Filmmaker peers into life of legendary spy

October 17, 2006


by Anh Thu

There’s a bug in the rice cooker: Director Lan (left) and Larry Berman (right) have dinner with Pham Xuan An’s colleagues and friends . — VNS Photo

During the making of a new documentary about one of Viet Nam’s most famous spies, director Le Phong Lan says she learned as much about world history as she did about the man’s controversial life.

General Pham Xuan An, who worked both as an intelligence agent for North Viet Nam during the American War and a reporter for the US media, is the subject of Lan’s 10-part documentary, expected to be screened early next year.

During filming, Lan unearthed facts, myths and figures that shed light on the personalities and silent contributions of both Communist Party members and the general, who died in September of emphysema at age 79.

Produced by HCM City’s Television Film Studio, the documentary, Mot Nguoi Viet Nam Huyen Thoai (A Legendary Vietnamese), covers Major General An’s life and revolutionary activities.

Post-production will be completed by the end of the year following two years of filming, Lan said.

“There were challenges in portraying An’s life, including his achievements as a secret agent during the American War,” says Lan, who spent two years writing the script.

Meeting a legend

Although she began her film in early 2004, Lan dreamed about making a film about An four years ago.

“I really wanted to do this because of my respect for General An, a brilliant political analyst, who, with his reporting skills, played a role in the victory over the Americans,” says Lan.

“I met him and asked if he could help me, but he didn’t want to do it,” she recalled.

Instead, he suggested that she shoot a film about other liberation heroes, saying that he was “nothing”.

Lan didn’t give up. She visited An’s home weekly, coaxing and cajoling, chatting and sharing stories with her idol in his house on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3, HCM City.

“Just like his soul, An never locked his house’s door,” Lan said. “I tried not only to understand An but also be a younger friend.”

After some years, An finally was won over by Lan’s perseverance.

Later, Lan and her cameraman Huynh Lam travelled the country to find and interview An’s colleagues and friends, particularly agents who worked for An’s spy network in Sai Gon, now HCM City, in the 1960s and 1970s.

She met Nguyen Thi Ba in Long An Province, a female agent who received An’s secret documents on the political and military activities of the US-backed Sai Gon administration, and sent the papers to the north.

“We have a deep respect for these people. Their contributions were great, but they live simply,” said Lan, adding that portraying the details about the characters’ lives was a difficult task.

During her research, she spoke with and interviewed many people, including political researchers like American university professor Larry Berman, one of An’s foreign friends.

Berman has written a biography, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, which will be published in the spring.

“They gave us a lot of information about the war and historic events related to An,” said Lan, adding that the film’s quality and accuracy were due to the efforts of her colleagues.

A lengthy process

“A documentary is very different from a movie,” said Lan, a graduate of the Viet Nam Cinematography College who has spent eight years making documentaries.

A great deal of research about a still-controversial period of time was required, she said.

“Before making the documentary, I had little knowledge about war and politics,” Lan said. “I’ve tried to understand history and depict it realistically in my film.”

Although the amount of information on the war and its events was immense, Lan said the responsibility of making an accurate portrayal of such a complex man hung heavy on her shoulders.

She said she read many Vietnamese and foreign books, newspapers and documents related to historical events during the 1950s and the 1970s, particularly after the Americans came to Viet Nam.

“I also found it difficult to explain to audiences the reasons why An, a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was received enthusiastically by both Vietnamese and American sides,” she said.

“The most difficult thing in the beginning was how to contact and understand An, who often refused our interview requests.”

She said she learned a great deal about journalism from An, who was the first Vietnamese to be a full-time staff correspondent for a major US publication, working primarily for Time magazine.

The best interviews, Lan said, were those without a camera. “He hated having himself filmed. He was open and less shy when we were not working.”

Lan said she was still considering the title for the film. “I want it to carry the best meaning of the film,” she said.

In 1976, An was named Hero of the People’s Armed Forces by the Government, and awarded four military orders.

Death of a hero

An passed away on September 20 in HCM City’s Military Hospital 175 at the age of 79. Many people across the country and overseas paid their respects, and dozens of articles were written in the domestic and international press.

Lan was at his bedside when he died, as were his family members.

His death left her with a deep sense of regret and grief. “For me, he was like a great teacher, someone who loved and devoted his life to his country and people,” she said.

HCM City’s Television and Film Studio is expected to air the documentary early next year. “We hope audiences will enjoy it,” Lan said. — VNS

2 Responses to “Filmmaker peers into life of legendary spy”

  1. TAI Says:

    Do you know when the film will be aired on TV?
    I do not want to miss this interesting documentary.


  2. Dear Miss. Anh Thu,

    I served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force in Saigon in 1967-68, with USAF Intelligence. In early 1967, I turned in a series of very detailed reports exposing Mr. Pham Xuan An as a Communist Spy. Working with local ‘friends’ we exposed his entire network, couriers, and associates early in 1967. We turned in several undeveloped rolls of film hidden in ‘meat/egg rolls’ and carried to the tunnels of Cu Chi by at least two couriers: 1, An old lady selling meat rolls on the street, and 2, a Vietnamese man that received the fake meat roles at a small village and took them to the Cu Chi tunnels.
    Unfortunately for our side, apparently our commanders never saw those reports, of if they did, they simply ignored them because every one of them was a good friend of Mr. An.
    I have written a book on my experiences in Vietnam. Is there a way I can get a copy of your film? A major American film maker wants to make a movie of my book – perhaps we could incorporate your film as a ‘counter-point’, or “both sides of the story”.

    I hope to hear from you. Thanks!
    Best regards
    Jan Schwenk

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