Among the many controversial legacies of the Vietnam War, Operation Babylift dramatically brought the results of U.S. Cold War policy to the front doorsteps of U.S. domestic race politics. Critics have argued that childcare workers and government staff deceptively persuaded Vietnamese parents into allowing their children to go, parents who were desperate to find a safe way out for their children and who believed that they would be reunited eventually.
Tammy Nguyen Lee’s film Operation Babylift revisits the controversial, $2 million mission that airlifted more than 2,500 Vietnamese children out of Saigon during the last days of the war. The first 20 minutes of the film comprise interviews with non-governmental staff who accompanied the children on cargo planes, the first official flight of which blew up in the air due to mechanical failure. The rest of the film presents a series of interviews with 20 of the adoptees, who talk about growing up in the U.S. and realizing they didn’t look like their parents (most of whom were white); their soul-searching for their biological parents (especially their mothers); and their joy in meeting other adoptees who understood their ambivalent feelings about their loss and the privilege of having been separated from war. Their stories remind me of scholar Jodi Kim’s argument about how adoptees experience a “social death” in being cut off from affiliations that provide us with a sense of history, family lineage, and community.
Nguyen Lee was born in Saigon, and fled the country as a boat person when she was three months old. After a year and a half in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, she and her mother were sponsored to the U.S. by a church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nguyen Lee has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cinema from Southern Methodist University, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Producers Program at UCLA. In addition to her work as a filmmaker, she is the founder of ATG (Against The Grain Productions), a non profit company that creates social issue based media and raises funds for international orphanages.
We sat down for an interview in Los Angeles when she was in Southern California for a screening of her film at UC Irvine. The interview is in two short parts (8:34 min and 1:57 min) because we were cut off momentarily and, this being on the low-tech side, I haven’t been able to paste the two parts together.
Here is the interview: