WESTMINSTER, Calif. ― Years ago, when Nancy Bui’s daughter came home from school with tears in her eyes, her mother wanted to know what was wrong. As it turns out, her daughter had received an ‘F’ grade on a history paper that Bui had helped her write. Bui was baffled.
“I told her my story about coming to America and the struggles our family faced as a result of the Vietnam War,” she said. “None of it was fabricated, so I had no idea why she received the failing grade.” As a concerned parent, Bui went to the teacher’s office and was told the history she gave her daughter came from her own perspective, and that there were “no references.”
Nancy Bui holds the brochure for the documentary “Vietnamerica” opening May 17 at the Saigon Performing Arts Center, 16149 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, Calif. (Photo: Ngoc Lan/Nguoi Viet)
The teacher added the curriculum she was given offered a different portrayal of Vietnam’s communist leaders than the refugees did. That sparked something in Bui, who vowed to one day change that.
“I am a living witness,” she said. “It became apparent to me that we had to do something to tell our stories so we can have a record of it, from our perspective. If we don’t talk about our story, who will?”
So, that failing grade became the impetus for the creation of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF) in 2004 and its mission to record 500 oral histories of Vietnamese Americans in communities across the U.S.
Bui has used that collection of personal stories to produce “Vietnamerica,” a documentary set to make its debut at the Saigon Performing Arts Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., on May 17. A short film culled from the longer version of the documentary, “Master Hoa’s Requiem” has been screened at several film festivals, including the Dallas International Film Festival and Thin Line Film Fest, held in Denton, Texas.
“These people whose stories we want to tell– they are the victims,” she said. “They have had to suffer during the war and have been forgotten. In history books, people talk about who won what war, but the victims have been overlooked.”
The “500 Oral Histories Project” began in 2008 as collaboration between VAHF and the University of Texas at Austin. Students taking a course in Vietnamese American culture and history were required to record an oral history that would then be used for the archives of the project. In the first two years of the project, they recorded nearly 100 oral histories locally.
Things changed in 2010 when they took their project to the Union of North American Vietnamese Students Associations (uNAVSA) and competed in their annual Collective Philanthropy Project. They won, and in that year, received nearly $60,000 in donations raised by Vietnamese students across the U.S.
That money allowed the organization to take its project nationwide and visit communities beyond Dallas, Houston and Austin, where the foundation is based. As word spread and the project gained momentum, people began to understand the scope and urgency of the project and volunteers began investing their time. Just a year after VAHF received the grant and was able to spread its reach, the mission was finished.
But, VAHF did better than what it had hoped to achieve ― 200 better ― than the original goal of 500 oral histories. Today, that collection is available as a teaching tool for four universities: Rice University, University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University at Lubbock and the University of California, Irvine.
Master Hoa’s Requiem, a short film snippet from the ‘Vietnamerica’ documentary has won several awards and screened at film festivals around the country. (Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Bui)
Thuy Vo Dang, an archivist for the internationally recognized Southeast Asian Archive at the UC Irvine, was one of the volunteers who helped Bui when the project landed in Southern California years ago. Vo Dang said she answered the call for bilingual volunteers on this project and was glad to be a part of it.
“The timing was right, and the community was ready to tell their stories,” said Vo Dang. “We know that oftentimes what happens is history is written by scholars or elite people who are in a position to decide what is important. With oral histories, you can capture ordinary people. I think about my own mom and dad ― working-class people with little education ― and I think, if not for oral histories, they would never have a platform to be heard. It is very democratic way to distribute history.”
Vo Dang, who kept in touch with Bui over the years, went on to help create the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UCI as the program director. With 300 of its own oral histories compiled for academic use, the UCI project signed a memorandum of understanding with the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation and acquired roughly 80 oral histories from VAHF’s Southern California archive.
|Representatives of the Vietnamese Heritage Foundation and the Vietnamese Oral History Project. From left: Long Nguyen, Dung Vu Hoang, Linda Vo, Nancy Bui, Thuy Vo Dang, Thieu Dang. (Photo http://sites.uci.edu/)|
“It was wonderful to have their collection. We absorbed VAHF’s collection as a sub collection of ours and processed the raw videos,” she said. “Without the processing, it will sit in someone’s garage. The whole goal is to make sure it is accessible to use.”
Dang added that because UCI had the institutional infrastructure and technical skills, it had a good platform to share the stories. While some could question the veracity of oral histories since they are often hard to prove, Dang said that is not the key point.
“Oral history is not about accuracy. There might be errors, but that’s not important when capturing these voices,” said Vo Dang. “It’s more about, ‘What did they feel?’ or ‘What were their losses?’ They get a chance to explain. The reasons why. As much as we can, we try to create a space for them to heal.”
May 17 debut
With the upcoming release of the documentary to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Bui said she hopes to remind people of the sacrifices many people had to make to come to America. She and her production assistant, Dung Hoang, have been making the rounds to increase awareness of their documentary and push for sponsors. Hoang said she hasn’t seen the documentary in its entirety but the film short they entered into film festivals captures the essence of the pain many endured.
Nancy Bui poses with the cast and crew of Master Hoa’s Requiem. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Bui)
The foundation leaders met with many filmmakers to get this story told, but without the Hollywood budget, were turned away. Edwards Media, of Austin, liked the message of the project and wanted to help. The firm agreed to make the documentary for a price tag of $350,000. So far, the foundation has been able to raise $200,00 but still owes $150,000.
“We made the decision to forge ahead with this documentary, even though we didn’t have the complete funds because the urgency is there,” Bui said. “Many of the people involved in the oral history are in their 70s and 80s, and we didn’t have time to wait to tell their stories.”
To find out more, visit to www.vietnameseamerican.org .
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