BY COLIN HICKEY
WATERVILLE -- Jazz violinist Billy Bang used music to help him
exercise the demons of his Vietnam War past.
But the two albums he produced on the subject only got him so far. He
needed to take an even bolder step. And that's how he came to return
to Vietnam 40 years after his military experience, film crew in tow.
The result is the movie "Redemption Song," which makes its U.S.
premiere Monday night at the Maine International Film Festival.
Billy Bang will perform a solo concert immediately after the 6:30
screening at Railroad Square Cinema -- the movie also will be shown
at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Railroad Square.
His is one of many films at the festival that revolve around music or
musicians, but for Bang, 61, the power of song did more than lift his
spirits or soothe his soul; music saved his life.
The mental and psychological pain caused by Vietnam, he said,
tormented him for decades, and even today some of the terrible
memories stay with him, such is the indelible mark they left on his psyche.
His violin proved to be his lifeline.
The strings he made sing with every thrust of his bow kept him from
slipping into the abyss and provided him with a livelihood and a community.
And yet Bang still struggled at times.
"It was hard even being an artist," he said from his home in New York
City. "All the frustration and pent-up anger, I think I channeled it
through the music."
Bang said he was 18 or 19 when he went to Vietnam, a kid just out of
high school forced to engage in armed combat against a people he had
"If you don't fire back, you are going to be shot. You have no
choice, no options there," he said, and then he paused and added,
"Well, there is a choice, but I didn't like the other side of that option."
Bang survived, although he sometimes turned to alcohol and drugs to
keep the demons at bay.
"I had been running away from it," he said, "and pretended it didn't
happen, and that made it worse, of course."
Bang stopped running in 2000.
That's when he came out with "Vietnam: The Aftermath," an album that
earned critical acclaim for Bang.
This was Bang fighting back rather than running way, but this time he
relied on his violin, not his rifle.
He followed that musical effort with "Vietnam: Reflections," the
second of what he now calls his trilogy of healing.
"I really never wanted to go back," he said, "but I went back for the
sake of making this film."
The filming took place over six weeks during the winter 2006-07, Bang said.
He played music with Vietnamese musicians across what for him was a
"(The movie) took me back to some of the areas that I actually fought
in," he said. "Of course it was not the same as it was in the '60s,
but it was still Vietnam."
Bang described the experience as an emotional whirlwind: tears of
grief and happiness, and lots of silence, times when his senses were
overwhelmed with odors, sights and feelings of past and present.
At first Bang said he found the movie that resulted unsatisfying. He
thought the filmmaker edited out too many important moments, critical
parts of his return.
But over time, he said, his view changed.
"Ultimately," he said, "I was happy that it was even done. The big
picture overrules the rest."
Bang said the last few years have been the happiest of his life. And
yet the demons of his war experience never go away completely.
Today, he said, the physical demon is his chief foe.
"As much as I got rid of a lot of it and cope better now," he said,
"the physical demon came on me. I've developed lung cancer now from
the Agent Orange."
Bang said he wasn't sure he would be able to make it to the film
festival, such are his physical struggles.
Waterville, though, has become a special place for Bang. He has been
up here twice before to perform, and during those visits he formed
friendships with many of the film festival organizers.
The visits also led him to contemplate a film about his Vietnam past.
"I talked to (film festival programmer) Ken Eisen about this quite
some time ago," Bang said. "He said to me, 'If you ever do a film, we
would love to show it.' So a part of my heart is in Waterville, and
I'm trying to maintain that (relationship), and I think that is the
true reason I'm going up."
Colin Hickey -- 861-9205