Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thao’s Library: Finding Life’s Purpose Amidst Loss

Thao and Elizabeth Van Meter at Thao's Library

Feeling depressed, given the state of the world/one’s life lately? Track down “Thao’s Library,” an astonishingly uplifting documentary about crawling out of despair and finding purpose in life that’s forever fractured. 

Actress Elizabeth Van Meter was devastated by her younger sister’s death by suicide. Then she saw a photo of a woman in Vietnam whose body was devastated by Agent Orange chemicals used by US military forces in the war, yet was cheerfully operating a homemade library for village children from her wheelchair. The photographer said the Vietnamese woman, Thanh Thao Huynh, had one request: some money for more books. 

Stumbling around New York City in a daze of grief, Van Meter felt drawn to help the disabled woman with her project in Cu Chi, a rural village near Ho Chi Minh City. This low-budget, low-key film tells the story of what happened next.

“ …it’s about building bridges with our friends in Vietnam,” Van Meter wrote in a poignant update on Facebook, “it’s about sharing stories about women made by women, it’s about introducing the world to my soul sister Thao, it’s about the acknowledgement of the ripple effect of war, it’s about love and the healing power of connection, it’s about resilience and forgiveness, it’s about the ability we all have to reach out and be of service to our brothers and sisters of the world with whatever gifts we’ve been given.”

Van Meter raised funds to provide a larger building next to Thao’s family’s farmstead to house a larger library and one-room school. Thao, as shown in the film, struggled to live without use of atrophied legs and found her calling in teaching young children how to read. She encourages those around her with her joy in living each day. 

At a recent showing in the Teaneck International Film Festival, audience members at the Puffin Cultural Forum were greeted by Van Meter, who directed the documentary. Her film is making the rounds of festivals and showings in some theaters. During the Q and A, she talked about feeling that her late sister, Vicki, was with her as she interacted with Thao. Vicki, famous at age 11 for flying an airplane across the US, killed herself at 26. 

“I feel as though the three of us made this film together,” Van Meter said in similar comments to an interviewer with Timeout in Chicago. “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.”

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