In 1981, the shooting of 27-year-old Vietnamese American journalist Lam Duong, who was killed in broad daylight, steps away from his apartment, stunned the politically minded enclave of Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
Thirty years later, Duong’s story inspired a Bay Area youth organizer to launch a career as a filmmaker.
“In a lot of the initial reporting, I didn’t get a full picture of who [Duong] was,” said Tony Nguyen, director of the documentary “Enforcing the Silence,” which premieres at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Saturday, the 36th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. “For me, that’s part of the ‘silence’ the title of the movie refers to.”
The film uses Duong’s life and death to addresses the clash between free speech and accepted socio-political beliefs held within the Vietnamese refugee community. In his short life, Duong’s outspoken, liberal activism made him both a hero and a marked man.
Many believe Duong was assassinated for combining fruitful social work with unpopular political views. That included reprinting stories from communist post-war Vietnam in his self-published community newspaper, the Village Temple.
Oakland native Nguyen, 35, shared a similar background with his subject, having worked as an organizer within the Vietnamese American communities in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. In 2005, he briefly served as a youth counselor at San Francisco’s Vietnamese Youth Development Center, which Duong founded in 1978. There, he learned about Duong’s story, though he didn’t begin to work on the documentary until three years later.
In the intervening years, Nguyen indoctrinated himself into filmmaking with little more than a six-week junior college course on the basics, everything from how to hold a camera to how to use editing software.
Nguyen said he learned filmmaking the same way Duong, who held bachelor’s degrees in math and philosophy, learned to run a small newspaper. He just went for it.
“I was using his story to help try to inspire me to tell the story,” Nguyen said. “I just jumped right into [directing] in a similar fashion to the way he would’ve done.”
Nguyen was guided by advisors such as Academy Award-winning director Steven Okazaki and investigative reporter Thomas Peele. They and several other of his mentors seemed impressed with the rookie’s raw passion.
“He’s continuing the challenges of any kind of journalist trying to tell a difficult story like this,” said co-producer Jim Espinas, who, along with associate producer Momo Chang, helped Nguyen complete “Enforcing the Silence.”
To tell the story of Duong’s life, Nguyen interviewed former colleagues, classmates, reporters and FBI investigators who handled Duong’s case, but he was frustrated by the refusals of living relatives to speak on camera for fear of reprisals and by his inability to reach members of Vietnamese American anti-communist groups.
While painting an uplifting portrait of Duong, the documentary attempts to address the mystery behind his killing. Within days of the journalist’s death on July 21, 1981, news spread that a shadowy, anti-communist group had claimed responsibility. However, physical links to the group’s involvement were never found.
Three decades later, Duong’s legacy is not something many older Vietnamese refugees want to celebrate. Critics of the film have written it off as a slanted effort by Nguyen to lionize Duong while dehumanizing the anti-communist, U.S.-backed groups who opposed his views.
However, in recent months, Nguyen said the film has received strong financial backing from people all over the U.S., Canada and Vietnam. For the first-time director, the support illustrates how long-held political views have changed among younger generations.
Tho Do, 52, who was part of the youth center and worked with Duong personally, credits Duong’s influence on her career as an ardent union organizer in San Francisco. For her, changing people’s minds about Duong’s place in Vietnamese American history is not the most important part of this film. Rather, she simply hopes “Enforcing the Silence” will help keep his memory alive.
“I just hope that people who were beneficiaries of the center will remember him. And I think that’s good enough.”