First Timers Only: An Interview with Tony Nguyen

Recently turned filmmaker, Tony Nguyen, talks about his debut full-length feature, Enforcing the Silence, and his connection with the Vietnamese-American community of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  This is a full transcript of the interview intended for an upcoming ACV Cinevue blog article.

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h!: I know you have tons of side-projects. Didn’t you also do a short called The Mayor of Chinatown?

TN: I actually did that for a local non-profit here.  It hasn’t even been a year.  I basically started the Enforcing the Silence almost three years ago in December 2008.  Because it was such a big project, ambitious, and such a complicated story, there were times between the years where I just had other opportunities.  I cut that short for Asian Health Services, which was a tribute video for their annual dinner.

In the meantime, also, I’ve been working on another film, too, that’s also a short about a mother.  A short about my refugee mother, and her last day of work at an ironing board factory.  So, basically, that’s my next film.  I originally had a 15 minute cut, but I’m working with some other folks to bring It to a 26 minute cut.  So , that’s my next project right now.

h!: Where did you get the idea to do a documentary about Lam Duong?

TN: I’ve been active in the Vietnamese- American community for quite some time.  Through the years of working with the community, I’ve just overheard these stories about these murders.  I heard them in the context of older Vietnamese-Americans, or my peers saying, “Oh, you have to be careful about what you say and do in the community, because folks have killed for saying or doing things that have been perceived to be pro-communist, or too left.”  I heard this over and over, and because I was hearing it all the time, I became really curious – what are people referring to?  It seemed like it was becoming this fear of what had happened, it was creating a barrier to accomplishing progressive community work in the Vietnamese-American community space.

Around 2004 or 2005, I really started to try t understand what happened in the past, and started asking older folks, elders, and began looking into the subject.  At the time, not that many people talked about it openly with me.  I think a lot of people didn’t actually know too much about it, specifically the names of persons involved, their ages, the states in which they were killed, etc.  It was more like, these murders happened in the community, and it took on this boogeyman- type dynamic.  Fortunately, doing just research, I was able to come across articles that were written after some of these cases where people were killed.  That’s how I learned about Lam.

My background’s in youth work, not just in the Vietnamese community, but also in the APIA community.  I had worked with and partnered with the Vietnamese Youth Development Center in San Francisco.  At the time in 2005, I didn’t know what Lam had founded the youth center, until I read these articles that came out after he was killed.  And I was surprised because I’ve known about this outfit for many years, and never knew that it was founded by this Left, kind of young Vietnamese man, who would go down in history as the first to be reportedly assassinated really, for his political views. After I heard about him, I was digging around, and looking for more articles, I learned that he was the first of several Vietnamese-Americans, most of them journalists to be murdered between 1981 and 1990.

What stood out for me was that there was an anti-Communist group which claimed credit for the majority of the killings, in at least four of the journalists who were killed.  They claimed responsibility, through communiqués that they sent to the press, mostly Vietnamese-language press.  For example, in Lam’s case, the Associated Press in New York City received a communiqué, postmarked the day that Lam was killed.

I just felt that people should know about this.  I don’t have a background in filmmaking, at all.  The idea to make a film on this subject didn’t really come to mind until 2008.  At the time, I wasn’t just going to make a film about Lam.  Actually, I wanted to make a film about all the victims, because all their stories are really kind of fascinating to me.  A lot of them weren’t like Lam necessarily.  They weren’t left or progressive.  Some of the victims were really anti-communist, but they didn’t believe in the extremist tactics that certain organizations in the  community  were taking to hold up their anti-communist causes.

The other interesting point for me was that all these cases are still unsolved. I had a sabbatical coming up from my work, and I took that time to begin research to try to make a film.

h!: Was it difficult for you to find someone to interview for this documentary?

TN: When I started the documentary project almost three years ago, not only was I very ambitious, but was also very naïve, not in terms of how these issues are still very alive in the community, because they are, or the fear of being attacked by others for saying or doing anything that can be seen as being pro-communist.  Those things and feelings still do exist to this day.  I was naive because I thought that what happened to Lam, and also these other victims, regardless of where you stood politically along the spectrum, what happened to him can happen to anybody. You can disagree and protest, but no one deserves to be killed.

AT the time,  I was naïve, because I assumed people who knew Lam family, those who worked with him, and those familiar with the issues of the case, specifically Lam’s case, Lam’s story – they’ll want to talk.  What happened was an injustice, and it’s been such a long time, that people might just be itching to talk.  The reality that I discovered was that – some people that actually were close to Lam were gung-ho to talk at the beginning.  Some folks even contributed funds toward my project.  However, after they thought about it for a little bit, checked-in with family, or maybe considered how stressful it would be, it became kind of hard.  For example, one person who claimed that Lam was his idol, and expressed being open to being interviewed anytime, anyplace… a month would go by, and I would try to reach out to this person, no response.  Two months would go by.  Three months would go by.  Months and months would go by and I would just have to persist.

There were some folks where it worked, and with others, it didn’t.  There was an FBI agent who was in charge, not only with Lam’s case, but also of the investigation behind the group who claimed responsibility for the murders, VOTERN (Vietnamese Organization To Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation.  Initially, she refused to talk to me, and it basically took me a year to land an interview with this FBI agent.  She had to check in with her lawyers; it was a complicated process.

Also, with Lam’s family.  A couple of his siblings didn’t want to be interviewed, because they have kids, and they didn’t want that sort of attention.  One of his siblings was initially interested in being interviewed, but on the day of the interview said they could no longer do it because it was too stressful, and the family doesn’t want them to talk about anything political, and so forth.

I just assumed people would want to talk,  I was wrong.  I am glad some people did talk.  But that was probably one of my biggest lessons in terms of making this first film for me – how important access to individuals is who are critical to a story, especially to a film such as this.

h!: It’s clearly a very charged issue in the Vietnamese-American community.  What did you discover in bringing up Lam’s case to the community-at-large?

TN: There are very different aspects to the Vietnamese-American community, and attitudes differ based on the geographies, background, generation, and all those other different dynamics.  My general gauge of this particular issue, the red-baiting of the murders that happened, which may have been assassinations because of the anti-communist groups claimed responsibility for them…nothing’s been solved, so nothing’s conclusive.  My general gauge is that it’s a mixed reception, specifically for a film like mine.  A certain segment of the Vietnamese American community, especially younger folks, college-age, high school age – my sense is that they’re like, “oh wow, I never heard about this.”  SO they’re intrigued.  It sparks an interest for them, to learn more about the issues, so that’s kind of cool.

The mixed thing is that some folks, from feedback and such…  The general question that I get a lot from the press and the people who see the film,  every time I’ve been interviewed, or after a screening is, “Are you afraid  Are you scared?”  There’s still that sense, because I’m approaching this topic, “it’s a taboo topic that’s politically charged.  Are you putting your life in danger?”  Some Vietnamese-Americans seem concerned that I’m putting myself in harm’s way.  But there are also others who don’t agree with the film.  They think that I don’t do justice to the anti-communist identity to the Vietnamese-American community.  Or those who have a strong anti-communist identity in the community,  so there have been critiques where it’s said the film doesn’t give a fair shake to explain why Vietnamese-Americans are anti-communist, or how it became anti-communist.  I think I also try to make it clear that no one is charged for these killings.  The reality is that this anti-Communist group went on to become a terrorist group according to the United States government.

I did point my finger to an above-ground group.  I tried to reach the highest level of their leadership for comment, and I wasn’t able to reach them.   Some groups aren’t even around. There was also a group that was really active in the 80s.  There were allegations that they were formally supported by the United States government, and their whole mission was to try to reclaim the country of Vietnam, and overthrow the government over there.  That group became known as the Front.  The Front was tied to these murders by federal law enforcement and local detectives and such.   No one can prove it, but [in the film] we can allude to it.

h!: Was working with law enforcement difficult, when you are critical of the criminal justice system?

TN: When I reached out to the FBI – one of the other main characters in the films was a San Jose Police Detective.  He was a U.S. Marshall, which meant that he had access to my federal jurisdiction.  I have this critical position toward law enforcement, the criminal justice system.  Meeting the woman who was in charge f this case file around these killings, my views around law enforcement have become a little more nuanced.  However, I feel that if they had taken these cases more seriously from the beginning, who knows?  IF the FBI and the local police really considered the political dimension of what happened to Lam, or when responsibility was claimed, and people took that seriously, then the likelihood of some of these other things happening, evidence might have been less decayed.  Not saying that these incidents wouldn’t have happened, but if it was taken seriously, it may have set the precedent to investigate these other killings.

In a way, how the FBI and local police treated some of these killings, especially in the early 80s, reflected the political and social climate at the time.  When Lam was killed in the early 80s, it was during the Reagan administration, which as very anti-communist, and the Cold War was still ongoing.  So when Lam was killed, there wasn’t much of an outcry, or the community trying to figure out who was responsible for the murder.  He was a Lefty, it must have been like, “One less Lefty!” And I’m sure it was also a reflection of Lam being a person of color from the Tenderloin neighborhood, and there were all these stereotypes playing into it as well.  I can say that confidently, that those things were playing out.

At the time, among the Vietnamese-American community, there wasn’t a lot of outcry, either. A lot of the refugees were anti-communist. In the rumor mill, it was that Lam was a communist.  That he was an agent of the communist regime, which was never actually proven.  So there are these allegations that continue onto today. Red baiting is ludicrous – those kinds of dynamics still exist today.

h!: How do you want Enforcing the Silence to be received by the Vietnamese-American community, and the community at large?

TN: For the Vietnamese-American community, the goal of my film is to try to tell a story about Lam.  Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, what happened to him – he didn’t deserve to be murdered.  If he was killed for political reasons, that’s wrong.  Ideally, I would love for the community to start talking about this.  It’s time for the Vietnamese-American community to start talking about these issues.  If Lam’s murder and these other killings were really political assassinations, that are tied to the war, then I think it’s time for us as a community, whether it’s older folks or younger folks, to unpack what war does to its people.  Even years after the war ended in 1975, people still talk about what happened during the war; the refugees who fled from war, a second wave of victims ;  and those who struggled to come to this country, and then lose their lives because of these ideological roles playing out.  The third wave of victims are created.

At the end of the day, Lam’s family probably lost a lot during the war and coming here as refugees.  Then to lose a loved one here is just sad.  I hope people can learn about this person, this story.  But also learn about the ways war affects not only its immediate victims, but generations of folks.

For the general population, I want people to understand the long-term costs of war.  I hope that comes across in the film.  In the film, the fingers might be pointed at these anti-communist segments of folks in the Vietnamese-American community, but I hope that it also reads that eh United States government was also a major player in supporting this sort of ideology.  Perhaps not only supporting, but creating and solidifying this belief system which has been, in my view, has been detrimental.

h!: Next steps?

TN: I’m hoping to do the college circuit and doing community screenings, too.  One of the benefits from the LA screening was the on the following day,  a group of us, over 10 Vietnamese-Americans had a post-screening dialogue session.  For several hours, we just talked about the films, and the issues it explores.  We also personalized it, and talked about how it has affected us.  To be able to do that really made me happy, and is why this film was made.  This is how this film can help people understand.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to explore it.

Even with the screening in LA, I was able to garner some media attention. And shining some light on Lam, with the LA Times doing a story, was really great.  I’m also planning the San Francisco premier for the 30th Anniversary of when Lam was murdered.  So that will be mid-summer, and will be a special screening, too, because I’m actually partnering with the organization Lam founded, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center in the Tenderloin, to host the premier.  There’s a whole generation of staff and youth who use the center, work at the center, and don’t know anything about Lam.

It’s my first film, and I stand behind it.

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