Jimmy in Saigon
One can do a lot of living in a short time.
Project type: Documentary Feature
Project status: Post-Production
Director/Producer: Peter McDowell
Producer: Lucia Palmarini
Producer: Peter Schulman
Executive Producer: Dan Savage
Composer: John McDowell
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Jimmy in Saigon explores the mysterious life and death of James Austin McDowell, a Vietnam veteran who died at age 24 in 1972 as a civilian in Saigon. Painting an elegiac portrait, director Peter McDowell uncovers family secrets surrounding Jim’s drug use and sexuality, getting to know his brother who died when Peter was only 5 years old.
Director Peter McDowell was only five when his brother died, and much about Jimmy’s death remained hidden from him. Through over 200 of Jim’s letters, interviews with Jim’s friends and family, and filming of the truth-seeking journey that has led Peter across the United States, Vietnam and France, Jimmy in Saigon is an elegiac work examining grief, family secrets, war, drug use, sexuality, and healing.
Jimmy grew up in Champaign, Illinois, and was drafted in 1970. After serving a tour of duty, Jimmy made the radical decision to move to Saigon even as the war continued. During the year he lived in Saigon – the last year of his life – Jimmy worked as a reporter for the historic english-language newspaper, The Overseas Weekly, and lived with a Vietnamese family, learning Vietnamese, Cantonese, and French. On the night of June 5th, 1972, Jimmy checked in to an American military hospital with a serious infection. He was dead the next morning.
Like most tragedies, Jimmy’s death left scars in the form of silence, although with an added layer of shame and secrecy: after his death, Jimmy’s family received conflicting medical reports, one citing the cause of Jimmy’s death as septicemia, and another citing complications of heroin use. Through filming, Peter has also discovered evidence that Jimmy was leading a life hidden from those closest to him. After more than 40 years of silence, Peter tells Jimmy’s story while discovering his own.
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Meet the Filmmakers
Peter McDowell — Director/Producer
Surrounded by opera as a child and trained as a musician and actor, Peter has always been drawn to melding music and film in his own productions. He produced opera professionally in Chicago from 1999-2006; prior to that, he made two Super 8 short films in the early 1990s that were shown at the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. One of those shorts, I Dream of Dorothy, went on to festivals worldwide. In addition to filmmaking, Peter works as a nonprofit arts manager, which has helped him bridge the creative aspects of filmmaking with the more managerial aspects essential for production. Peter is the recipient of a highly competitive three year DeVos Institute for Arts Management International Fellowship. In 2018, Peter was also the recipient of a City of Chicago Public Arts grant for this film. His curatorial, managerial and fundraising experience have proven essential for this project.
Lucia Palmarini — Producer
Lucia Palmarini is a Chicago and Mexico City based producer, creative consultant and educator who has been working across education, in community and youth media, and independent film for over ten years. Ms. Palmarini strives to connect the bridge between vision and strategy, program and process. Whether producing a film, event, or community initiative, Lucia aims to bring people together to connect, create and to unlock their potential individually and collectively.
Peter Schulman — Producer
Peter Schulman is a filmmaker, artist, and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has worked with various non-profits, including Free Arts Los Angeles and The Children’s Institute. His non-fiction work is driven by curiosity and built on mutual vulnerability with his subjects. Peter also works with sculpture, digital collage, and photography. He is currently shooting his first feature-length non-fiction film, With Ben.
Dan Savage — Executive Producer
Dan Savage is an author, an advice columnist, a podcaster, a pundit, and a public speaker. Savage Love first appeared in The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, in 1991. The column is now syndicated to more than 50 papers across the United States and Canada. Dan has published six books. In 2010 Dan and his husband Terry Miller founded the It Gets Better Project (IGBP), which has gathered thousands of videos from people all over the world offering hope to LGBT kids. In 2012, IGBP was awarded an Emmy. Dan is a regular contributor to This American Life. He has also been a frequent guest on The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and other television programs. Dan’s graphic, pragmatic, and humorous advice has changed the cultural conversation about monogamy, gay rights, religiosity, and politics.
John McDowell — Composer
John McDowell is an in-demand film composer and multi- instrumentalist. He created the soundtrack for the Academy Award winning documentary, Born Into Brothels, which also won Best Musical Score at the Bend Film Festival. His dance scores have been featured at the Brussels Dance Festival, the Holland Festival, and the Berlin- Amsterdam Festival, and he has performed at major venues and festivals including the Montreal Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, and the United Nations. He has written over 100 pieces ranging from solo flute music to dance scores, a requiem, and works for a world music ensemble and orchestra.
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