“Chau, Beyond the Lines,” a Vietnamese short documentary directed by Courtney Marsh, centers around the coming of age of Chau, a young Vietnamese teenager and Agent Orange victim who aspires to be an artist and clothing designer.
Agent Orange is a chemical that was among the elixir of herbicides the United States sprayed over the jungles of Vietnam in order to destroy the food and cover that the Northern Vietnamese Army found in those jungles from 1961 to 1971. While the chemical was originally said to be harmless to humans, the decade that the US drenched Vietnam in 20 million gallons of herbicides has lead to three million Vietnamese people being affected by the chemical, with at least 150,000 of their children being born with serious birth defects like Chau.
Chau is the only member of his family affected by Agent Orange, and as an infant he was sent to a small Peace Camp that specializes in caring for children who suffer from physical disabilities caused by Agent Orange. He has spent most of his life at this camp and the other children at the camp are like family to him. However, his tense relationship with the nurses lead him to leave the camp he’s known all of his life and embark into the outside world to follow his dream of becoming an artist.
Chau’s dedication to his art exhibits true passion. He can spend days creating and perfecting a single sketch. His love for art is above all else and drives him through the many obstacles in his path. The nurses at the camp don’t take him seriously, his family steals the money that the government sends him as an Agent Orange victim that’s supposed to be for his art supplies, and society doesn’t do much to support individuals that are not fully able. Bouts of internal conflict like depression and thoughts of suicide cloud his dreams of success. And yet, he keeps going and continues to fight for his passion.
The film’s shining light is its portrayal of humanity. While Chau’s commitment to his art is extraordinary, he isn’t portrayed as some superhuman-wonderkid that can beat all of the odds. He has flaws, frustrations, bitterness and many moments of failure. It takes him years to get where he is today, and even now he isn’t where he wants to be and still fights for it.
Some of the best moments of the film were those that were understated and not directly addressed. For example, small successes and developments from him lamenting about the difficulty he has filling in and coloring his art, to later views of his sketch book where he sketches in color as opposed to pencil to counter that difficulty were some of my favorite moments. While this film is inspirational, it doesn’t follow the tired and problematic tropes that often plague films about individuals with disabilities that show someone with no flaws and refuse to address the rock bottoms that many people are often faced with.
Another theme of the film that stood out was society’s view of Agent Orange victims through Chau’s lense. While it is shown in the documentary that Vietnam supports Agent Orange victims through remembrance events and by providing financial assistance, in everyday life there is limited support and not much respect shown to Agent Orange victims.
The moments that struck me the most were the multiple times the film showed tourists going in and out of the clinic to take photos and gawk at the children there. Some treated it almost as an entertainment event, while others treated the children as monsters. Demeaning and dehumanizing experiences like this follow even after he leaves the camp, as when he has difficulties finding work or even a place to live that is properly equipped for his disability.
Overall, this film is head and shoulders above other short films of its length when it comes to emotional intensity and genuinity. It is amazing how the creators managed to cram so much story and feeling in one short film without making it feel rushed. This film is an essential watch, especially for Americans who may not realize the damage that their country has done to the people of Vietnam.
“Chau, Beyond the Lines” is a close to perfect, if not perfect, short film. There’s a reason why it recently made it onto the Oscar Shortlist and why director Courtney Marsh won the Documentary Short Award at the 22nd Austin Film Festival.
Austin Film Festival screening:
Wednesday, Nov. 4 at Alamo Drafthouse Village at 12 p.m.