“Unclaimed,” a new documentary premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival on Tuesday night, tells the story of Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who was shot down over Laos in 1968 and was long presumed dead.
The documentary actually follows fellow Vietnam vet Tom Faunce, who heard about Robertson’s whereabouts while on a humanitarian mission and wants to find him. Faunce does track down someone claiming to be Robertson in a remote village in south-central Vietnam. The man, according to the Toronto Star, was a “wiry 76-year-old” who “trembles with frustration or pounds his forehead when he is unable to remember his birthday or his American children’s names. He is only able to speak Vietnamese.”
According to the documentary, directed by Edmonton filmmaker Michael Jorgensen, Robertson was captured by North Vietnam forces and tortured, but eventually escaped. Rather than return to his wife and children in the U.S., he stayed in Vietnam and married another woman, assuming the name of her deceased husband, Dang Tan Ngoc. An article from the Toronto Star says that in the years since, he has apparently forgotten how to speak English.
The Globe and Mail writes that the man was “prone to weeping and fits of dementia. His memory was in tatters, unable to conjure even a seemingly simple fact like his birthday or the names of his two American children. And when he did remember, the recollections often were wrong or difficult to confirm. The U.S. military, moreover, refused any help or information.”
Whether or not the man is indeed Robertson remains unproved. But, as the Toronto Star puts it, the film “makes a compelling case”:
There is physical proof of Robertson’s birthplace, collected in dramatic fashion onscreen; a tearful meeting in Vietnam with a soldier who was trained by Robertson in 1960 and said he knew him on sight; and a heart-wrenching reunion with his only surviving sister—80-year-old Jean Robertson-Holly—in Edmonton in December 2012 that left the audience at the Toronto screening wiping away tears.
Robertson-Holly was offered a chance to take a DNA test to prove the relationship, but declined, saying she didn’t need to to know the man is her brother, according to the Toronto Star. Jorgensen told the paper that Robertson’s American wife and two children initially offered to participate in DNA testing, but later withdrew the offer.
While speaking to the Globe and Mail about his film and what’s next for the man believed to be Robertson, Jorgensen said, “There’s maybe a bit of a misconception; everybody assumes: ‘Well, obviously, he wants to come back to North America. But at this point he’s happier being back there, taking care of his wife, to whom he feels an incredible amount of loyalty, and their kids.”
Below, the trailer for “Unclaimed.”