he consults a palliative care specialist.

Jack Has a Plan makes for some challenging viewing, even if its tone is often sprightly and Jack himself a good-humored, sometimes even comic subject. With Americans traditionally viewing death as to be avoided at all costs, pro-dignity and palliative care have come more to the forefront in medical decision-making as the Baby Boom generation ages and the pandemic has forced us to confront mortality more directly than ever. The right-to-die movement aims to end suffering and alleviate financial and other burdens, but it’s not one that’s always easily embraced.

Berman’s film is likely to persuade viewers of Jack’s own right to die with dignity, on his on terms, in his own way, at his chosen time. It’s a fascinating case and a touching treatment, an unusually intimate portrait of a conflicted, intelligent man faced with a dilemma no one would wish for—but any of us might face.

The Smell of Money (dir. Shawn Bannon, 2022)

Like Jack Has a Plan and Jimmy in Saigon, The Smell of Money takes on a timely topic and benefits from that single feature so many great documentaries share: a compelling subject. If Jack Tuller’s plight will convince you of the right to die with dignity, or Jimmy McDowell’s the right to live his own life in his own way. Elsie Herring’s will persuade you of the literal and figurative stench of the Big Pork industry.

One of the festival’s several documentaries focusing on climate action, The Smell of Money focuses on Herring, whose grandfather claimed his freedom from slavery a century ago and established his his family land in North Carolina. Today, nearby hog farms owned and operated by the world’s largest pork corporation have made Herring’s and her entire community’s lives miserable—plagued by the incessant, unavoidable, and revolting stench of hog manure.

It’s a stench North Carolinians have endured for decades, ever since the big corporations started moving in in the 1990s. The farms spray hog waste day and night, claiming it to be a fertilization technique when it’s simply a means of environmentally-unsound waste disposal—and a chronic source of community aggravation. The stench is pervasive, revolting, and unyielding, a constant threat to the citizenry’s right to clean air and fresh water.

Bannon ably charts the history of pork giant Smithfield’s encroachment on Herring’s and others’ lands with compelling cinematography and archival news footage. Smell—unless you are Bong Joon-ho—can be difficult to convey cinematically, and Bannon relies primarily on Herring’s and others’ testimony. But the case is convincingly made, and Herring is a sympathetic protagonist in her fight against Big Pork.

As you might imagine, the world’s largest pork company can afford some serious legal defense. But Elsie’s decades-long fight to reclaim her rights to clean air and pure water finally takes root with the help of her small-town lawyer. While she and her community risk everything to take on Big Pork, The Smell of Money asks every viewer to reconsider what they eat, where it comes from, and what its impact on the environment and community might be.

The Smell of Money debuted earlier this year at the Sarasota Film Festival, where it won the Documentary Feature Jury Prize. Encompassing animal rights, human rights, and environmental sustainability, it’s a film that speaks to the most pressing issues of our time.

A.rtificial I.mmortality (dir. Ann Shin, 2022)

Like Jack Has a Plan, Ann Shin’s A.rtificial I.mmortality is concerned with death; but unlike that film’s protagonist Jack Tuller, who ultimately embraces his own death, Shin is here exploring the use of technology to achieve immortality. Her documentary team interviews a cadre of gurus, scientists, and philosophers affiliated with the transhumanist movement.

At the heart of the question is whether the human soul is essentially material or data, a “mind file” as it’s called. With so much of our minds online—our preferences, location, purchases, words, medical history, relationships, and more—stored in the clouds of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and other tech giants, is it possible that the sum of these are analogous to our very existence? And if so, can an AI clone be replicated of ourselves?

The film’s rendition of an AI clone of Deepak Chopra is uncanny, like watching one of those convincing deepfakes. But like deepfake technology, there’s more than just the clever recasting of one actor as another to consider: there are a world of ethical considerations at play. “Digital Deepak” can analyze data, respond to situations, and interact adaptively in some astoundingly convincing ways; it’s more unnerving than your everyday Alexa commands.

What if, like Digital Deepak, each of us could manage our “mind file”—the sum of our entire data footprint across all platforms and devices? Could an avatar exist for any, for all of us? (I’m reminded of how Roger Ebert’s recorded voice from his television broadcasts was used to create a corpus for his computer-generated voice once he lost his larynx, only on a broader, deeper scale, consisting not just of spoken words but of an entire health, geolocation, consumer, and cultural history.)

The data owned by Big Tech companies won’t be surrendered willingly or freely. And of course, one can reasonably argue that our existence is more than what can be codified in our “mind bank.” Nonetheless, A.rtificial I.mmortality makes a reasonable case that current progress foretells a not-too-distant future where Digital Deepaks are more the norm than the uncanny anomaly, and where for some an important step towards achieving immortality.

Shin’s film is stately and measured in its pace and tone, even when the content it presents is occasionally foreboding. Todor Kabakov’s sparingly-used synthesizer score subtly undergirds the film’s key themes, and its gleaming white backgrounds and compositions give it an appropriately sci-fi sheen, even if there’s no “fi” in the film. As physical clones begin to approximate human appearance and behavior, the question of immortality is just one of the questions raised by their artificial intelligence, and Shin’s film explores just how proximate androids and clones are today to our own existence.

One consideration for any documentary maker is its timeliness, and as I watched A.rtifical I.mmortality, I could not help but wonder how dated it might soon become. At some point in the far-flung (or much nearer) future, will it simply echo a day when humans had been frustratingly limited to their corporeal existence? Will its speculation have become reality? And might I be accessing it long after my corporeal body has ceased to function, with this and my other reviews and writings simply a part of the “mind bank” that informs my immortal digital self?

GABI: Between Ages 8 and 13 (dir. Englei Broberg, 2022)

Eight-year-old Gabi is a lively, smart, and what we used to call a tomboyish girl who cleverly intuits what she sees as wrong with the world: that everyone expects a kid like her to be a traditional, feminine, little girl. But she has already developed a strong sense of identity: “Everyone thinks I’m trying to be a boy but I’m not,” she says. “I can’t, I can only be Gabi.”

Certainly, Gabi isn’t who others think she should be, but she’s also a highly intelligent, sensitive young child growing into prepubescence with a strong sense of her own individuality. She speaks her mind and ponders whether she’d make a better Brad, Mike, or Paulo (like her bio-dad) than a Gabriella.

After a couple of moves–from England, first, then Stockholm, and now to a much smaller working-class town in Sweden, Gabi finds herself the target of bullying just as her body begins to undergo its own involuntary transformations.

As she starts her teens—and her period—Gabi gets herself a new short haircut, some liberating feelings, and a new hidden passion. But when everyone else can talk freely about their crushes, Gabi is left to ponder alone whether she is a girl, a boy, or something in-between or other. The feelings she harbors seem the same as any new teen’s—except for the weight of societal expectation.

Engeli Broberg’s coming-of-age tale documents these formative years as those of a child to whom the typical descriptors of male and female seem hopelessly archaic and limiting. Gabi is nothing if not herself, just trying to navigate the transition into adolescence and changing family circumstances without the weight of societal pressure to perform as recognizably male or female. It’s not an ideological position, simply a rejection of norms that feel restrictive. If I could, I’d make it required viewing for everyone determined to pigeonhole every child into prescriptive gender norms based on outdated assumptions. Broberg’s film may be set across the Atlantic but is welcome viewing here in the U.S. during an unprecedented attack on trans rights. Gabi, like all of us, deserves to be who she wants to be.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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