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The long shadow of the Vietnam War

For many Vietnamese veterans the war hasn't yet ended. They still suffer from the effects of the poisonous defoliant Agent Orange. The documentary film "Lighter than Orange" tells their story.

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Lighter Than Orange

Between 1961 and 1971, the US military used several chemical herbicides and defoliants to clear sensitive areas of forested land and deprive the enemy of food and cover. Companies such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto produced the chemicals of which a total of 73 million liters were sprayed in the region using helicopters and airplanes.

About two-thirds of the herbicides employed by the US military contained highly toxic dioxins which caused damage not only to Vietnamese and US soldiers, but also to the soil where they have persisted to this day, resulting in the poisoning of numerous people. In Vietnam alone, an estimated three million people are suffering the consequences, which range from cancer and deformities to genetic mutations which are passed on to the next generation.

Matthias Leupold's film "Lighter Than Orange" documents both the horrors of the war and the never-ending suffering of 12 Vietnamese veterans and their families. They live, at least temporarily, in the so-called Friendship Village, an international project aiming to help repair the damage caused by the use of Agent Orange. In a DW interview, the documentary filmmaker speaks about the idea behind the film.

DW: How and when did you first come across the issue of Agent Orange?

Lighter Than Orange Matthais Leupold

Leupold: 'The film preserves and showcases the life stories of 12 veterans and their experiences at a war zone'

Matthias Leupold: In 2010-11, I was organizing photography workshops for a book project in Vietnam which was unrelated to Agent Orange. I also wanted to build a house to serve as a meeting place for Asian and European students. While looking for the right place, I came across Friendship Village where I found 120 adolescents who suffered from Agent-Orange-related diseases as well 60 veterans. That's how I became interested in the topic.

When did you decide to make a documentary film about this?

Initially, I wanted to focus on an art exhibition featuring photographs of war veterans. We wanted to have the images on screens and place them in a circle. Visitors would then be able to listen to the veterans' stories through headphones. But I then realized that the issue at hand was just too big and that we wouldn't reach a big audience with such an exhibition. This is when I got the idea of a making a documentary film.

What do you remember most vividly about your work in Vietnam?

I was touched by how the people dealt with their fate. There are some inevitable facts these families have to deal with, some even from one generation to the next. Their genome has been permanently altered and there are always concerns about the child's health with every new pregnancy in these families.

It is astonishing to see how people deal with such a situation. Some seem to have come to terms with their fate in an almost poetic way. They write poems about it. I was also very impressed by the way people take care of each other in these families.

In 2005, claims for compensation filed by American and Vietnamese victims were dismissed by a New York court. And the US Supreme Court rejected a hearing of the case in 2009. What is your take on these rulings?

It is not easy to file compensation claims in US courts. The reason for that is, according to the law, that claims must be made individually. However, the link between the use of Agent Orange in massive amounts and the health damages caused to each individual is practically non-verifiable. It can be proved only in groups of people. This is why, for example, US veterans received money only as a group and not individually.

But it is also true that chemicals made by Monsanto and other companies, including several firms based in Germany and former Czechoslovakia, were used. And they made people sick. Moreover, irrespective of the legal and political reasons, one is obliged to help the people.

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

One of the veterans who has 12 dead children to moan said after the interview: You drive home now, but what will become of my daughter Nga? She will soon not have anyone to take care of her. Her parents are already over 70. The idea was to give away the financial proceeds from the film to two of the families. However, that goal has so far remained unsuccessful.

What is the reason behind the lack of success?

Viewers are often touched by the film and they are unaware of the huge number of victims to the point that they are overwhelmed. They then don't resort to offer financial help to the people.

But at a conference recently, I realized what the film can also achieve. It preserves and showcases the life stories of 12 veterans and their experiences at a war zone. The viewer sees and hears them, and in some cases even their poems.

There have also been a number of requests from universities wanting to screen the documentary for their students. Perhaps the film also contributes to addressing future conflicts in a different manner that it was done in the case of the Vietnam War.

Matthias Leupold is Professor of Photography at the Berlin Technical Art College. The film "Lighter Than Orange" has been shown at numerous international documentary film festivals and won awards, including the Grand Prize of the "Socially Relevant Film Festival" in New York.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.

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