(Refugee) Ghosts from the Past, a(h)mong Us
by Ralph Maffongelli
November 20, 2016
Produced by lead director and writer Safoi Babana-Hampton, co-directed with Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai and Cyril Payen, Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2015), is a sensitive and very heart-warming documentary film chronicling the literal and figurative journey of a Hmong refugee. The son of veterans of the French Indochina War and the American Viet Nam “Secret War” in Laos, Liachoua Naolu Lee travels with his wife and son first to France and then to Laos as he attempts to understand and come to grips with his past, his heritage and his personal history.
Because the trip brings him into contact with other Hmong descendants of those who risked their lives fighting for France and America, the incomplete memories of his childhood become crystallized to such a degree that at the end of the film he feels very much at peace. As Lee meets these strangers, the film beautifully captures the exuberance and genuine affability with which they greet one another. Watching them converse, laugh and hug while sharing the most personal details of their lives the viewer almost forgets that they are not long lost friends or relatives.
Taking its audiences from Lee’s home in Detroit first to Minnesota and then to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Hmong Memory at the Crossroads introduces a variety of academicians, historians, government officials and ordinary citizens. Each in his or her own way explains clearly and concisely the role the Hmong have played in world history and how much countries like America and France are obliged to them. They fully explain why the Hmong have emigrated from Laos to other countries and why these countries owe them a debt of gratitude. A very successful characteristic of the film is that such information is conveyed about the Hmong rather than by them.
Of course these stops along the way are mere appetizers for Lee’s journey to France and his homeland. While visiting his old school, walking through former battlefields and viewing the very river spot where his family crossed, it is in laos that he truly comes to grips with his background.
A review of the film would be incomplete if nothing were said about the expert cinematography of some truly breath-taking scenery or about the haunting musical score which so perfectly sets
the tone. Two metaphors which are employed throughout the piece and which go a long way to underscore the movie’s message are that of water and food. Numerous scenes are set at water’s edge to emphasize the motif of travel, while there are many views of people breaking bread together in the most convivial of manners.
Finally, and of special importance, is that Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, while it does a terrific job telling the story of the Hmong, has universal appeal because ultimately it speaks about migration and immigration in general at a time when such a discussion is totally relevant. Hmong Memory at the Crossroads is a Michigan State University production, in partnership with the Humanities Without Walls Consortium, based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Film official website: http://hmc.cal.msu.edu
Theater Director, Manager and Educator