The refugee experience is one that is fundamental to the Asian American experience. In honor of World Refugee Day on Tuesday, June 20, we’re highlighting selected Asian American documentaries from our archives that shed light on the refugee experience. A full list of films about immigrant and refugee lives can be found on our Films for Educators listings. The films are available to rent or buy for educational or institutional use, and are distributed by CAAM.
After escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Ny family became one of thousands of refugees faced with resettlement in the U.S. Their lives unfold through the lens of this stirring video diary. As 18-year-old Sokly Ny (Don Bonus) struggles to graduate from high school, his family is harassed in the housing projects, his eldest brother cannot fill a dead father’s shoes and his youngest brother ends up in a youth prison. Sokly shares these experiences, his personal feelings and his hopes as the year progresses. Ultimately, A.K.A DON BONUS becomes a story of triumph and survival from the perspective of one of America’s newest arrivals.
Like many young Cambodian Americans who arrived in the U.S. as refugees in the ’80s, Loeun Lun, Many Uch and Kim Ho Ma hoped for the best. Little did they know that their destinies, guided by youthful mistakes and the unforeseeable events of 9/11, would bring them full-circle decades later: from birth in Cambodia to an unwilling return. After fleeing the Khmer Rouge and settling in Seattle, each was drawn into gang life, and ultimately jail. According to U.S. immigration law they should have been deported, but Cambodia did not accept deportees at the time of their sentences. However, after September 2001, the U.S. pressured Cambodia into changing its policy. As a result, thousands of individuals were separated from their families and returned to a land that many barely knew. Moreover, Loeun, Many, Kim Ho and many others faced the prospect of paying a double penalty: having already served their original prison sentences and moved on with their lives, they now faced deportation. At the opening of the film, Loeun is married with two young children and has a full-time job. Many seeks redemption for his past by coaching a Little League team in Seattle, while Kim Ho is just days away from being deported. Traveling from the U.S. to Cambodia, directors David Grabias and Nicole Newnham bring to light their heart-breaking stories, and reveal the human cost of an inhumane immigration policy.
In January of 2002, Mee Moua became the first Hmong American to be elected to a statewide political office for the first time in United States history. THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR MEE details Moua’s historic and whirlwind campaign to become Minnesota State Senator while navigating a competitive political field and and mobilizing her immigrant Hmong community to become registered voters and a part of the American political process.
The Hmong people of Laos were our allies in the Vietnam War; with over 200,000 forced to flee and settle in California as refugees. Nearly 40 years later, 10 of their elders were arrested by the FBI, accused of trying to buy arms so they could return to their homeland and overthrow the Lao government. OPERATION POPCORN tells their epic story from the perspective of Locha Thao, the alleged ringleader. When a video is smuggled out of Laos showing that the present-day communist government continues to persecute the Hmong still living there, Locha and the elders in America lobby the UN for aid. They discover that few US politicians care about stragglers from a decades-old conflict. But then a shady arms dealer contacts Locha, offering a way for the Hmong left behind in Laos to defend themselves. Locha believes that the dealer has been sent by the CIA, and falls into a web of deceit and intrigue. Showing how the aftershocks of war reverberate across continents and generations, OPERATION POPCORN is a true-crime tale of how an opportunistic community activist is transformed into an international terrorist.
Life for most young Vietnamese youth in the United States is a “life like dust.” This film goes inside the mind of Ricky Phan, once a gang leader in Southern California and now serving an 11-year sentence for armed robbery. Shot over a three-year period before Ricky’s arrest, BUI DOI… explores his memories of childhood in war-weary Saigon, his days in the U.S. as a “gangster,” and then his life in a state prison. Which is more violent: fleeing from a war-ravaged nation or trying to survive in an alien Western culture?
This Is My Home Now documents the lives of four Montagnard youths whose families have come to American in the past decade from Asia. They live in two worlds—that of their parents and grandparents, who lived in the highlands of Viet Nam but fled from government persecution for their Christian religion and desire for autonomy—and one of constant learning and adaptation to be Americans in North Carolina. The half hour program also explores how Montagnards (a French colonial reference to “mountain people”) allied with U.S. Army Special Forces in the 1960’s and their coming to the safety of America starting in the 1980’s and continuing until recently. The transition is seen through the challenging lives of the families of the four teens, and viewers learn there are more Montagnards in North Carolina than anywhere outside of Asia, an estimated population nearing 20,000. Questions of self-identity, concerns about losing their cultural heritage, the role faith plays in forging ahead on a new life, and the remarkable kindness and support of those who are helping these new Americans to succeed make for a compelling story whose ending is still to be created. *This is My Home Now is distributed by the Greensboro Historical Museum
UPCOMING FILMS TO WATCH ABOUT THE REFUGEE EXPERIENCE
Dalya’s Other Country (premiering June 26 on POV)
Dalya’s Other Country tells the nuanced story of members of a family displaced by the Syrian conflict who are remaking themselves after the parents separate. Effervescent teen Dalya goes to Catholic high school and her mother, Rudayna, enrolls in college as they both walk the line between their Muslim values and the new world in which they find themselves. Co-presented by CAAM on PBS’ POV.
Daze of Justice (coming soon to public media)
Born in Cambodia in 1975 during the bloody regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Mike Siv and his mother barely escaped the infamous “killing fields.” Growing up as a refugee in America, Mike has been haunted by the ghosts of memory ever since. “Our parents don’t want to talk about the past, and the next generation inherits the scars of their silence.” Thirty-five years later, Mike is given the opportunity to film a small group of Cambodian Americans who are civil parties in an historic trial against the Khmer Rouge. Given the opportunity to face the very criminals who forever changed their lives, the survivors are joined by an unexpected guest who happens to be the son of one of their most hated enemies.