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Interview: 'Thao's Library' filmmaker Elizabeth Van Meter

Written by
Michael Smith

Thao’s Library is a poetic, poignant and ultimately cathartic documentary that recently won the Audience Choice Award at Geena Davis’s inaugural Bentonville Film Festival, and it opens across the country on October 16. The film depicts the unlikely friendship between two women: NYC-based actress Elizabeth Van Meter, grieving in the wake of the suicide of her younger sister (famed child aviator Vicki Van Meter), and Thanh Thao Huynh, a Vietnamese woman whose body has been ravaged by exposure to Agent Orange. Van Meter saw a photograph of Thao by chance and learned that this young woman had created a makeshift library for the children in her village. Van Meter reached out to Thao, and the two set out to build a permanent library, the journey of which is documented in Van Meter’s extraordinary first feature.

Most nonfiction films feel like they’re made by people who studied film production and then looked for a subject to make a film about. Your film feels like you made it because your life was tumultuous and it was a way for you to have a creative outlet and deal with your grief.

Absolutely. Everything happened with my sister and then seeing the photograph of Thao, this story kind of happened to me and I had to tell it for my own sanity. I hear what you’re saying: A lot of the documentaries I’ve seen, there’s a subject matter with a journalistic approach and it’s a very different way of making a documentary, but I felt as though I had to do this. I had been working on this in some capacity for about seven years and, after a while, I started to feel like, “Is this just some really expensive therapy that I’ve been working through in my head? Will anyone else understand this story?”

At one point in the narration you ask, “Do I somehow think this will make up for everything with Vicki?” Was it difficult for you to be that emotionally honest?

When I came back from Vietnam the last time, I had a wonderful friend who’s a producer and was producing solo theater pieces. He had seen some of the footage and he asked me to create a solo piece based on the story. But at that point I was like, “No, I can’t do that. I’m committed to making the film happen.” And then I stopped and thought, “This would be an incredible opportunity to find the story of the film that I wanted to tell.” So I created a solo multimedia theater piece that opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. That experience really helped me to get clear on my point of view and where I’m coming from, and some of the narration in the film is taken from the solo piece. That was something I had worked on for about a year. I think that when you’re creating this kind of work, people are going to see through you anyway. The only way out is to go through with honesty. So that was my hope—that I could connect with the audience by being honest.

Disabled people are often presented in movies as objects of pity, but you present Thao in a multifaceted light. She’s obviously a remarkable person and has a great sense of humor. Was the connection between you instant or was it something you had to work toward?

I started communicating with Thao for months prior to the time we got there. We had talked (via e-mail) about my sister and we had talked about each others' lives. She’s an incredibly open person to begin with. I felt like we had some common ground before I showed up, but I had no idea what to expect. She eventually told me she thought I was going to be much older with white hair! But I felt as though we did have a pretty immediate connection. We spent the course of over a year together basically, between the first trip and the second trip and the time in between. You’re truly watching a friendship and a sisterhood develop over time.

The tagline of your movie is "Sometimes you find your sister in the most extraordinary places." This highlights the idea that you found a new sister in Thao, but I'm also wondering if it means you found some closure.

It's twofold. It's absolutely about finding Thao but [also] being able to reconnect with Vicki, my own sister. I feel as though the three of us made this film together. When we experience the loss of a loved one, especially in the way that Vicki chose to go, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It's not necessarily about "closure" but about evolving to a new place. The pain, the loss, it never goes away but my relationship to it evolves. I think creating this piece with her has helped me to find a new level of understanding within myself.

Thao's Library opens locally at the AMC River East on Friday, October 16. You can learn more about the film on its official website.

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