Few social comic-tragedies match the spectacle of American children of immigrants bashing new immigrants. It's difficult to tell what's worse--their racism or their myopia. But in the case of Taggart Siegel and Kati Johnson's 1988 documentary opening "New to America," a nine-part series of independent films and videos on U.S. immigrants, the situation is even more sensitized than, say, the clash between Californians and undocumented Latin American immigrants.
"Blue Collar and Buddha" observes what happens when Laotian refugees, having fled Communist oppression in their homeland devastated by the Vietnam War, try to make new lives for themselves in economically depressed Rockford, Ill. Two very fragile and very different social elements suddenly find they have to live together: the tiny Laotian community, some of them "boat people," mostly centered around the only local Buddhist temple; and long-term Rockford residents, mostly white and Christian, some Vietnam veterans, many out of work and bitter.
The refugees, highly motivated to survive and prosper after their near-brushes with death, prove to be good employees and diligent workers. As series host Edward James Olmos perhaps needlessly points out in his epilogue, those Rockfordians who work alongside the refugees not only have no complaints about them, but also praise their skills and energy.
In Siegel and Johnson's view, it's those who don't work with them, or feel that the Laotians have somehow "taken away" good jobs, who have the problem.
Some crucial background analysis comes too late in this sloppily constructed video, especially mental health expert William Liu's comments on the enormous differences between immigrants--who may plan their move for many years in advance--and refugees, who may have less than two hours to pack and flee.
To the natives who tell these refugees to go back home, a young Laotian man, who works in a furniture factory during the week and paints during the weekend, tersely responds: "We've got nowhere to run."
* "New to America" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.