Sensationalism and White Savior Complex in Frontline's "Terror in Little Saigon"

Published November 9, 2015 in Episode 29

Editor’s note: A documentary by the title “Terror in Little Saigon” is causing a firestorm of responses. The controversial film aired last Tuesday on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service and was produced by news organizations Frontline and ProPublica. In it, reporter A.C. Thompson pins the murder of five Vietnamese American journalists that happened in the 1980s on an organization he calls “the Front.” The reporter uses the term as shorthand for the National United Front for the Liberation of Việt Nam, or Mặt trận Quốc gia Thống nhất Giải phóng Việt Nam, in Vietnamese.

We sat down with Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Đức Nguyễn, for a Vietnamese perspective. He lives in Little Sài Gòn, in Southern California. Among his films are "Bolinao 52," a documentary about Vietnamese Boat People, and the television documentary STATELESS about Vietnamese refugees stranded in the Philippines. Đức Nguyễn is On the Record with Loa’s Giang Nguyễn.

Giang Nguyễn: Hi Đức, thank you so much for joining me on Loa today!

I’m really interested in your perspective because as a documentary filmmaker, I know you look at movies and documentaries with a different set of eyes than maybe the rest of us. You might notice angles, editing, and storylines that the average viewers absorbs, but doesn’t necessarily recognize as such. What did you make of the title: “Terror in Little Saigon” and also its tagline: “An old war comes to a new country”?

Đức Nguyễn: You know, one of the most important aspects of the film or the presentation of the film is the name of the film. The name of the film tells the audience what the film is about and the intention of the film or the objective of the film. So first of all, terror is a buzzword. It’s a taboo word in our society, today. And you have the name “Terror in Little Saigon”, to me, it felt like it has intentionally sensationalized the topic a little bit, as a tactic to bring people in. So, “An old war comes to a new country,” I think, is a clever way to kind of portray the Vietnamese American community because that is the narrative that has alway been used toward the Vietnamese community, is that we are people who continue to engage in war activities, that sort of thing. So to me that is problematic when I read it. When I saw the name of the film, I realized that it is a reinforcement of a negative imaging towards the Vietnamese American community.

And you know, the typical movie script or movie narrative is that you have an antagonist and you have a protagonist. In this case, the protagonist was portrayed as a monster who terrorized these weakling victims and the antagonist is someone who comes in and resolves the terror by doing good deeds.

Giang Nguyễn: You wrote a very forceful note about that, it’s titled “Response to Frontline’s ‘Terror in Little Saigon’”.  What are your thoughts on how the reporter laid out his narrative, particularly the allegations made in the film claiming that the Front, or Mặt Trận was responsible for the killings?

Đức Nguyễn: As a documentarian, the most common way is that you have a pre-written narrative and what you do is you want to go find soundbites and visual images that fit for that narrative or align with that narrative. I felt that a lot of the scenes were constructed in a way so it will fit within the narrative that Thompson wanted to say. I found a lot of problematic issues with the documentary because as a documentarian, you want to listen before you want to speak. You want to get the story from the subject. You want to hear what they have to say and deliver their story through storytelling. However, I feel this documentary, the story is coming from A.C. Thompson. Because if you pay attention, he appears in most of the film and his voice is the main narrative throughout the film. It’s the arc of the film. The audience is following his inner thoughts and beliefs without having the opportunity to understand or to learn more about the subjects that he interacts with. In most of the interviews, he just wants them to answer the questions he wants to hear, instead of learning about these people. Most of these people, after watching the documentary, we don’t even know who these people are. We just associate them with the protagonist. So to me this is problematic in terms of investigative journalism, which Thompson calls himself. I think that in terms of being fair and being objective, he violated that ethos.

Giang Nguyễn: In your note, you also mentioned another documentary, Last Days in Vietnam. It’s a documentary directed by Rory Kennedy about the last 48 hours leading to the Fall of Sài Gòn. What parallels are you seeing in these two films?

Đức Nguyễn: Well, I see similar narratives. I see similar characterizations. I see similar arc of the film. Both films have these Caucasian protagonists who’s trying to help the helpless Vietnamese. And again, Vietnamese are portrayed as victims who do not have any kind of power on their own, and then in both films, the antagonists are dead guys. So these guys can’t stand up for themselves. In the end, the protagonists are feeling sorry, feeling guilty and apologize for what they’ve done or what they didn’t do, that sort of thing. It’s a very similar cookie cutter type of presentation of Việt Nam and the Việt Nam war, Vietnamese Americans or Vietnamese. And I felt that this is the typical approach for a media company. I have a problem with that because WGBH is the public station that produced these two films, and are supposed to present diverse voices. That’s the mandate of PBS, it's that they have to present diverse voices. And I don’t see the diversity in this.

Giang Nguyễn: The problem I had with this piece,  especially for me as a journalist and as a Vietnamese, is that it lacks nuance. It’s helicopter journalism. You know the kind of stories done by a Western journalist looking at a very complex story in the Vietnamese community. And in doing so, he’s perpetuating this kind of portrayal of the Vietnamese people as either poor refugees that need saving or anti-communist radicals that are stuck in the past. Thompson, for example, in his story refers to veterans’ assemblies as quote ‘surreal’. And it’s not just Thompson who’s pushing this distorted representation of our community. He also brings in another journalist voice who is also not Vietnamese, Claudia Kolker, a former LA Times reporter. I wanted to play you a clip from that moment.

CLAUDIA KOLKER: “[H]ere in Houston, the top of a restaurant, people would put on their tan and brown shirts and they would meet, and they would even do some kinds of military exercises in hopes that they could take back Việt Nam.

For them, the war did not end. They would call themselves freedom fighters. They didn’t see themselves as charging in to— to bring down a legitimate government. They were continuing a war that they had been dislodged from but still believed in.”

Giang Nguyễn: What was your reaction when you heard this from Ms. Kolker?

Đức Nguyễn: Well this is something not so new you know, because in film school or in university we learn about film theories and we learn about symbols and things like that in film. And this is the same treatment that Hollywood, when Hollywood make Việt Nam war film. They treat Vietnamese as the other, you know. Like any other minority group, there’s a sense of “other”. Just like cowboys and Indians. Indians are always the other. They never associate the other group as the same or equal as the dominant group. And not only that particular scene, but when Thompson was interviewed by a radio program here locally in Los Angeles called Press Play, the host did use the word “absurd” when she mentions that there are Vietnamese American men, dressed in military garb and march. And to them, it felt like this is something that is abnormal and maybe look crazy to them. And I think that’s a sign of disrespect and sort of  looking down on the Vietnamese American communities, because their lack of understanding our cultures and our history. Again, that's very problematic in terms of presentation, fair presentation, I mean.

Giang Nguyễn: Yeah it felt very dismissive to me because you would never say this kind of thing about an American veterans military parade or celebration.

We get to the end of this documentary after one hour, and A.C. Thompson then has this to say to the victim’s son. I’m going to play you that clip:

A.C. THOMPSON: “My profession, the English language media, failed your father. We didn’t cover the story the way we should have, and that bothers me that people didn’t focus on him the way they should have.”

So he says, “the English language media failed the victim’s father.” Taken the documentary as a whole, the facts that were presented, the voices and how they were presented, did this Frontline piece, in your mind, do the victims justice? Did “Terror in Little Saigon” do our community a service?

Đức Nguyễn: Absolutely not, because there is a lot of misinformations and lot of misrepresentations in term of portraying Vietnamese Americans and the basis of the film really doesn’t amount to much. And for Thompson to say that “the Front” is the culprit, “the Front” is the one that commit the crime, it just prove that with someone who has the power of having a voice, the power of being able to speak out about something, I think he abused the power. Now, the point that I wanted to make is that, you know the revolving theme in this film, again is revolving around silence. And I think that's the biggest crime in this document and this story period. I think we as a community play a part in that crime, because by remaining silent we allow other people to come in and create images for us. By remaining silent we’re perpetuating, we allow injustice to continue. By remaining silent, we allow crimes to happen. So I think there is a lesson to be learn here, and the lesson is that we have to raise our voices when we feel that there is injustice done toward us. And I think that's the point that I want to make here, what I can do is to raise my voice to say that you know if I don’t feel something that is fair, that is negative toward me, I have the right to raise my voice and I have the right to speak out about it.

Giang Nguyễn: I’m really glad you talked about that. I think as you said, for you as a filmmaker you understand the weight and importance of imagery very well. But for all of us, what can we do as Vietnamese to make sure that we’re portrayed accurately, with dignity and aren’t continually dismissed as lawless warmongers who want to reclaim the old days of glory? What can we do?

Đức Nguyễn: I think what we can do, first of all, is recognize the importance of media and presentation in America, cause we live in society with multi-ethnic, multi-cultures so we have to define our own identity by investing in media creations. You know I hear so many young people say that their parents won’t let them do art and music or become an artist just because they want their kids to be doctors and engineers and different occupations that provide comfort.

I think importantly we have to think seriously about image. What is image? I mean driving Mercedes, wearing nice clothes, [that] doesn’t embody an image that we need to have in order to grow and to be strong in a society like this. The image has to be done through storytelling to preserving our culture, to preserving our story and our history and let people know about who we are: through media, through storytelling, through arts. I think that's the key for our community; we need to invest in this type of culture. Without that, I don’t think that we’re gonna be able to have any kind of say in this society.

Giang Nguyễn: And before we conclude, do you have any last words?

Đức Nguyễn: I want to acknowledge that I feel for the victims and I do want to bring justice to their loss. I’m not condemning A.C. Thompson in terms of doing this project and actually admire him, for him to take on this project, but I’m just requesting that storytellers or mediamakers or documentary journalists, in general, to be more culturally sensitive. And you know, learning more about other people instead of just following the formula, the media formula, that is set by mainstream media. I just feel that as a Vietnamese American, I feel that I need to stand up and protect my own image instead of continuing to have people paint me the way I don’t want to be seen.

Giang Nguyễn: Thank you very much, Đức for this conversation.

Đức Nguyễn: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.