How does looking at history from the perspective of those who were written out of it change the way we understand the past? That’s one of the questions Safoi Babana-Hampton set out to answer about French colonial history and the American Vietnam War in Southeast Asia when she received a collaborative research grant from the Humanities Without Walls consortium, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to create Hmong Memory at the Crossroads. Produced, co-written, and co-directed by Safoi Babana-Hampton, Hmong Memory at the Crossroads is a documentary film that examines the experiences of Hmong refugees in the U.S. Midwest and France. The Hmong people are an ethnic minority from Southeast Asia and China, thousands of whom were recruited by the French and U.S. governments to fight as their allies in the Indochina and Vietnam Wars; hundreds of thousands of the Hmong fled their homelands after the war to seek asylum as refugees. The film follows Liachoua Lee, a Hmong-American from Rochester Hills, Michigan, as he revisits his past as a former refugee and son of Hmong veterans of the French Indochina War (1946–1954), and of the American Secret War in Laos (1961–1975).
Professor Babana-Hampton first became interested in the stories of Hmong refugees while conducting a research project on North African auxiliary troops who served in the French colonial army during World War II and the French Indochina War, a conflict that marked the end of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia. During this time, France recruited indigenous people from North Africa, West Africa, and Southeast Asia to fight with them against nationalist movements working to overthrow French colonial rule. The Hmong were among the many cultural minorities and indigenous tribal populations who were recruited and trained by the French to fight alongside them against communist anticolonial movements in Vietnam. Despite fighting alongside the French and the U.S., the Hmong and their stories have largely been forgotten for the past 60 years by both countries. Part of Safoi’s motivation for creating the film was to document their experiences and to highlight the intertwined nature of Hmong, French and American histories.
“These groups feel their collective history of suffering and personal stories of strife, displacement, and exile have been erased and that they’ve been written out of ‘official’ French and American histories,” Safoi explained, “My past research often attended to representations of otherness and difference in the dominant narratives of history and cultural productions in the French-speaking world and how people engage with or resist these narratives and I wanted to give special attention to the narratives of historically oppressed groups.
Safoi is a literary and film scholar in French and francophone studies, and feels that studying the experiences of these soldiers helps us understand French colonial wars in a more complex way beyond the binary of winners and losers, and that it is important to look at the cost of these wars on populations that were caught up in complex historical power dynamics.
“I hoped to expand my students’ understanding of the diverse histories and cultures of the French speaking world,” Safoi states, “I wanted to help my students understand that these countries have very diverse cultures, histories, and politics, while they simultaneously share the experience of French colonialism and its legacies.”
Safoi came to filmmaking after several years of studying Francophone film productions. She felt film would be an ideal medium to reach outside of academia to a broader audience, especially since she worked with a number of community members, including the Hmong community, to create the film. Safoi knew when she started the project that it wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t draw upon community knowledge and insight in addition to scholarly sources and archives.
Because the project was funded by the Humanities Without Walls collaborative research grant, Safoi worked with faculty at other consortium institutions, specifically the universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Safoi collaborated with colleagues in geography, history, English, post-colonial studies, film studies, journalism, and political science across these institutions as well as partners from France and Thailand. Despite the practical challenges involved in building and sustaining such complex collaborations —like coordinating schedules, tasks, and resources—Safoi believes that working within an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional and transnational framework was a huge asset to the project.
“Interdisciplinarity allows us to reexamine our own disciplinary limits, biases and tools by bringing together a community of scholars to collectively co-generate knowledge from diverse and complementary perspectives,” Safoi notes. “At its core, the film is a meditation on the ethics of understanding and knowing our world and our histories from a lens that privileges complexity, multiplicity of perspectives, cross-disciplinary, comparative and transnational approaches as modes of critical and creative inquiry into the global legacy of French colonialism and armed conflicts such as the American Vietnam War. By humanizing, personalizing, globalizing and localizing this fraught past and complex legacy, the film attempted to tell the story of those who were caught between two fires such as the Hmong.”
Building upon her initial success, Safoi received a second HWW collaborative research grant to produce the recently released documentary sequel, Growing up Hmong at the Crossroads, which looks at the diasporic experience of children of Hmong refugees who were born and grew up in France and the United States. Safoi hopes that, together, these projects will help shed light on the unique struggles that diverse minority groups with a fraught history face to affirm their sense of belonging in France and the United States and help deepen our understanding of issues such as the current global refugee crisis.
The film has been screened at multiple locations in both the United States and France. These include the 2015 Indie Fest USA International Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best Feature Film; the 2016 Mediterranean Film Festival Cannes, where it won the Best Score Award for the original score composed by MSU Music Faculty Dr. Marjan Helms; and the 2017 Universe Multicultural Film Festival, where it won the Best Documentary Feature Award. You can learn more about Hmong Memory at the Crossroad at the film’s website.