Arrivederci Saigon: Director Wilma Labate Presents Documentary at JCU

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How did a band made up of five teenage Italian girls end up performing for American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968? That’s the question that director Wilma Labate answers in her latest documentary film Arrivederci Saigon.

The JCU Communications department hosted the screening of the movie on February 13, 2019. Professor Peter Sarram, who organized the event, introduced Wilma Labate as “a rare example of a women filmmaker managing to work regularly in the context of the male-dominated Italian film industry”. In 1996 her film La mia generazione (My Generation) was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film as well as the winner of two David di Donatello awards, which are considered the “Italian Oscars.”

Wilma Labate

Wilma Labate

Arrivederci Saigon, which takes place in 1968, narrates the story of  “Le Stars,” five young girls, Viviana, Rossella, Daniela, Franca, and Manuela, from the industrial districts of Tuscany, a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. Their dream is to get away from this region so when they receive an offer to go on tour in the Far East and earn a considerable amount of money, they enthusiastically accept. Little do they know that they will end up in Vietnam, in the middle of the war. After fifty years “Le Stars,” who were among the first to play soul music in Italy, finally recount their adventures among American soldiers in remote military bases in the jungles of Vietnam as Vietcong missiles rain in.

Professor Sarram stressed the difficulty of creating a “film that tells a story from a past that has left no physical traces and that even the protagonists who lived and experienced it seem to have purposefully wanted to forget. A big challenge for a documentary filmmaker.” The experience left an indelible mark on the lives of the protagonists and also generated pain and conflict, since the girls were harshly criticized by family and friends for having supported the wrong side of the war. In the end, only four of the women accepted to be part of the documentary. By interweaving testimonies of the women with images of huge historical significance to reconstruct their experience, the director was able to dig deep into the painful truth and capture human vulnerability.

Wilma Labate was inspired to make the documentary after she learned about the story from the author Giampaolo Simi, with whom she ended up writing the screenplay. Unfortunately, there is no actual footage of the girls in Vietnam. As the director explained, this is because the girls were unknown, they were very young and no one thought of filming them at the time. Labate wrote to numerous archives in America requesting footage of “Le Stars” and she is confident that within a few years, something will turn up. In the beginning, the lack of footage made it difficult for Labate to fund the movie since most producers did not believe the story to be true at all. Fortunately, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1968, Rai Cinema agreed to finance Labate, and the movie was created.