Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano were excited when they heard about the White House video contest on issues affecting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. They spent two weeks putting together a three-minute film on the plight of Cambodian deportees, then watched as online views outpaced the competition.
But they found out last month that they didn't win, and since then have been unable to find out how the contest was decided. They, and one contest winner, think the film's topic cut too close to a controversy over the record number of immigrants deported by the Obama administration.
"We've shown there's a huge interest in this issue," said Ali, a performance artist and 2010-11 U.S. Fulbright Fellow. "We're just appalled that we've been completely dismissed in the process."
White House staffers emphasized that the contest would be judged in part by viewers, but the vote count was never made public, and repeated requests by the filmmakers to learn more about what happened with the votes have not been answered.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, declined to answer any questions about how winners were selected or how votes factored into that process, saying only that the entries are appreciated and that they were only able to invite a select group of winners to Washington.
"While some applicants are not selected, we thank them for their participation, continue to encourage them to speak out, and we look forward to working with them in the future," he said.
Ali and Sugano, of Chicago, said they decided to make the video after meeting several young deportees in Cambodia while on Ali's Fulbright fellowship.
"My Asian Americana" features young men and women wrapped in or flanked by the American flag, recounting memories about home, such as leaves changing color in New Hampshire, baseball games at Fenway Park and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Some were born in refugee camps and had never been to Cambodia before.
All of the deportees featured in the video were removed because they had criminal records. Many were deported years after serving their sentences, they said. The Obama administration sought to focus deportations on migrants with criminal records but has been criticized for casting a wide net. In recent months, administration officials announced efforts to ease deportations for those who meet certain criteria; the scope of those efforts is still unclear.
In the video, the deportees recite things they miss about the U.S.: Thanksgiving, apple pie, "my La-Z-Boy recliner," "sitting there watching the game … with all the guys while my sisters and mom cook in the kitchen."
"I am an exiled American, and I can't go home," they say.
The film, among more than 200 submitted, was picked as a finalist by a selection committee that included people with a background in film. After the finalists were announced, the White House said in a video on its website that viewers would help pick winners by watching the videos and voting. But which videos received the most votes was never made clear, Ali, Sugano and others who participated in the contest said.
Ali and Sugano kept track of YouTube hits to gauge the popularity of their video. Before the contest ended, "My Asian Americana" had 12,000 views, they said.
The pair received an e-mail in March, informing them and other finalists that the voting period had concluded and promising an assessment of the count by the following week, Ali and Sugano said. A few days later, they received a short e-mail informing them they had not won. Out of the 11 finalists, the makers of six videos were invited to the White House.
"That video was the most powerful. It was the most well done," said Paul Kim, a comedian who was chosen as a winner for his video about an Asian American talent competition. "I guess it was just a controversial topic."
The White House honored the winners earlier this month at an event called "Champions of Change," one in a series of such events meant to honor people making a difference in their communities. Winners included Kim, a spoken word artist, organizers of a Philadelphia sports program, a teacher and her immigrant students, gay and lesbian outreach workers, and an illustrator.
Kim, who said his video made his family proud and drew attention to his work as a Los Angeles-based comedian, said he thinks Ali and Sugano should have been invited.
But, he said, he hoped critics would keep the video challenge in perspective.
"I don't think people should take this contest too seriously," he said. "The contest doesn't even have to happen in the first place. They were trying to provide something to get more attention for Asian Americans."
Ali and Sugano said they're dismayed by the lack of transparency about the process.
"It's the White House, and we find it very dishonorable for them to discount and just throw away the votes," Sugano said. "The community came out and made it clear that this is the big issue, that deportation is an important issue, and they dismissed that."