The filmmaker’s approach to “Operation Popcorn” – An interview with David Grabias

The filmmaker behind the popular documentary "Sentenced Home" premieres his latest doc, "Operation Popcorn" on May 17 on America ReFramed.

Filmmaker David Grabias, known for his Emmy-nominated documentary Sentenced Home about the crisis of Cambodian deportees, directs his focus on the Hmong community with his latest enticing and thought-provoking documentary on the horrific events the community experienced after the war in Vietnam. I chatted with Grabias via phone to find out how he pieced the story together, the challenges he faced and how he was able to obtain his inside connections to film this eye-opening documentary.

Operation Popcorn premieres May 17, 2016 on World Channel as part of the America ReFramed series (check local listings).

—Paolo Ochoa

What inspired you to [make] Operation Popcorn?
[My colleague Nicole Newnham] and I made a film called Sentenced Home, which is about the Cambodian American community and the deportation crisis it faced. Through that film, I connected with a lot of activists and students within the Southeast Asian community. A Laotian grad student told me about the arrest of Locha Thao and General Vang Pao and it seemed like an incredible stranger-than-fiction story. I managed to talk to Locha Thao, and he invited me to visit and meet with him informally. And so I drove up to Sacramento one weekend and met with Locha and attended one of the initial rallies that the Hmong community was holding in front of the Federal court house. I was struck by the incredible outpouring of anger and passion. I was surrounded on the court house steps by thousands and thousands of people chanting and yelling screaming and crying. It was just an incredible experience and I knew right then that it was a story that needed to be shared.

How did you get into stories about Southeast Asian American communities?
I never set out specifically to explore issues impacting Southeast Asian communities, I just fell into it. Initially it was through the story of Sentenced Home, the film I had previously made with the Center of Asian American Media. Nicole had stumbled upon this article about this one particular individual who was facing deportation. She and I talked about it and it felt like a really compelling story and we went from there. I think having made Sentenced Home, I was familiar with some of the issues within the Southeast Asian refugee community, which helped me at the start of this project. But for me, at the end of the day, it’s just about how strong the story and the characters are, and how as a filmmaker I can challenge myself creatively within the medium.

It seems like you have this social activist perspective on everything. Am I correct in saying that?
I’m fascinated by the whole idea of “home.” What is home? How do you define where your home is? Is your home an apartment or a house, is it a city, is it a culture, is it a group of people, is it a religion? How you think of “home,” and what “home” means to you is really for me an incredibly powerful idea and concept, and most of the work that I do revolves around that theme. Investigating that subject often leads to stories that are more social issue in nature. As we move into the 21st century, I think the concept of “home” is pivotal and central to the ever-evolving idea of what “America” is, and it’s something so important to include in our national dialogue.

A behind-the-scenes photo of filmmaker David Grabias shooting Operation Popcorn in Fresno, CA.
A behind-the-scenes photo of filmmaker David Grabias shooting Operation Popcorn in Fresno, CA.

As a filmmaker, did you experience any struggles that you had to go through in terms of completing the piece?
Every film is a struggle. If it’s not a struggle, then it’s not it’s not worth it, right? I think first and foremost, we had a really difficult time convincing people and funders that this was a story that would capture the attention of a broader audience. A lot of people just didn’t they didn’t know who the Hmong were or why you would care about this guy and the plight of his community. We had to really work to gain the trust and faith of organizations like The Center for Asian American Media and the California Humanities Council to get some of the initial funding and support so that we could make this film.

Also, when I started the project I thought it was just a very relatively simple story of injustice — you know, this group of people who had been done wrong. But the story turned out to be much more complex and incredibly nuanced. My idea of what the story was and what we were telling evolved and shifted dramatically several times. At the center of the story was this character Locha Thao, who is an incredibly challenging protagonist—he is not a typical aspirational hero, nor is he an evil villain. His motives are not always clear, and what he had done in the past leads a lot of people to distrust and even dislike him. So making a film with this kind of a lead character is not an easy thing. That said, I feel like we succeeded in portraying him in a way that allows the audience to make their own decisions about what kind of person he is and what his motivations were. It’s always hard to tell a story and to get people to engage when things are not so simple, not so black and white. We really tried to put his character his dialogue and his actions in the context of his personal experiences as well as the community experience, so that people could really get inside his head and understand him as an individual.

And then the final issue is access. A lot of the defendants in the case as well as the government agents would not go on camera with us. And then for a long time we had no way to show the events of the plot, until we were lucky enough to obtain copies of the government surveillance video and audio, which suddenly opened a door and gave us a way really to tell the story in a visual and dramatic way. So that was a whole challenge as the film evolved, trying to figure out what story we were telling and that how we could tell it given the material we had access to.

Do you think this film was one of the most challenging projects you’ve done so far?
I think that is definitely one of the most challenging projects that I have ever tackled, yes! Really what I thought would be a year- or two-year-long project, turned into a seven-year-long odyssey, trying to really kind of harness and figure out this credibly complex story with moving parts and that was changing and that we didn’t always have all the pieces for. Another challenge was trying to understand the politics of the Hmong community. Like many other small ethnic communities, it is a highly politicized community with different ideologies. Being an outsider, in some ways, made it easier, because I had no political agenda, so people of all different beliefs and perspectives would talk to me. But at the same time I didn’t know who had an agenda and what their agenda was. So it took us a long time—literally years—to understand the subtle community politics and the dynamics in the community, so we could really clearly grasp people’s agendas as we were interviewing them and parse the true meaning of the conversations we were having, so we understood the full picture.

Being outside of the Hmong community—was it difficult to gain rapport or trust?
There are true advantages and disadvantages to being an outsider when you’re working with a community, as I mentioned before. We solicited a lot of feedback from the Hmong community during the filming and post-production. At screenings, again and again we heard that people were really proud of the film and felt like we had done a great job of telling the story of the community. Ironically, a lot of people gave us the feedback that they felt like it was the kind of film that was best made by an outsider because of the lack of agenda I had coming in to tell the story, at least as far as internal community politics were concerned.

Were there any comments that you weren’t expecting from any specific audiences?
Yeah, we’ve had a lot of young people who’ve told us that after watching the film, they went home and for the first time in their lives had a conversation with their parents or grandparents about the past—the war and the experience their parents and grandparents had during that period. A lot of Hmong kids have grown up with their parents never talking about it. It was a painful experience, it was traumatic, they wanted to forget, put it behind them, wanted their kids to focus on getting a great education and succeeding in America. It’s pretty wonderful to hear that conversations are being started between these generations simply because kids are seeing the film and coming to the older folks with questions.

Do you think that at some point in the future people will stop talking about these kinds of things? Unless it’s in a textbook or in a documentary, like yours, do you think the conversation will stop?
I think the conversations will happen, I just think it will be less personal. Right now, Locha can look at his father and he can see the bullet wounds in his dad’s legs. Even if his dad doesn’t tell him the story, he can see the history, living and walking in his house. I think as generations pass, that present, in-the-moment connection to history will disappear and the stories will become more distant and less personal. But I think that that’s the job of documentarians and historians and academics and sociologists. Our task is trying to record it and document it so that generations from now, if they want to go back and think about this case or this period of Hmong history, there’s something to look at.

Is there anything else you want to add?
The experience that refugee communities go through as they integrate into American society and culture is an extremely important topic today. The refugees coming right now from Iraq and Afghanistan, they share similar stories with the Hmong—many were our allies and now find themselves living in the U.S. or trying to get here. I think people need to think hard about what we owe them, what they deserve.

And obviously with refugees like those from Syria, it’s important to try to connect with their experiences on a direct human level. We should try to understand why they are a refugee and what that means, so we can make better moral and ethical decisions about what to do.

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For more information about Operation Popcorn, please visit the webpage here. Operation Popcorn is supported by CAAM, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.