Seadrift Tells the Forgotten History of Vietnamese Americans in a Texas Town
Austin director Tim Tsai shares a murder on the Gulf
In 1979, the small Texas city of Seadrift found itself in the national spotlight. At the beginning of the decade, during the long grind of the war in Vietnam, the fishing community became home to a growing population of Vietnamese refugees. Soon, however, tensions began to mount between the immigrants and the local fisherman, culminating in a fatal shooting that rocked the town. How the two communities came into conflict – and how they've tried to pick up the pieces in the intervening years – is the subject of Seadrift, a new documentary playing at this weekend's Austin Asian American Film Festival.
Austin-based director Tim Tsai first learned about Seadrift's violent past in an academic text. "I read about it in a book called Asian Texans by a local author named Irwin Tang," the filmmaker explained. For Tsai, this book – and the story of Seadrift in particular – was an important addition to America's civil rights history and to the version of Texas history he grew up hearing. "Being an Asian American, you don't think of Asian American experiences as being part of Texas history or the history of the South in general."
It would be easy to devote an entire miniseries to the events and themes covered in Seadrift. From immigration to cultural acclimation to devastation, the film's exploration of the two families involved in the shooting – and its recap of the national reaction to the trial, including the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to turn Seadrift into a rallying cry for white nationalists everywhere – often feels like the beginnings of a much bigger story. "In terms of setting the boundaries of what the film ultimately became, part of it is based on the sort of access I was able to get, and part of it is just decisions you make along the way," Tsai explained. Rather than going into the complete history, he decided to focus on the impact the killing had on the two families involved, specifically drilling down into the experience of Beth Aplin Martin, the daughter of the deceased. "Her being able to come to terms with what happened, and the way she views the Vietnamese refugees as a community today, gives me hope for how communities might welcome refugees and be able to overcome differences going forward."
But if Aplin Martin is meant to speak for the growth of certain individuals, Seadrift makes it clear that there is still a lot of work to be done. While the film may end on a positive note for the community, Tsai does not believe that the town has ever truly come to terms with its own violent past. "When we were trying to get access, a lot of people actually refused to share their story with us," he explained. "They didn't see a point in discussing this issue that they feel like they've gotten past." For Tsai, the most frustrating element of Seadrift is how long the community took to address the divide between refugees and locals. "Individuals do have that capacity to overcome those differences," he offered. "The tragedy is that it took so long for this community to get to that point and to learn from what happened."
Tsai said he believes his film can help that process, and he is trying to organize a screening in Seadrift. "We do want to bring the film there and to make sure both the Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese community members are able to come watch the film." His hope is that this might give the community an opportunity to address their shared history as one. "We're looking forward to seeing what sort of dialogue might come out of that."
Austin Asian American Film Festival presents Seadrift Friday, June 14, 6pm @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Tickets and info at www.aaafilmfest.org.