Sad Song of Yellow Skin, directed by Michael Rubbo, is one of the most enduring films to emerge from the Vietnam War. The film is representative of the then-recent ascendancy of the director’s role at the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada and marks a significant development toward what would become Rubbo’s signature style. It also stands apart from more conventional documentary treatments of the war. In the early 1960s, the NFB was organized
into production units headed by executive producers. The units functioned in varying degrees autocratically, and filmmakers generally were subordinate to producers. In 1964-1965, rebellious filmmakers forced a dismantling of the unit system and the adoption of a ‘‘pool’’ system that gave directors the power often to propose subjects, initiate projects, and choose producers. As a result, a spate of films representing the personal or political interests of the filmmakers emerged in the latter part of the 1960s and continued into subsequent decades. Rubbo entered the National Film Board in
1966 and for several years made sponsored films
as well as children’s films. As the Vietnam War dragged on, he proposed making a film about the war. An overtly antiwar film would not have been permitted at that time, and the NFB had a policy that each of its films had to have ‘‘Canadian content.’’ Rubbo’s proposed film would be centered on the work of a Canadian-sponsored foster parents program in Vietnam. Once in Vietnam, however, he discovered that the program offered meager filmic possibilities. He wired the NFB and got permission from his producer, Tom Daly, to focus on three idealistic young Americans in Saigon who were working against the war and its effects. Rubbo’s change of focus proved pivotal in sev-
eral ways. Sad Song of Yellow Skin became the NFB’s first significant documentary without any Canadian content (with the exception of some NFB films sponsored by the United Nations). By using the three likeable Americans as his guide, Rubbo avoided simplistic anti-Americanism. Most important, the opportunity enabled Rubbo to make a film that did not pretend to project the knowledge he did not have.