Misery usually breeds more misery, but in some cases it can show the way to achieving good.
In Elizabeth Van Meter’s affecting debut documentary, “Thao’s Library,” the filmmaker falls into a crippling depression following the death of her younger sister. By chance she learns of another young woman living thousands of miles away whose life-affirming response to her own affliction inspires in Van Meter a sense of purpose.
An extraordinary tale of resilience and serendipity, “Thao’s Library” sometimes resorts to platitudes, but the platitudes in this case are true.
In 1993, at the age of 11, Van Meter’s sister, Vicki, flew her Cessna 172 across the country, becoming the youngest female to do so. The following year she flew a Cessna 210 across the Atlantic. On both flights she was accompanied by an instructor, but she was alone behind the controls. In news footage she appears beaming, elfin and full of life, telling the world that it is possible to attain your dreams.
But then, without going into detail, Van Meter relates in her spare, often poetic voice-over that something dark entered her sister. Vicki died in 2008 at the age of 26; the cause is explored in the film.
Shortly thereafter, the same darkness entered the filmmaker herself.
Her friends were at a loss to help until one of them, Stephen Katz, showed her photos he had taken in Vietnam. (Katz also photographed the film; his sharp eye and sense of mood and composition add to its power.) The images included a young woman, Thanh Thao Huynh, whose body was shrunken and twisted from the lingering effects of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used by the US during the war.
Van Meter was so moved by the photograph that she decided to visit this stranger, who lived 9,000 miles away. When the two met, she learned of Thao’s dream to build a library for the children in her village. It quickly became Van Meter’s dream as well.
The film touches lightly on such topics as Thao’s anger at those whose folly, decades before, had afflicted her life, or Thao’s parents’ recollections of the ostracism and cruelty inflicted on them by the ignorant in their society. But that is apt; this isn’t a film about the darkness of the past, but about building a library and a new life.