The Sad Song of Yellow Skin

Recently Medic discovered this 1970 direct cinema style documentary on the effects of the Vietnam War on street children in Saigon. The 58-minute film was written, directed and narrated by Michael Rubbo for the National Film Board of Canada.

Rubbo had originally gone to Vietnam to make a film about the work of Foster Parents Plan with Vietnamese war orphans. However, once there, and seeing how widely the war affected Vietnamese children, he entirely rethought his plan.

Rubbo met the children through Dick Hughes, a young American who offered his apartment as a safe haven for street kids. Hughes was part of a group of American student journalists who adopted a New Journalism approach covering the war—a highly personal and involved approach that would influence Rubbo’s own style in making this film. Among the journalists featured is John Steinbeck IV, the son of Noble Prize author John Steinbeck.

Throughout the documentary Rubbo comments on his own actions, expressing his doubts, fears and concerns, reminding the viewer the film is in part a meditation on a city enveloped by war.

From the New York Times:

“Dick Hughes, a student from Boston, runs Shoe Shine House for very young refugees whose normal activities usually include pimping and drug dealing. Steve Erhardt, a former teacher, wanders around disease‐ridden shantytown seeking the truth for an article he is preparing. And John Steinbeck Jr., who served as a soldier in Vietnam, returns to study the teaching and disciplines of a monk dedicated to obtaining peace.

From the street‐smart pitch of a youthful hustler to the burial of a bar girl found dead from opium, the program is drenched in despair about ever getting beyond the superficial, even in our well‐meaning efforts to deal with the Vietnamese.”

Awards for Sad Song of Yellow Skin included a special Canadian Film Award and the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary. It was named best film over 30 minutes at the 1971 Melbourne Film Festival.




New York Times