Vietnamese as the ‘Backdrop’ & the ‘Invisible’ Cultural Producer

Image from Ina Adele Ray's "El Paso Vietnam."
"...Vietnamese are not victims—they are survivors, they are fighters, they are strong women and men who are proud. They are the more interesting and compelling main characters in my lens."

As a child of the 80’s, I consumed large quantities of American pop culture on tv and film. There was E.T., Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and TV favorites like Punky Brewster, You Can’t Do That on Television, and The Tracey Ullman Show (where The Simpsons originated). MTV actually played music videos like Janet Jackson’s “Control”, Salt n’ Pepa’s “Push It,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and New Edition’s “Cool it Now.” I was a tomboy and played in the snow with toy machine guns and shot up at traffic helicopters, pretending they were invaders and I was a Wolverine from the original Red Dawn film directed by John Milius. Those were the days…but with a Vietnamese mother and an American father, I felt detached from my cultural identity. I felt disconnected to a point that I was ashamed to admit to people that I was half Vietnamese. I also grew up at a time when films like Apocalypse Now, Rambo, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Indochine used Vietnamese people as their ‘backdrop’ to tell an American or French tale in an exotic land where battles for occupation, in one form or another, ensue.

During the Cold War and French colonial period, the Vietnamese/Cambodians/Laotians were an abstract entity that was dealt with in a demeaning or patronizing way by the West. This attitude was prevalent in mainstream films. The Vietnamese are either victims being saved by the French or Americans or they are the enemy trying to kill the Western savior. In Full Metal Jacket, the Vietnamese prostitute’s line, “…Me love you long time,” has become synonymous with a hyper-sexualized Asian woman in pursuit of a non-Asian man in American pop culture. What bothers me more then the stereotype of the prostitute in Full Metal Jacket is her inauthentic Vietnamese accent. There was no attempt to sound like a Vietnamese person at all. To top it off, in these films and in our history books, the Western savior is never culpable for the Southeast Asians lives that were ruined before and after the Vietnam War. We know of the napalm atrocities, the B52 bombs, and all the other instruments of war waged by the U.S. (causing the death of millions of Southeast Asians—Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese) but what about those who sacrificed their lives in revolt against French occupation before the Vietnam War? What about the lives of those millions who died due to the U.S. withdrawal after the war (the 1.7 million who perished in the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot, the estimated 165,000 Vietnamese who were killed or died in re-education camps, and the 200,000-400,000 boat people who died at sea)? What about the generations of Southeast Asian families whose lives are forever altered due to the Western savior’s agenda (Hawk or Dove)? We don’t hear about those Vietnamese characters. They are just a ‘backdrop’ for the films or if they do hold a supporting or lead role, they are always looking to the Western savior for protection.

But to me, Vietnamese are not victims—they are survivors, they are fighters, they are strong women and men who are proud. They are the more interesting and compelling main characters in my lens. I want to see their stories, not the tired Hollywood narratives that speak to a purely Western audience in a dumbed down way. I want to see films that speak to diverse populations and that tell new narratives of the past where people of color have their own agency, who make their own choices, and find their own way despite the odds.

The need for films from a Vietnamese American perspective was not apparent to me until undergrad and grad school when I was introduced to filmmakers whose works have been consigned to the indie/experimental film theaters, museums, or academic university libraries. Works from women like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Rea Tajiri (History and Memory), and Su Friedrich (The Ties That Bind & Hide and Seek) left striking impressions on me and taught me that there is more to history then mainstream narratives. Their films contain historically and culturally specific narratives: Daughters of the Dust is about three generations of Gullah women in 1902 who are preparing to migrate to the North. The Gullah people are African Americans from the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. They have preserved more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than the mainland people due to their rural isolation. The film is the first feature film made by an African American woman, Julie Dash. Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory, is an essay film on Japanese internment camps which incorporates her mother’s experience. Su Friedrich’s Ties that Binds explores her mother’s experience growing up in Nazi Germany, while Friedrich’s Hide and Seek focuses on lesbian adolescents coming of age in the 1960’s. These artfully crafted films and their creators are ‘invisible’ in mainstream cinema, yet their works provide healing, acknowledgement, empowerment, and/or some form of reconciliation with the past. They also provide a truer representation/reflection of their communities that benefits our society as a whole. These “invisible” cultural producers are part of a growing movement that began in the 80’s and 90’s. And they made me realize that my stories could be told on film, and that an audience exists for them.

My first short film, El Paso Vietnamabout how my Vietnamese mother met my American father in El Paso, Texas during the Vietnam War, was welcomed with open arms in 2003 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, now known as CAAMFest. With the acceptance of my film, I realized I had found my community! El Paso continued to show in major cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. I continue to tell my stories with Ong Ba Ngoai (Grandparents ) about the lives of a middle class Vietnamese couple and their endurance in Vietnam during the French colonial period, WWII under Japanese occupation, and the U.S. military engagement.

Although there are a few breakthroughs with new narratives by female minority filmmakers, women’s roles in film production, in general, still remain predominantly in the backdrop. It is the director and cinematographers, typically white males, who are the main characters in the production process. And those women who do breakthrough tend to be Hollywood actresses turned producer or director and are typically born into the biz (Penny Marshall, Sofia Coppola, Drew Barrymore, et. al). But these three women: Dash, Tajiri, and Friedrich have diligently crafted their art behind the camera with their own will and determination, and I have gratitude for them paving the way.

The benefit of being a minority and/or woman of color in film is that because of our “invisibility,” we are left to our devices without the pressure for pandering to desires of mainstream media distributors. The downside is, at least for myself, I am yet to make a viable living doing it. So I am relegated to the role in the “backdrop” as an editor and educator to make my bread and butter, while in tandem hacking away to get my own films made.

Young women and men of minority communities need to continue this movement to produce counter narratives to the mainstream. Today, we can find contemporary narrative/documentary/experimental work from Southeast Asian American filmmakers like Doan Hoang (Scars for Eyes and Oh, Saigon), Hong-An Truong (Adaptation Fever, The City & The City, and Wheel in the Sky), Tony Nguyen (Giap’s Last Day At the Ironing Board Factory and Enforcing the Silence), Julie Thi Underhill (Second Burial), Kim Spurlock (Buổi Chiều [Afternoon]), Viet Le (Love Bang!), and many more.

So let’s face it, Hollywood is played out. People have an appetite for alternative narratives, new voices, and new visions. There are plenty of “backdrops” and “invisible” people out there with powerful stories. It’s only a matter of time.

—Ina Adele Ray

Ina Adele Ray
Ina Adele Ray

Ina Adele Ray has worked in film and video production in both the commercial and non-profit worlds as mainly an editor for over 15 years to support her passion for filmmaking. Her recent television editing work includes 30, 60, and 90-minute programs about China and Chinese culture for D3 Productions, Inc. that have aired on PBS and CCTV. She has an MA in Media Studies from the New School University and has also served as a part-time Assistant Professor, teaching film and media courses at NYU, Parsons School of Design, and Eugene Lang College at the New School. She currently works as an editor and producer in Oakland, CA, teaches at Berkeley City College (in Berkeley), and continues to develop and produce her own personal film projects. Website:


Ina Adele Ray is a part of “Filmmakers Reflect on the 40th Anniversary of the Vietnam War,” an event presented by Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). For more information, visit the Facebook event page.

Saturday, April 25
Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC)
388 Ninth Street, Ste. 290, Oakland, CA 94607Co-sponsored by the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, California College of the Arts ENGAGE and DVAN.
A screening and panel on the echoes of military engagements in Southeast Asia and beyond. Featuring narrative, documentary, and experimental film excerpts by award-winning filmmakers Doan Hoang, Julie Thi Underhill, I. Adele Ray and Kim Spurlock. Ray’s short documentary, El Paso Vietnam, Spurlock’s short narrative Buổi Chiều [Afternoon], will be screened at the event along with excerpts from Ray’s Ong Ba Ngoai (Grandparents); Hoang’s Oh, Saigon and Scars for Eyes; and Underhill’s Second Burial on April 25th. The free screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers, with complimentary food and beverages for attendees.