Making ‘Bolinao 52:’ A Conversation with Filmmaker Duc Nguyen

"Bolinao 52." (Duc Nguyen)

This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Duc Nguyen’s Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Bolinao 52,” a powerful account of the experiences of Vietnamese boat people refugees, and of one boat in particular, whose tragic circumstances magnified the challenges facing those displaced by the Vietnam War.

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, millions of refugees took the perilous escape across South China Sea to find freedom. Many died of drowning or starvation and thirst. Other were lost at sea for days while some were pillaged, robbed and raped by pirates.

When Tung Trinh stepped foot onto a crowded boat, the Bolinao 52, one night in May 1988, she did not know it was a trip that would forever change her life. After leaving Vietnam, the Bolinao 52’s engine died and the vessel was ignored by passing ships. Nineteen days later, the USS Dubuque came upon the ship, but its captain refused to pick up the dying refugees. Facing death, they resorted to cannibalism. After 37 days at sea, 52 of 110 survived. Two decades later, Tung, a Bolinao 52 survivor, returns to her past to close off its unresolved chapters.

Nguyen discussed the making of “Bolinao 52.”

There have been many films made about the Vietnamese American experience, and in particular those of the “boat people,” refugees who left Vietnam via the seas in search of freedom. Most films however have focused on the experiences of refugees after they settled into new homelands. In Bolinao 52, you’ve focused on the boat voyage itself as something exceptional. Why? What does Bolinao 52 represent?

DN: Yes, there aren’t many films made about the journey Vietnamese boat people took, especially the ones at seas. My guess is because it is hard to talk about. For me, as a boat person, the journey itself will stay with me eternally. To make Bolinao 52, personally, is an act of “slaying the dragon” if you will. Telling this story helps me resolve the yearning to reveal who I am. And in effect, I hope it inspires other people to share their stories. Storytelling is an important tool in the behavior health field. We worked with many mental health professionals as well as agencies to incorporate Bolinao 52 into their work. We also used the film in educational settings. In all, Bolinao 52 is the voice that releases the reservoir of silence for the Vietnamese boat people community. It has been four years since its premiere on television. But its power continues to reach people in a magical way. I have viewers who have told me that although they have watched the film many times, each viewing has brought tears to their eyes. I can only guess that Bolinao 52 touches something very deep inside their psyche that they are unable to articulate.

How did you track down the survivors of Bolinao 52? Were there individual who did not want to participate in the film?

DN: Tracking survivors was an arduous task in making Bolinao 52. It took me off and on over two years to do it. I began with the names found in newspaper clippings of the story. But that yielded no results. Then I decided to employ the Vietnamese media in Orange County, California. I went on air through a Vietnamese language radio program. In that broadcast, I asked listeners to call me if they know anyone who were on that boat. By chance, Tung’s (main character in the film) sister was driving to work and listening to the program during the broadcast. She called and informed me about Xuan Trinh, Tung’s brother, one of the men who swam to the USS Dubuque during the encounter. So I contacted him via telephone but he refused to talk to me. After three months of begging him to meet with me, he finally agreed. His condition, however, was that I would never call him again after that meeting. We met at a coffee shop one autumn afternoon. He told me he didn’t remember much detail of the trip. Nevertheless, he said he would ask his sister, Tung Trinh, if she would agree to meet with me. A month later she called and invited me over to her house. We shot one on-camera interview with her and that was when the film came to life. Overall, I spoke to about ten survivors. Tung is the only person who would agree to be in the film.

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You and your family were boat people, and came to the US as refugees. How did this personal experience help shape or pose challenges to the making of this film? The film tells a story that began as your family’s did, but ended in a quite different way – did this knowledge help you see the subject matter more clearly or possibly make it harder to engage with it?

DN: Yes, we were boat people coming to the US as refugees in 1980. Ironically, we were rescued by the US Navy in South China Sea. So this story is very close to my heart. For many years, I couldn’t understand how a US Navy ship could refuse to rescue these refugees. And in no small part, it was a motivation that pushed me to pursue this story. My experience allowed me to make this film in a very true and honest way. As you can see, I incorporated my family’s story in the film. But the tragedy that happened to the people of Bolinao 52 symbolizes the pain that Vietnamese boat people, specifically, and war refugees, in general, carry with them for life. And that is the rejection from a potential savior. For me, we were fortunate enough not to be rejected. So, the challenge for me was to understand this feeling and articulate it cinematically. Having Bill Cloonan, a witness from the USS Dubuque, in the film is a blessing because somehow he understood and has been carrying the guilt of rejecting the Bolinao 52 for so long. For him to reach out to Tung at the end of the film helped encapsulate this complex emotion. It was quite emotional for all of us, crew included, when we shot this scene. But it was such a catharsis afterward.

I understand that your most recent film, Stateless is a project that grew out of Bolinao 52; can you discuss what it explores, and its relationship with Bolinao?

DN: Stateless is an extension of Vietnamese boat people saga. The subjects in this film were rejected as refugees by the international community in the late 1990s when all programs assisting Southeast Asian refugees ceased to exist. The film focuses on a new hope when the American immigration officials returned to Manila in 2005 to review these forgotten stateless Vietnamese cases. We want to show the anxiety, the desperation and the hope in the subjects as they entered yet another round of screening on their lengthy path to freedom. The themes we want to explore in this film are rejection, acceptance, refusal, recognition, hope and determination. We didn’t want to make a film that illustrates what it is like to be a stateless person. Rather, it is a film about a moment that could define your life. And for the audience, we want to demonstrate what it is like to be an outsider wanting to come to the US. Along with Bolinao 52, Stateless, aims to reveal the arduous journey of coming to America.

What are you working on now?

DN: Currently, I’m working on a love story. A change of wind perhaps? (inside joke). It’s not a story about falling in love however. But it is a story about being true to one another. It’s about the role each person is willing to take in a relationship through good or bad times. That is all I could say about this for now. We are working on finding financing as well as developing the story. So it is still early to talk about it. But stay tuned.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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