“It’s not like I’ve worked out the secret code to finding those things.”
Michael Jorgensen made the comment the other day while talking about his knack for tracking down interesting, off-the-beaten-path subjects, making award-winning documentaries about them and orchestrating the whole process from his country home west of Edmonton.
“The planets just seem to line up at certain times,” he said on the telephone from Alberta, “and all the circumstances are ripe for it to happen.” The focus of the conversation was his latest feature, Unclaimed, which has its world premiere Tuesday at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. But it could just as easily have been about Hunt for the Mad Trapper, his 2009 documentary on the notorious killer Albert Johnson who terrorized the Yukon in the early 1930s and whose grave Jorgensen received permission to exhume for DNA evidence. Or about Battle of the X-Planes, a 2004 Emmy-winner examining the competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build an ultra-high-tech fighter jet. To make it, Jorgensen became “the only filmmaker in history allowed into a U.S. Department of Defense weapons program.”
Whatever the reason – the luck of being Canuck? – the planets appear to have aligned once more for Unclaimed. Shot last year, it follows the quest of U.S. Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce to find and prove the identity of another Vietnam vet, John Hartley Robertson, deemed missing in action since mid-1968 when his helicopter was shot down during a rescue mission in Laos. In the film, Faunce is a haunted, grizzled figure who, after an abused childhood of orphanages and detention centres and 27 months of combat in Vietnam, becomes a born-again Christian to live the credo of “radical love: no one left behind; no one left unloved.” During a humanitarian mission to southeast Asia in 2008, Faunce hears of Robertson and how, though in his early 70s, impoverished and frail, the former Green Beret is very much alive, a father of four, and married to the Vietnamese woman who nursed his wounds as a PoW 40 years earlier.
Faunce, in fact, did eventually locate Robertson in a remote village. Convinced he was no charlatan but the John Hartley Robertson whose name had been etched among the 60,000 dead on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Faunce decided to work to reunite him with whatever surviving kin he had in the United States. The catch? Robertson, now answering to the name Dang Tan Ngoc, no longer spoke English, only Vietnamese. He was prone to weeping and fits of dementia. His memory was in tatters, unable to conjure even a seemingly simple fact like his birthday or the names of his two American children. And when he did remember, the recollections often were wrong or difficult to confirm. The U.S. military, moreover, refused any help or information.
Undaunted, Faunce, at the suggestion of a friend, contacted Jorgensen in early 2011. Would the Canadian be interested in making a documentary about Robertson and the efforts to prove his identity as a way to facilitate a reconnection with his American relatives before he (or they) died?
Jorgensen was reluctant. “The MIA story was pretty unbelievable, pretty grandiose,” he said, “and I was very skeptical.” What did intrigue him, however, was Tom Faunce’s story – the troubled childhood, combat in Vietnam, the drug and alcohol abuse that followed, the Christianity, his selfless determination to “go all the way in helping someone he didn’t even know.” Such a heroic journey, Jorgensen decided, deserved a film and “no matter how the story turned out with John, I knew there was just a great ‘once-upon-a-time’ with Tom.” Indeed, Jorgensen confessed that when he finally did meet Robertson last summer, “he didn’t seem American at all.”
That August, however, Faunce caught a break. While earlier efforts to find any record of Robertson’s parents or his brothers and sisters had proved fruitless, a former military associate of Robertson, knowing he was from Alabama, came across an obituary in a newspaper there of a woman who seemed to be the soldier’s mother. With that Faunce was able to connect with Robertson’s sole surviving sibling, 80-year-old Jean Robertson-Holly, and set up the tearful reunion that’s Unclaimed’s heart-wrenching climax.
After Toronto, the documentary moves to Washington for a highly anticipated screening May 12 at the seventh annual GI Film Festival. Jorgensen acknowledges his film has many unanswered questions: Why didn’t the military contact Robertson’s family since it’s now known reports of his survival were circulating as early as 1982? And if Robertson was known to be alive in Vietnam, “Why did the Americans leave him there for all those years?” Are there other John Hartley Robertsons in Vietnam? (Jorgensen says “a highly placed source” has told him there are and it’s not because the Vietnamese won’t let them go; “it’s like [the U.S. military] doesn’t want them to come home.”) But there’s hope the Washington showcase can build some momentum for answers.
In the meantime, John Hartley Robertson remains in Vietnam. “There’s maybe a bit of a misconception; everybody assumes: ‘Well, obviously, he wants to come back to North America,’” noted Jorgensen. “But at this point he’s happier being back there, taking care of his wife, to whom he feels an incredible amount of loyalty, and their kids.”