The Vietnam War ostensibly ended in the spring of 1975. But the war that claimed some 60,000 American lives still provokes its share of skirmishes, as evinced a few months ago by the reception accorded the world premiere of this documentary at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.
The film, by Edmonton-based Emmy Award-winner Michael Jorgensen, records the efforts of a compassionate Vietnam veteran/born-again Christian, Tom Faunce, to find another Vietnam vet, Green Beret John H. Robertson, who, by some accounts, had been killed in Laos in 1968. Faunce tracks down a man claiming to be Robertson in a remote Vietnamese village, subjects him to a number of tests that seem to prove his identity (in the face of resistance from both the U.S. military and some of Robertson’s immediate family), then arranges Robertson’s return to North America for a reunion with his sole surviving sibling.
Reviewed by The Globe this past April, Unclaimed was described as “part mystery, part forensic examination, part journey to troubled pasts, part redemption song and all heart. Don’t forget the Kleenex.”
The film went on to earn a standing ovation at its Toronto premiere. But within days reports were circulating that “Robertson” was an imposter/con artist, that there was DNA evidence to prove he was a full-blooded Vietnamese and that the filmmakers had been duped. Since then the controversy has ebbed and flowed without any clear resolution. The filmmakers got a boost this summer when the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon prepared reports that said official MIA accounting agencies were “inept, mismanaged, wasteful and dysfunctional” in their efforts to locate the remains or determine the status of some 83,000 MIA combatants from the Second World War as well as the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts.
Director Jorgensen has long insisted his documentary should be seen as Faunce’s story, not Robertson’s. And while it’s true Faunce believes Robertson is not an imposter, the film itself, Jorgensen has noted, takes no stand nor undertakes any independent investigation to prove Robertson’s identity one way or the other. The version going into theatres this weekend is the same as what premiered last April, save for some new end title cards that recognize some developments in the months since. One reads: “On May 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a statement claiming that in 2009, DNA testing between John and two of his siblings proved negative. The Robertson family asserts it never provided DNA samples to the government.” Another says that Robertson’s surviving sibling and family remain “confident” the man they met at the reunion is the real John Hartley Robertson.