Filmmaker Q&A

Nicole Newnham and David Grabias standing in front of a building with green doors and white bars over windows
Filmmakers Nicole Newnham and David Grabias talk about being tempted to intervene and help the deportees during filming SENTENCED HOME.

We were constantly tempted to help; we still hope that the distribution of the film might help to ultimately change their legal situation. But in the moment, the deportees’ individual situations are so complicated and overwhelming that there were rarely opportunities for us to intervene in any real way. We tried to offer advice when asked about possible resources to explore, but never found ourselves changing significantly the direction of their lives and stories. While we never gave out any cash, we did buy meals for them and look for little ways to help; for example, we bought as a farewell present for Loeun a small portable electricity generator because his house didn’t have any power.

Co-Producers/Co-Directors Nicole Newnham and David Grabias reflect on the deportation injustices that compelled them to action, filming conditions in Cambodia and the beloved traditional meal that sustained their subjects and crew.

What led you to make this film?

We first heard that Cambodian Americans were going to be deported back to Cambodia in the summer of 2002 while working on another project in the Khmer community of Lowell, Massachusetts. We were immediately gripped by the breaking story. At that time, the Cambodian American community had just become aware of the United States’ newly signed repatriation agreement with Cambodia, which meant that almost 1,500 Cambodian Americans would be forcibly returned. The deportees’ situation raised fundamental but difficult questions about immigration law, human rights and the cultural identity of immigrants and refugees. We realized how uninformed we—and most Americans—were about the 1996 immigration law, and the devastating impact it was having right now on individuals and families. We were especially moved to make a film about what we saw as the injustice of deporting refugees who had been raised in America (and who had already served a full sentence for their crimes) back to a country that had tortured and murdered their families.

How did you approach finding subjects, and how closely did you get to know the families involved?

We found all of our subjects through Jay Stansell, a federal public defender in Seattle who has been involved with the deportation issue and the Cambodian American community for years. Jay introduced us to his client Kim Ho Ma, who agreed to allow us to interview him and follow him on the day of his deportation. Once we decided to make the film about more than one deportee’s story, Jay connected us with Many Uch and Loeun Lun. We became close to the families of the deportees, especially in the case of Loeun Lun, where his role as a father—and the way his deportation affected his family—became the focus of his story. We spent days (and nights) in their homes, and they often insisted that we share a traditional Cambodian meal with them—an invitation we rarely refused.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

One of the biggest challenges was trying to get access and permission to film with our subjects while they were in the custody of the U.S. and Cambodian government immigration departments. We were granted permission once to film in a Seattle detention center (with Loeun Lun), and then never given access again to any part of his or Kim Ho’s detention or transport to Cambodia. The reason given was that filming in detention centers or on the aircraft that flew the deportees to Cambodia would create a security risk. In Cambodia, we again got lucky and managed to film once inside their immigration detention prison. But subsequent attempts were denied. No reason was given.

What was it like to film in Cambodia?

Filming in Cambodia was for the most part very easy, except for the weather. With temperatures near 90 degrees and more than 90 percent humidity, keeping the gear (and the crew) from getting overheated and unable to work was difficult at times. But once we got accustomed to the heat and to having groups of small children (and adults) curiously trailing our every move, we found it a remarkably hospitable and friendly place to shoot in—in some ways much more so than the U.S.

What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?

We filmed stunning material with Loeun Lun undergoing a ceremony to temporarily become a Buddhist monk that we had to edit out of the broadcast version of the film. Ultimately the scene was not as crucial to the deportation story, but it was a beautiful meditation on Loeun and his family’s belief in redemption and hope for a new future for him.

Are American deportation laws impacting other groups in the United States as severely as the Cambodian community?

U.S. deportation laws affect all groups and communities with equal severity. What makes the Cambodian community’s situation special is the fact that they arrived as young children, accepted by the U.S. as refugees fleeing a genocide.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

We sincerely hope that SENTENCED HOME helps to educate the public on the human cost of current deportation policy, and that it will serve as a productive tool for political and community-based constituencies in their attempts to reform the law and make it more just and compassionate. We also hope that it will lend insight into the Southeast Asian refugee experience, and cause our audience to think more deeply about what makes someone an “American.”

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

We filmed over the course of three-and-a-half years, beginning in 2002 and ending in 2006.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

The privilege to be welcomed into the lives of remarkable individuals, and the desire to create work that can have a profound effect on those same individuals.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

America prides itself on the stories of immigrants who arrived on these shores with nothing but the shirt on their backs and made good. But what about the immigrants who fall between the cracks? Does deportation law match our image of American justice? Are the Cambodian deportees the product of the scars of war and the problems of urban America—or just inherently bad people? Do they deserve a second chance? And how do we define what makes an American? Not only is public television one of the few broadcast venues willing to tackle such complex and highly charged issues, but we felt they were perfectly suited to address them with their mandate to expand civic participation by bringing diverse voices into the public sphere.

What are your three favorite films?

To Be and To Have, Chronicle of a Summer, Gods and Monsters

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

David: Bartender
Nicole: United Nations cultural heritage preservation work

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Food is key to maintaining focus and moral while on location. On our shoots, there was one meal we shared at a restaurant that helped bond the crew and the subjects and keep us all in top spirits (if not top health). Called “Cow Climbs Up the Mountain,” it’s a traditional Cambodian hotpot meal served in a cone-shaped metal platter that’s heated underneath. Meat is placed on the angled sides of the cone, and a piece of lard is put on top. As the lard heats up, it melts, and the fat drips down the side of the cone and helps moisten and cook the meat. Served with rice and vegetables, it’s undeniably over-the-top and sinfully good.

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