Review By: Jared Mobarak
“For an easier path we give up life”
Men like Joe Sciacca are a rare breed. A blue-collar roofer from Long Island, NY, Joe is a Vietnam War veteran who has returned each year for months at a time to facilitate charitable donations by his community and bring smiles to the impoverished and sick he visits. Ordinary Joe tells us he was in Vietnam during the war rather than in it because his experience with the country’s citizens was one of hospitality and friendship. The people he helped as a medic—or in his words, orderly—weren’t trying to kill him every time he turned his back. So while he understands why men who fought wouldn’t want to relive those memories, Joe had spoken to friends about opening up bars on the coast when he was still a nineteen-year old kid in the army for adventure.
Now 62, Joe has found a calling in this home away from home. Looking at his manual labor slog of a life atop roofs, the realization formed that nothing he’s done in America couldn’t be done by a thousand other construction workers. For him, life is waiting for the chance to go across the Pacific and spend time with the disabled and poor he humbly and proudly calls friends. What began with a vacation accompanied by wife Cathy to revisit the land he fell in love with thirty years previous has now become a pilgrimage cycle to make a real difference. A mere one hundred dollars can give a family financial reprieve for almost a month in Vietnam when it would maybe cover one meal out on the town for three people here. It’s the sort of impact that appears astronomical to most, yet Joe remains modest knowing he’ll always get more from their happiness than they do his envelopes of fifty dollar bills.
Director Carlo Gennarelli makes sure this fact comes across with every frame of his documentary. We sense the emotions wrestling inside Joe when decisions to help the less fortunate arrive. He understands the people he visits often see him as a savior with medical knowledge and the ability to heal when he is far from it. Never wanting to harm, the need to walk away sometimes must outweigh the desire to help. When it comes to medicine or even an aspirin, he must take stock of the situation and know that interfering could backfire when generosity overshadows being smart and objective. It’s not an easy thing to say no to someone so obviously in need, but Joe is just an ordinary guy doing his part to touch as many lives as he humanly can. He acknowledges how giving love and time will be a more lasting gift than financial assistance.
Beginning with an introduction to the man we’re about to follow through Vietnam, Ordinary Joe paints Sciacca in a clear light. His frustrations and temper live alongside a huge heart and bottomless wealth of compassion. Scenes like his arrival at Ho Chi Minh City Airport or needing transportation in Ba Don show his headstrong attitude and uncompromising nature. We’re made privy to the kind of exploitation going on by the country’s own citizens and find ourselves aligning to Joe even more as he refuses to back down against stupidity, injustice, or whatever else is thrown his way. I’m sure his story would take on a completely different tone if he had to traverse the nation alone, but having his ‘niece’ Vy and her mother Sister Trang to help him translate and understand where he should go to help and where not is an immeasurable fortune.
The relationship Joe and Vy have is strong and definitely based on a familial bond. After leaving the convent for health reasons, the young woman has found a second calling with her friend and revels in the ability to enact change each year. She has fun mocking her ‘uncle’ to the camera and forever smiles on their journey. The two have made numerous friends and make a point to keep in touch and visit them again each year. It’s actually one such girl, Vinh, who becomes the ultimate end game of the trip. An unfortunate soul who has lived her life with a giant facial/neck tumor, Joe believes he’s let her down after a hospital agreed to send her to America for surgery before canceling plans after he already shared the news. Now unable to get in touch, their path from Saigon through Nha Trang and beyond looks to hopefully complete in Hanoi with a reunion.
Gennarelli’s film isn’t all optimism, though, as the state of the country is in shambles as far as health care goes. Leprosy runs rampant and the handicapped and disabled are often left to suffer from a lack of funds to receive help. We meet a woman afflicted by an ugly bed sore after falling from a mango tree and injuring her spine, contorted and unresponsive men and women imprisoned inside their bodies, and two very young children unable to even smile because of Epidermolysis bullosa. Not even Joe can believe his eyes, knowing deep down that he is utterly helpless. Giving a cookie can’t even begin to come close to the care and treatment he knows they could get and would have gotten years ago back home. His work in Vietnam therefore achieves a bittersweet sheen as he does what he can and learns how to improve his trips’ goals to make a difference.
To Vy, Vinh, and all the nameless men and women he encounters, the moniker ‘ordinary’ could never be enough. Without no affiliation or corporation at his back, Joe Sciacca is able to move freely and do what’s in his heart. If a nun tells him of a new Catholic school or specialized hospital, he has the power to change his plans, visit, and leave a small token to ease their financial struggle. A superhero to each soul he touches, Ordinary Joe shares his wonderful story so others may become inspired to do a little something themselves. So many of those less fortunate than us simply want someone to care and whether Joe shrugs off his impact or not, he is one extraordinary human being.
Ordinary Joe 7/10 | ★ ★ ★