PUBLIC TALK BY GUEST SPEAKER
Dr. Panivong Norindr
University of Southern California
Monday, February 15, 2016, 4:00pm
Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center Auditorium
Michigan State University
The College of Arts and Letters Department of Romance and Classical Studies
Michigan State University
Co-sponsors: The UIUC Humanities Without Walls Consortium, the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, the MSU College of Arts and Letters, the MSU Department of English, the MSU Asian Studies Center, the MSU Asian Pacific American Studies Program, the MSU Global Studies Program.
“Hmong Memory at the Crossroads: A Critical Response”
I wanted to thank, very warmly, Professor Safoi Babana-Hampton, for having invited me to discuss with you, the documentary feature, Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, that many of you have worked very hard to bring to completion, and for the opportunity to exchange ideas with new and old friends and colleagues, from different periods of my professional life—from my graduate school days, with Professor Ehsan Ahmed, and Professor Jyostna Singh, with whom I spent a delightful summer at the School of Criticism and Theory, studying with the much regretted Edward Said.
Lastly, I most welcome the opportunity to meet and engage the protagonists of the movie, with us tonight, as well as members of the Hmong and Lao communities in Michigan, who are cordially invited to respond to this documentary.
I want to make clear that I do not speak not as an expert on Hmong culture, but as an interested film scholar who teaches courses on French and Francophone cinema as well as Southeast cinemas, and who also happened to be of Lao descent, a fact that was unknown to Safoi when she first contacted me almost two years ago. This biographical detail certainly inflected my enthusiastic response to the documentary feature. Safoi suggested that I reveal a few more biographical details about myself. So I will oblige in a few words. I first came to the United States in 1972, when my father became the Laotian envoy to the United States, during the waning year of the Vietnam War when President Richard Nixon was still in office. I remained in Washington D.C. for two years. I returned to the U.S. in 1977, under very different circumstances, as a political asylum seeker, who was in fact denied asylum because I came via France on a tourist visa, and could return there. Thanks to the support of my High School English teacher, and the community in Southampton, N. Y., who regarded me as a promising “model minority,” and the introduction of a private relief bill introduced by Senator Matthias, a moderate Republican, an affiliation that unfortunately no longer exists today in our polarized political landscape, I was able to remain in the United States and continue my studies, first at SUNY-Stony Brook for my undergraduate studies, and then at Princeton University, for my doctorate. I have devoted my professional life as an educator. I joke with my students that I have never left college and intend to remain on the job until I can no longer educate or train students.
I must confess that as part of the Lao ethnic majority in Laos, I find myself in the not-so-enviable position of being from the dominant group, an unexpected position that I find disconcerting at best since, as a postcolonial scholar, I have devoted my professional life to the critique of dominant discourses and oppressive forms of thought. I also thank Safoi for giving me a wide latitude in my response, which will enable me to touch upon very succinctly such questions as the French colonial presence in Southeast Asia, the Indochina and Vietnam Wars, the memory of the Vietnam War, the refugee experience, immigration and exile of the displaced Hmong population. In the time allotted, I can only address a few of these larger issues. I have organized my response around three broadly defined topics that I hope will serve as a platform and/or catalyst for a productive discussion with the audience.
1. The Documentary Feature Film: Between History and Memory
A number of studies have already been devoted to this complex film genre. Many critics from Bill Nichols, Michael Renov, and more recently Peter Bloom, author of The French Colonial Documentary, have written compellingly about the various “forms” and defining characteristics of the documentary. For those particularly interested in this particular aspect of film theory and film genre, I will simply refer to their excellent work (Michael Renov, Ed. Theorizing Documentary. New York: Routledge, 1993. Bill Nichols. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
For today, I want to focus on two important quotes that appear quite early in the documentary. They echo the voice-over narrated by Cédric Naolu Lee and inform the story of the members of the Lee family. The first quote is by German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin: “It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” The second quote is by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur: “We tell stories because, ultimately, human lives need and deserve to be told. This remark acquires its full force when we bring up the necessity of saving the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering…. calls for narrative” (the first quote bears a striking resemblance to the inscription on Walter Benjamin’s Portbou memorial, on the Spanish-French border. It marks the site where Benjamin took his own life in 1940, in his desperate attempt to cross to safety, a modified citation drawn from Benjamins’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”). For me, these two quotes capture the very essence of the work that this feature documentary is doing, in important ways and quite memorably.
Hmong Memory at the Crossroads is a complex narrative about the “nameless,” the “defeated,” and the “lost,” whose stories have rarely been told and remembered, and all too often relegated to the dustbin of history. In this documentary, the nameless have a name, Liachoua Naolu Lee, and also designate his forebears and extended family. They stand in for many other Hmong families, like the Herr family or more appropriately here, the Cheng family, who also crossed the Mekong River in an attempt to find refuge in Thailand. Their complicated story of migration to safer shores (before their resettlement in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota or California) unfolds against the backdrop of the Indochina and Vietnam Wars as experienced and recounted by many individuals whose muted or strained voices, or the silence of the dead, are finally heard across continents and temporal divides.
The documentary draws from a large archive of sources and materials, shards of history that give substance to their stories and experiences—like the rarely seen CIA film footage, family photographs, maps, war memorials, official army citations, royal ordinances and commendations, that must find their proper place as valid documents in the writing of history. The haunting score composed by Marjam Helms accompanies and punctuates these testimonials to highlight the emotive force of sorrow or hope of the event captured on film. Image and sound work together to provide a coherent narrative of the story of individuals who are no longer object of the spectator’s gaze but have become historical subjects, agent of their own destiny. The story of the Lee family’s flight from Laos to Thailand, France, and finally the United States, is both singular and exemplary, as well as part
of a larger collective history of the Hmong who fought over three decades, the Pathet Lao, the Vietminh, and the Vietcong, during the Indochina War and the not-so secret Secret War, and resettled throughout the world. In that process, the Hmong in America, Australia, Canada, France, French Guyana, have acquired a
new identity that is no longer defined by the “savage,” “Meo” or “montagnard” labels that have historically been assigned by the Lao, the French and the Americans. They are charting a new course for themselves, looking ahead toward the future and not merely looking back nostalgically at the past. They are the new generation of Hmong-American entrepreneurs, videographers and artists who will challenge old ways of seeing and being.
Although the Indochina and Vietnam Wars shaped and transformed the life of these Hmong men and women, and their descendants, their experiences, hardships and sufferings resonate with the experiences and journeys of millions of displaced individuals throughout the world, from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, who see refuge in the West, as the current refugee crisis in Germany, Greece, Hungary, Sweden, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey illustrate quite movingly today. Those who seek refuge in a more hospitable land often encounter the wrath of the native inhabitants, the nationalists of all colors and creeds who believe that erecting walls will deter further migration and stem the flow of economic and political refugees. I know that Hmong at the Crossroads will appeal to a wide audience of specialists and amateurs alike, scholars in such diverse fields as American Studies, Ethnic Studies, refugee studies and a popular audience that should be concerned by the plight and predicament of their fellow men and women.
As a researcher, I am grateful that the documentary enlightened me and forced me to soften my stance on the Indochina War. It reshaped my understanding of the war, enabling me to see the human face behind the abstract numbers found in the charts of the number of dead and wounded, gleaned in military archives in Fontainebleau and elsewhere. These figures reduced to cold statistical numbers hide the story of real individuals whose testimonials may inflect our scholarly knowledge of the French Indochina and American Vietnam Wars.
The Hmong contributions to the war effort have taken a long time to be recognized by both the French state and the United States government. This belated recognition deserves to be scrutinized more closely (“France Pays Late Homage to its Dead in Indochina” appeared in the New York Times in its coverage of the Memorial to Indochinese Wars, inaugurated on Dec. 19, 1996).
2. War Memorials, Memories, and History
One of the most moving details in the documentary was the revelation that the French had to buy the remains of their fellow soldiers who had died on the battlefield from the Vietnamese government. In order to repatriate their mortal remains, they had to buy the “bones” of the war dead by the kilogram, just like any other merchandise or commodity. It is a stark reminder of the vexed economic and political relations that link an impoverished emerging nation like Vietnam and a first-world industrialized nation like France (or the United States of America). But the viewer’s initial shock regarding the commodification of the war dead should quickly give way to the realization that wars are an even better business for many multinational corporations that profit from conflicts around the world, what theorists have dubbed the military-industrial complex. War memorials like the one that was built in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (or Frejus in France) serve an important pedagogical function, as a reminder for subsequent generations of Hmong, French and American visitors, of “the unknown story of the role the Hmong played during the Vietnam War.” It is also a final resting place for Hmong soldiers who died valiantly during the war.
Others will claim that war memorials can only teach a partial history, perhaps even a reductive or monumental version of history. So do memorials also induce forgetting? If one follows this understanding of history, the war dead are only honored and remembered occasionally, mainly on Veterans’ Day. Their names are now etched on the granite for all to see and “witness” their “ultimate sacrifice.” But is it fair to ask if memorials also constitute a kind of institutionalized veil that shrouds a more complicated history of Southeast Asia, one that must deal with French colonialism, and the forced enrollment of the Hmong, renamed Montagnards, by the French army, their subsequent abandonment as revealed in the testimonies of their French combat comrades, soldiers who still feel guilty for not having been able to rescue them from the politicians. The CIA then used these well-trained and loyal Montagnards during the Secret War, and until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many were abandoned to their fate after the American withdrawal from the Indochinese peninsula. One must not forget that more than simply honoring and commemorating the valiant soldiers, these memorials also elide a much more complex history of French colonialism and American imperialism, one that must take stock of the reality of forced recruitment, which destroyed or disrupted the indigenous economies and societies by the very absence or death of the men who fought for France and the United States.
3. Questions Elicited by Hmong Memory at the Crossroads
As sketched out above, Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, is an important documentary that not only narrates the story of the Lee family but sheds light on the many challenges that the Hmong diaspora dispersed throughout the world face today. It reveals two competing visions of history: one that privileges popular memory, eyewitness accounts, lived experiences over the one reconstructed by trained historians who favor the scientific, rational accounts properly archived but also suppress personal and emotional relations. Hmong Memory at the Crossroads has the potential to rally public opinion and shape policy on behalf of the Hmong in America, not unlike Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes did for the Harkis and other WWII veterans of Magrebian descent who fought in the French army and were very belatedly awarded veteran benefits by President Jacques Chirac (For a fuller discussion of Bouchareb’s movie, see my essay, “Incorporating Indigenous Soldiers in the Space of the French Nation: Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes.” Yale French Studies 115 (2009): 126-140).
I will end my brief remarks with the following questions:
What were the challenges—beyond the financial and technical ones that certainly affected and constrained many aspects of the documentary feature, including the extensive research that was required in pre-production, the writing of the script and narration, the expenses incurred for shooting on location, etc.–that you encountered and shaped both the type of documentary that you initially envisaged and the one that you ultimately ended directing? In other words, what were the compromises that you made in order to carry out and complete this film project? What did you leave out on the editing table (or rather on your hard disk)? Although I am well aware of the difficult position that you found yourself in, what I am ultimately asking is about your own predicament as a filmmaker and editor, what you could or would not include to honor and respect the wishes of your subjects, and particularly, the members of the Lee family who welcomed you in their family home, in their private, domestic space? In other words, spectators may be interested in both your directorial choices and the difficult work of montage as well as what I will call the unconscious of the movie, the self-censorship that you exercised because you thought that you could not adequately address a particularly sensitive issue (for instance, the role that the Hmong perhaps played in prolonging the French colonial presence in Indochina or American imperialism during the Vietnam War even if they were forcibly conscripted) in this particular film form, the documentary feature? What I am also asking is perhaps for you to address and elaborate on the larger political and historical framework of your documentary feature.
Spirituality, faith and religion are also cultural aspects that are not foregrounded in the documentary except in the sequences of the family members, survivors or fellow soldiers, who honor the dead at memorials or at funerals. We catch a glimpse of what appears to be a prayer before a family meal, but we don’t know if it is scripted, or if it is the intrusion of the camera that precipitated a spontaneous prayer. Or more simply put, did the family adopt Madame Lee’s Catholic faith? Or alternatively have they become Christians when they settled in Michigan and have assimilated into the larger American community? Have they abandoned Shamanism or relinquished the animist tradition? My questions are not simply about faith, but are raised to get a better grasp of the cultural integration of the Hmong and the Americanization of the Hmong community in the United States.