After serving time in prison, Loeun Lun became a model U.S. resident. Even so, he was eventually deported. Lun in front of his new home in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Written, produced and directed by David Grabias ’91 and Nicole Newnham. San Francisco: Independent Lens, 2007. 56 minutes. $14.95 DVD.
Reviewed by Robert E. Weir
“America prides itself on the stories of immigrants who arrived on these shores with nothing but the shirt[s] on their backs and made good. But what about the immigrants that fall between the cracks?” David Grabias ’91 poses that provocative question in the sensitive but subtle PBS documentary Sentenced Home, for which Grabias was co-writer, producer and director. The film opens with a man gazing across water at Seattle, and then cuts to the rice paddies of rural Cambodia. It’s a perfect juxtaposition for a film about liminality as refracted through the experiences of three Cambodian immigrants caught up in the zeitgeist of contemporary America. Thanks to a no-second-chances 1996 immigration reform bill, each of the three finds himself caught between his half-understood American home and the homeland he barely recalls, but to which he’ll soon be deported.
The three young men featured in this film—Kimho Ma, Loeun Lun and Many Uch—were among the human flotsam that washed up on U.S. shores after the war in Indochina. Kimho’s mother speaks poignantly of carrying her infant son through the forest, just one step ahead of Pol Pot thugs who transformed post-Vietnam-War Cambodia into the infamous “killing fields.” Each man spent part of his childhood in refugee camps before emigrating to the United States. Their new home was ill-equipped to cope with its postwar embarrassment, let alone the cultural and social challenges of assimilating Indochinese refugees. The Cambodians did as immigrants to America have always done—they managed. But devoid of social programs—a frustration we see driving one of Many’s former teachers to tears—Cambodians were slow to avail themselves of citizenship, and many children learned from a more callous teacher: the gang-infested mean streets.
Therein lies the tale. Kimho, Loeun and Many committed felonies as teens; each spent time in prison and none became a citizen. For Loeun and Many, the harsh lesson took. Upon release they became model residents: Loeun married and fathered two daughters; Many started his own courier service and Seattle’s first Cambodian Little League team. As they rebuilt their lives—and as Kimho descended deeper into an antisocial miasma—historical circumstance intervened. The Oklahoma City bombing (initially blamed on foreign terrorists) and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center led Congress to enact laws mandating the deportation of felonious aliens. In fact, until Kimho’s lawyer, Jay Stansell, won a 2001 Supreme Court case, such immigrants could be kept in INS detention centers indefinitely. 9/11 added urgency to enforce the acts, and a 2002 agreement between the United States and post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia sealed fates. Kimho was one of the first Cambodians to go; Loeun followed, but Many remains in limbo in the United States.
Stansell has written movingly about Kimho’s influence on him and his family, but in Sentenced Home Kimho comes off as a violence-prone, foul-mouthed sociopath. It’s doubtful viewers will bemoan his deportation. In one telling moment, Kimho is filmed, several years after his return to Cambodia, at a halfway house, smoking dope, listening to hip-hop and spouting obscenities. When his mother arrives and takes him to her birth village, he ignores his relatives and retreats to his MP3 player. By contrast, Loeun immediately volunteers to help his grandmother in Cambodia, reasoning that he’s not about to “do nothing.” Within a year he is building a house and awaiting his wife’s visit.
This is where the full power of the film comes into play. It is easy to parrot an INS official’s spiel on the responsibilities of resident aliens, or to cheer Kimho’s removal, but the law makes no distinction between Kimho and those like Loeun and Many, who were productive U.S. residents for nearly a decade. Moreover, as Bill Herod, head of the Returnee Assistance Project reminds in the film, these young men are “Americans by experience, education, language. They think in English, they speak to each other in English.” It’s worth asking whether Cambodia deserves a made-in-America problem like Kimho.
Sentenced Home has the courage to let viewers make up their own minds. The crosscut U.S./Cambodia scenes are interwoven with well-paced alternating narratives that focus on character and family more than politics. The substantive similarity between Seattle ghettos and Cambodian poverty is striking. To illustrate it, Grabias and Newnham rely on skillful cinematography rather than didactics. Talking heads are used sparingly, as is explanatory text. If anything, the film could use more exposition. But its less-is-more approach forces viewers to consider bigger questions of one-size-fits-all justice, unfulfilled American promises and national security versus paranoia. Woody Guthrie once wrote, “You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be deportees.” This film will disabuse viewers of such comfortable ignorance.
Weir, a freelance writer in Northampton, Mass., has a Ph.D. in history and teaches American history, American studies and humanities in the Five Colleges.