By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The short film “With Whom Shall We Live?” by Long Tran combines footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sound bites from Hồ Chí Minh relating to the Vietnam War, along with Vietnamese language oration, to broach the subject of Black and Asian Americans working together to fight racism. The title references a protest sign seen behind King in one of the clips, that reads in Vietnamese, “Men are not our enemies. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?”
“I wanted to base a short film off of this incredibly powerful notion of being anti-war and pro-peace, not only meaning solidarity between people of color in the United States but beyond.”
The last time we spoke to Tran, he was working on his bachelor’s degree and a short film about the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the discrimination that mixed race couples encounter.
Ever responsive to the climate of the world around him, Tran felt a need to create a new film dealing with the current atmosphere of racism and violence in our country.
“I have to talk about the anger I felt this year waking up every day seeing on social media a new case of hate crimes inflicted on people in the Asian American community in 2021.” He wanted to suggest the tie between “the historical context of racism in America to the contemporary moment where Asian people are being assaulted and killed from the anti-Chinese rhetoric…I’m sad that this theme of death in the Vietnamese and Black family is ever present in the contemporary moment. Going back to the Việt Nam War, I frame it as the great contradiction because of Black Americans serving their country while being oppressed in the United States.”
For Tran, the sign lofted during the Vietnam War protest is evidence of past solidarity that he hopes might be achieved again.
“What bothers me…is the anti-Blackness that permeates, and the divisions white supremacy has created between us…I believe many of us would not be here if it wasn’t for efforts of Black Americans bettering our society, advocating for all historically marginalized communities, and protesting the imperial war machine of the United States.”
Tran’s film was one of several selected for this year’s SEAxSEA (Southeast Asian X Seattle) Film Festival, put on by the University of Washington (UW)’s Southeast Asia Center, from May 10 to June 4.
Bunthay Cheam, an organizer and storyteller who partnered with the Center to host the festival’s closing event, spoke to the themes in Tran’s film.
“It’s often forgotten how much intersecting and how much in common the struggle is within different BIPOC communities in history, especially American history, and this film helped weave that together…anti-Asian hate is not something that just started happening but is interlinked with state and institutional violence…part of what the film is trying to say is that people should recognize common cause across ethnic and racial identities and realize that what it lacks in institutional or economic power, it has in…the power of the masses mobilizing together.”
Festival director Adrian Alarilla talked to the Weekly about the importance of running the festival at this time in our troubled history.
“We ran with it as a way not only to promote the Center, but to also reach out to the larger community in Seattle, which has a considerable diasporic Southeast Asian population. It is important for us to share Southeast Asian stories as a way to shed light in a region that is still very much misunderstood by mainstream American culture.”
Cheam added, “Oftentimes, Southeast Asian communities get lost in the mix of racial hierarchies in America…That’s in large part a result of the inaccessibility to the resources these communities need to be able to heal from the harm of trauma of displacement…
Because of this disconnect, the genuine stories of these communities get lost…For me, it’s important that academic spaces like the UW Southeast Asia Center get out of the ivory tower and touch the ground that everyday Southeast Asians live and breathe.”
Offered online and in-person, closing night festivities included music, refreshment, and spoken word poetry. Three of the films were shown, including Tran’s, and a question and answer session followed. All performers hailed from Southeast Asia and proceeds, according to Cheam and a Facebook announcement, went towards the Khmer Anti-Deportation Advocacy Group to “end the school to prison to deportation pipeline and support impacted families and organizations.”
It was a welcome communion after months of separation due to COVID, and things got emotional quickly during the spoken word presentations. Nikki Châu spoke tearfully about helping her mom move out of her nail salon, and of missing Vietnam.
“Someday, that umbilical cord will pull my belly button home.”
Anger and frustration seemed to be the emotions felt by James Santana in the lines, “Don’t tell me that we’re free…We die regardless of if we follow your commands,” which brought to mind not only recent violence but the deaths of people of color drawn into conflicts they did not condone, such as the Vietnam War.
Everyone seemed to feel the need to tell their stories to be more fully understood outside the community and to grow closer to each other as well. JM Wong stated in one of her poems that she was “grateful for the opportunity to redefine what it means to be Southeast Asian.”
“Everyone has a different approach,” Tran said. “There truly needs to be more dialogue, more educating, and less yelling…in regard to racism, we have to talk about it…making your voices heard through protests, art, and education are a few ways that I see productive conversations.”
“With Whom Shall We Live?” ended up winning the SEA x SEA Best Student Film award. Tran completed his master’s in Cinema and Media Studies at UW this year. He wants to apply for postgraduate study in anthropology and we may eventually see some documentary film work coming from him.
“I’m shifting course to a field where I could immerse myself in Vietnamese studies and travel to Việt Nam, the homeland of my parents that I have yet to visit.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.