Sahra Nguyen Talks "Deported", Civil Rights, & The Power of One Voice
When Sahra Nguyen decided to tackle the Cambodian refugee crisis in film form, with a five-part documentary series on NBC Asian America, she was no stranger to the subject: in fact, refugees are what she’s focused on (and fought for) for most of her adult life. Created under the wing of NBC alongside an organization coined the 1Love Movement (which works to tackle deportation), Nguyen came to face-to-face with the crisis with a fresh perspective: one ready for battle. Speaking with dozens of BTS grassroots organizers—the folks who, in essence, are keeping the fight alive—Nguyen traveled around the country and then to Cambodia itself. The result? Five episodes of raw, real, grassroots glory, that simply shouldn’t be missed.
Watch the trailer for “Deported” below (and catch the series here), then keep scrolling for our full interview with Nguyen.
I would love to just start at the beginning—where did you get the inspiration for “Deported”? How did it go from an idea to a fully-formed film?
When I was in high school I was very politically involved because I was a part of a huge organization that took place outside of my high school called the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth. Fast forward to summer 2016, I had been working freelancing and contracting work with NBC News/NBC Asian America for two years now. In 2016, I launched my first documentary series with them called “Self Starters”. It’s the documentary series about Asian American trailblazers and entrepreneurs around the country. I wrapped that in early spring of 2016 and I started thinking about my next project with them and came back around to the issue of deportation because immigration was becoming so hot in the country as a topic. Over the past six months we’ve seen the word refugee and deportation as extremely buzzworthy words. My first series was a very sexy subject—it’s about entrepreneurship, street art fashion, food, and it’s something I knew that was really acceptable to a wide audience whether or not it’s about Asian American, right? It’s about the go-getter, it’s about the hustler. I guess after that I wanted to work on something more important to me, whether it’s sexy or not. Something I felt was so prevalent and needed to be told. Throughout all these years I’m still connected to the grassroots movement so I still see the movement that’s happening in the community even though I’m not as involved anymore. So, I wanted to see where Cambodian deportation is at today because it’s been going on since 2002. Instead of talking about deportation from the victim’s perspectives—that’s been done by popular films like “Cambodian Son”. They are heavily focused on the victim’s perspective and I didn’t want to just tell the same story again, I didn’t want to extract people’s pain and stories just to make a documentary, so instead of focussing on the victim’s perspective I decided to focus on the grassroots organization perspective.
The meat of the film is about 1Love Movement, an organization based in Philadelphia. Over the last six years 1Love Movement has been the main grassroots organization to tackle deportation in the community. I decided to link up with them, I pitched the idea to my producer at NBC news, and she loved it, and from there that’s when I started filming everything. The story is really through the perspective of looking at how a group of people are organizing from a grassroots level to the institutional level, engaging the United Nations, the US Human Rights Network, and also the global level of traveling to Cambodia and meeting with the Cambodian government overseas. On a general layer I did want to raise awareness about the issue but through the lens of grassroots organizers, civil rights leaders, people who were at the forefront of immigration reform. Also, through the lens of Asian American leaders and Asian American social justice workers, right? So that’s how it all came together.
You guys traveled around the U.S. and then to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. What was that experience like? What surprised you or surpassed your expectations?
I’ll briefly describe to you the spaces of people I interacted with, which you’ll see in the film. The first place I traveled to with 1Love Movement was Seattle, Washington where there was a national convening of different Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations and institutions at a national convening called AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) Beyond Bars and Beyond Borders. It was a convening where people were coming together to talk about mass incarcerations, detention, and deportation as it related to the Asian community. In that space it was really great because I was able to tap into these great leaders from around the country in one setting. I also traveled to Philadelphia where 1Love Movement is based out of, and then I filmed a US Human Rights Network convening. In that episode you really get to look at the intersection of social justice work and organizing because then we see the Latino community, the black community, the black immigrant community, and the Caribbean community coming together for this one weekend involving the US Human Rights Network and also the United Nations. Then we traveled to Cambodia with a delegation of different organizations, also with leaders from around the country that were Asian American, Southeast Asian, Latino, and black.
Talking to all these different leaders and grassroots organizers, it just felt like there was so much power in the space and it’s so inspiring, talking to everyone about the strategies people were coming up with to address deportation, the specific campaigns they were working on, talking about how to engage the UN, how to engage the US Human Rights Network, and not just crying about the issues. I was so inspired and it was so empowering and this is the work that happens everyday but we rarely shed the light or lens on because maybe looking at the victim’s story is a little more sensational or maybe no one cares about grassroots organizers, maybe no one cares about civil rights leaders until they’re long gone and become idolized. But it was really cool to talk to all these different people because I know in like 10, 20, 30 years we are going to be talking about these folks the same we talk about Grace Lee Boggs, MLK, and Yuri Kochiyama. We only know those names because they stand out in documented history but in reality there were hundreds and thousands grassroots organizers in those rooms working alongside with them. So I felt it was really special and really historical to be able to capture some of these voices right in the moment of the movement rather than to analyze it 20 years later in a textbook.
Yeah, people seem to be more and more desensitized to the victim story. What’s the most inspiring right now is the action story of people actually trying to change the situation. I think that’s definitely the “new” and what makes this super important.
I’d like to add to what you’re saying because I totally agree with you. I feel like culturally and socially we are changing in America because there has been so much happening over the last 6-12 months between the administrations with Trump. People are becoming galvanized now in a way they haven’t before. Before it was kind of like, if you’re an activist, you’re an activist and if you’re conscious, you’re conscious. But now things are getting so crazy there is no longer a twist, it’s like integrated into our lives and you have to speak out, you have to care, you have to want to do something because you can’t ignore it anymore. Definitely caring or even this culture or image of being involved or outspoken is becoming more common and less marginal.
On that note as an artist, do you feel like there’s an obligation to speak out or use your platform for justice, in our current political climate?
Yes, I do believe that in general there is a social responsibility for everyone in society whether you have a lot of influence, a large platform, or if you don’t I think we all have the social responsibility to do the right thing. To me, as an artist, I don’t feel an obligation to do anything I don’t want to do. I was politically engaged at a very young age so it’s just become who I am. It’s so funny that we are at a time today when people are talking about deportation and refugees so much because when I first conceptualized the series “Deported” back in June 2016, I remember thinking to myself that “Deported” isn’t going to be as sexy as “Self Starters”; it’s about a very niche community and about a very niche topic within the immigration movement. I was like I don’t think anyone is going to watch this and I don’t think it’s going to be that relevant and sexy. But I said, “I don’t care” because for me it’s not about how many eyes gets on it; I wanted to create it so it would exist in the world and whoever needed to watch it, it would serve them. But I really didn’t feel an obligation to tell the sexiest story, I wanted to tell it because it’s been a part of my journey since 2002 and it was really important to me. I don’t believe in obligation but I do believe in social responsibility and I think it’s really funny right now that 8-9 months after I conceptualized this documentary it’s relevant in a mainstream conversation.
You are the daughter of refugees from Vietnam. How does that inform the art that you make, for this project and otherwise? What about as a woman, and as an Asian-American?
When I was younger—meaning preschool, elementary school, middle school, really before I tapped into my consciousness—me being the daughter of refugees or me having immigrant parents was something I wasn’t proud of because I knew it made me different. I grew up in Boston through the public school system my whole life and every little experience as a child brings this idea of race into your consciousness and begins to show you that you’re different, and I felt embarrassed. But of course that’s all changed now and as I got older and began to learn about my family history, refugees in America, began to learn about discrimination, and racism. I always moved towards owning who you are and taking pride, finding confidence in your roots and your family. As I got older I was able to appreciate my parents and I take a lot from them, like their work ethic as immigrants and as refugees, as people who didn’t know the language, and who didn’t have anything. They worked so hard their entire lives and what they were able to accomplish is incredible to me because I’m able to accomplish what I’ve done today but I was born here, I had a full schooling system experience, I went to undergrad, I know English, I know the system and to see what my parents accomplished without any of that is phenomenal. Their experience as refugees is a great source of pride and inspiration for me because if you can escape a war torn country by boat, live in a refugee camp for several years, come to America, not know anything, probably face discrimination, own your own businesses, raise three kids, and have a home now—I have no excuse not to do something worthwhile with my life. Their experience being refugees and immigrants is definitely an inspiration to me.
In regards to film, the reason why I focus on Cambodian deportation opposed to Vietnamese deportation is because the Cambodian community has a higher rate of deportation because of the Repatriation Agreement between the U.S and Cambodia. It’s much more broad and relaxed. So for example, in comparison, Vietnam’s agreement is nine pages long and they have a lot of terms and conditions. The possibility to deport Vietnamese people is much lower, where the U.S. and Cambodian Repatriation Agreement is only three pages long, it’s kind of like a free-for-all where you can deport anybody from any point in time for whatever crime they committed and that’s why they have a high deportation rate and that’s why it was a more pressing issue in the Southeast Asia organizing community and that’s why I decided to focus on it.
What do you hope to evoke in your viewers who watch this documentary?
Broadly speaking, I hope that the documentary will raise awareness and educate people about the issue. I know that immigration and deportation are big conversations but in mainstream issues it’s largely explained as a Latino or Mexican issue, right? And in reality the immigration system affects all immigrants in this country and there are so many more immigrants than just Latino and Mexican immigrants. I want to raise awareness about this issue and I want to educate people. I also hope for all of us people across all communities to feel more connected and to see the similarities in our community struggles and also the goal that we share together in living in a more just society. I hope that we can strengthen relationships across different communities, cultures, and races it would make us all more empowered and effective in terms of working towards change.
Also, one of the things I’m really excited about in this documentary is the ability to present innovative and brilliant leaders who are working on immigration reform and those leaders also happen to be Southeast Asian American. When we talk about immigration or see immigration being spoken of it’s oftentimes men, but in reality in the organizing world the work is predominantly undertaken by women and women of color. As an Asian American myself, as someone who has also dealt with and tried to tackle stereotypes, the stereotypes of Asian Americans being passive, quiet, or foreign and not being outspoken, proud, or empowered—another layer of my goal is to change that perception and portrayal. In this film, you’ll see that Asian Americans are out there protesting, they’re strategizing, they’re brilliant, and their involved in the movement. I hope this film inspires other people who are Asian Americans or non-Asian Americans just to believe in the power of yourself and the power of your voice, and that anything is possible.
So cool. We definitely need all the inspiration we can get right now!
Thank you! It means a lot to me; not a lot of people take interest in these stories.
Featured image courtesy of Sahra Nguyen
Stay tuned to Milk for more creatives of the activist variety.