13 Oct Q&A WITH DAVID GRABIAS, CO-DIRECTOR OF SENTENCED HOME
LEE ANN KIM: You put an amazing amount of time into your film, documenting the Cambodian men who were deported from the U.S. and following them through to Cambodia. What made you select this particular topic?
DAVID GRABIAS: We first heard that Cambodian Americans were going to be deported back to Cambodia in the summer of 2002 while working on another project in the Khmer community of Lowell, Massachusetts. We were immediately gripped by the breaking story. At that time, the Cambodian American community had just become aware of the United States’ newly signed repatriation agreement with Cambodia, which meant that almost 1,500 Cambodian Americans would be forcibly returned. The deportees’ situation raised fundamental but difficult questions about immigration law, human rights and the cultural identity of immigrants and refugees. We were especially moved to make a film about what we saw as the injustice of deporting refugees who had been raised in America (and who had already served a full sentence for their crimes) back to a country that had tortured and murdered their families.
KIM: Were you familiar with the Patriot Act laws prior to this documentary? How do you feel about the law? It seems unfair that there is no appeal process.
GRABIAS: When we heard about the story, we realized how uninformed we – and most Americans – were about the 1996 immigration law, and the devastating impact it was having right now on individuals and families. We had no idea what the law really meant when it was passed. It does seem very unfair to us that there is no appeal process, and we hope that our film encourages people to reconsider the laws and lobby for change.
KIM: I think any human with an ounce of compassion would feel sympathy for the families affected in your film. Was this an emotional journey for you?
GRABIAS: This was the first time I found myself crying while filming. In fact, the entire crew had tears in their eyes during the goodbye scenes we filmed with two of our subjects. The emotional nature of the experiences definitely affected us, but we tried to use that emotion as inspiration to continue production (despite enormous financial and practical obstacles) and complete the film.
KIM: The main characters gave you extraordinary access to their lives. Interesting as Asians tend to be more private. Was getting that access the most difficult part of making this documentary?
GRABIAS: Our three main subjects were remarkably open with us. We became close to them and their families, especially in the case of Loeun Lun, where his role as a father – and the way his deportation affected his family – became the focus of his story. We spent days (and nights) in their homes, and they often insisted that we share a traditional Cambodian meal with them – an invitation we rarely refused. One of the biggest challenges was trying to get them to express real emotion – one of the only scenes where you can see how angry they are is when Loeun kicks a flowerpot after saying goodbye to his mother. The other big challenge of the film was getting access and permission to film with our subjects while they were in the custody of the U.S. and Cambodian government immigration departments. We were granted permission once to film in a Seattle detention center (with Loeun Lun), and then never given access again to any part of his or Kim Ho’s detention or transport to Cambodia. The reason given was that filming in detention centers or on the aircraft that flew the deportees to Cambodia would create a security risk. In Cambodia, we again got lucky and managed to film once inside their immigration detention prison. But subsequent attempts were denied. No reason was given.
KIM: What was the most gratifying part of making this documentary?
GRABIAS: Showing it to the deportees and their families and seeing how proud they were of the film.
KIM: Do you keep in touch with the deportees?
GRABIAS: We do. We are in touch with Loeun’s wife and family (they still visit him at least once a year) and with Many Uch, who is still in the U.S. awaiting deportation.
KIM: I’m sure you’ve had countless attorneys, law schools, immigration rights groups, and the ACLU working with you on promoting this film, since its topic is so controversial and timely. What is the general reaction to the film? Has any of the reaction surprised you?
We have been surprised that there has been very little negative reaction to the film. It is a controversial subject, but the power of our film’s human story and its portrayal of the emotional lives of three families has outweighed any political critiques for the most part.
KIM: Finally, tell us a little about yourself. What makes you tick? What are you working on next?
GRABIAS: As a documentary filmmaker, it’s a real privilege to be welcomed into the lives of remarkable individuals, and that makes me want to create work that can have a profound effect on those same individuals. I’m currently developing several projects; we’ll see which one makes it to your next festival!
Lee Ann is the founder and former Executive Director of Pacific Arts Movement and the San Diego Asian Film Festival.