Thursday, May 06, 2010

Global Voices: Teacher

In a career worthy of a great Victorian novel, former heroin addict Nguyen Van Hung found redemption on the streets of Viet Nam’s capitol city, bringing medicine, food, and hope to the HIV-positive street children the government refuses to acknowledge. Once a one-man social services agency, the life and legacy of the man who was known simply as “Thay” (Teacher) is documented in Leslie Wiener-Legrand’s Teacher (trailer here), which airs on PBS stations as part of third season of Global Voices.

As Teacher opens, viewers see Thay Hung rushing from one prospect client to another. He only takes cases of the most extreme need, like HIV-positive children whose parents are dead or in prison. Many times, the parents and children had nearly given up on life until Hung and his assistants (all of whom are HIV-positive themselves) help them retake their health and self-worth. The children he ministers to are truly heartbreaking, but the work Hung and his apprentices perform is genuinely inspiring. We see they get results, tangibly improving the physical and material wellbeing of the children and families in their care.

While the example of Hung and his staff is noble, bordering on saintly, the film should also make viewers angry. Hung’s organization receives no funding from the Vietnamese government, relying almost exclusively on foreign donations. He also investigates suspicions that defective AIDS drugs are being sold to clients in certain neighborhoods. As a result, the Vietnam that emerges in Teacher is a far cry from the image of a relatively benign socialist state many cling to.

Eschewing narration and formal interview sessions, Wiener-Legrand strictly adheres to a fly-on-the-wall approach, capturing the late Hung on his missions of mercy. Indeed, the drama inherent in these situations is so immediately accessible and comprehensible viewers should hardly need any further context or explanation. In fact, it would probably be extraneous background noise.

While Teacher is poignant, even tragic, Wiener-Legrand stresses Hung’s life-affirming legacy, which continues to this day. At just under an hour, Teacher is heartrending and eye-opening look at the harsh realities of life for the estimated 37,000 HIV-positive Vietnamese children, who supposedly do not exist. Strongly recommended, it airs on WLIW World this Sunday (5/9).