I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

What if you had grown up never knowing your father because he died when you were three months old? And what if he had been killed during the Vietnam War and no one in your family had talked about him since? These two questions drive Tracy Droz Tragos‘s documentary Be Good, Smile Pretty.

The inspiration for the documentary came to Droz Tragos from reading a story online describing what had happened by a man who had seen her father, Lt. Donald Glenn Droz, die. Her father was 25 when he was killed during an ambush on the Mekong River. His tragic death made his life too painful a memory to talk about for more than 30 years.

She wanted to learn more about him, and began interviewing her immediate family, her father’s family, and other veterans who had served with him. One of those veterans includes current Secretary of State John Kerry.

The process of uncovering the memories is almost as painful as keeping them buried.  Almost everyone she talks with (and probably almost everyone watching, too) breaks down or fights tears. Droz Tragos learns more not only about her father, but also about her father’s death during the war as his Navy classmates and friends share their stories, photos, and recordings.

As much as it is a search for a father, Be Good, Smile Pretty is also about the search for understanding a war that still remains unclear in its intentions and outcomes since it ended almost 40 years ago.

Tracy Droz Tragos is currently working on a documentary titled Rich Hill, about a small Missouri town struggling to keep going after the coal is gone.

I screened this documentary through SundanceNOW’s DocClub. Curated by Thom Powers, January 2014’s offerings focused on women documentary makers.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.