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For homecoming, a banishment

Still in Seattle, Manny Uch awaits the outcome of his deporatation battle.  - Photos courtesy of Nicole Newnham
Still in Seattle, Manny Uch awaits the outcome of his deporatation battle.
— image credit: Photos courtesy of Nicole Newnham

Nicole Newnham’s new documentary looks at Cambodian refugees’ plight.

Filmmaker Nicole Newnham’s homecoming will be infinitely sweeter than what the subjects in her documentary “Sentenced Home” received.

The 76-minute acclaimed film about the post-Sept. 11 deportation of Cambodian refugees – which the former islander wrote, directed and produced with longtime friend David Grabias – will screen June 14 as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Work on a National Geographic special about skin and culture, specifically tattoo removal, sparked the idea for Newnham’s latest documentary.

“A lot of kids we ended up following were from the Cambodian-American community. One boy was in a panic because he got a letter saying he’d be sent back there,” she said. “A lot of these people committed crimes when they were 17 and got on with their lives. Some had families.

“It jumped out at me…this sad and interesting story. I couldn’t believe these kids who only knew themselves as American…were suddenly going to be put on a plane and sent back there. They came here as refugees.”

If they already served their time and justice has been served, Newnham wondered, isn’t that a double punishment?

What she learned opened her eyes. The documentary, Newnham said, is “a good way to put a human face to what are the effects of sweeping immigration laws.”

From fall 2002 to 2005, Newnham and Grabias followed three Seattle men from the time they received their deportation notice to the resolution of their cases, events that impacted them and their families. Newnham found the men through a Southeast Asian lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

“I asked them for help to find people who were about to be deported,” said Newnham, who ultimately got funding from PBS and the Sundance Institute. “They put me in touch with a public defender who put me in touch with three clients from Seattle.”

Having come to the U.S. as youngsters with a flood of other Cambodians in the early 1980s, they received permanent resident status and were resettled in Seattle public housing, where they struggled with gang-related crimes. As teens they made decisions that got them into trouble with the law and time in prison.

Upon their release, they tried to make something of themselves. Although they weren’t U.S. citizens, they had permanent status and Cambodia didn’t accept deportees. They never thought they’d be deported. Sept. 11 changed everything.

The U.S. put pressure on Cambodia and began flying people back in June 2002. Two of the three men Newnham and Grabias documented were deported. The filmmakers captured tearful good-byes in the U.S. and traveled to Cambodia to see what their lives became.

The story raises questions about immigration, civil rights and cultural identity, Newnham said. These immigrants fell between the cracks and beg such questions as “Do they deserve a second chance? How do we define what makes an American?”

Newnham’s pride in the film is illustrated by comments by Manny Uch, who awaits his deportation outcome in Seattle.

“He really loves the film. He really understands why we made it and…that we can use it to do outreach and make people more aware,” she said. “The film is basically telling the story we want to tell and doing it in a powerful way. I’m proud that it actually seems to be moving people. They ask, ‘What can I do? Who can I call?’ That’s great.”

She admits the film is not completely impartial, adding she and Grabias tried not to editorialize.

“It’s not a Michael Moore kind of thing,” she said. “We thought the facts would speak for themselves.”

Back in her junior high days, Newnham dragged her dad, Blaine, to foreign films at the Lynwood Center. She cut her directing teeth in Greasepaint, the island’s teen theater company. After college, she won a scholarship to Stanford University’s documentary film program, which proved pivotal to her career.

Grabias is an Emmy-nominated, award-winning filmmaker, documentary writer, director and producer. His work has appeared on PBS, A&E, Discovery and National Geographic and at many film festivals.

The filmmakers consider themselves lucky to have gotten into the immigration detention facility in Seattle and the detention center in Cambodia, which proved a challenge. They saw many depressed deportees who knew they could never return to the U.S.

Seeing them made Newnham remember something she learned while studying mythology in high school: “Banishment was the worst punishment you could get.”

“Sentenced Home” has received several accolades thus far, including Documentary Fortnight official selection from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Audience Award Winner of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

PBS will air the film as part of its 2006-07 season of “Independent Lens.”

“I really hope it can help people sort of stop and think about immigration reform law and create awareness of this issue,” Newnham said. “It’s a difficult thing. We approached people who have an interesting, challenging story. Once people see the film or read the description, it becomes a compelling story (and causes them) not to go back to a dismissive kind of thinking. All of these stories are not all that they appear.

“All of these stories deserve a second look.”

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Home again

“Sentenced Home,” written, directed and produced by Nicole Newnham and David Grabias, will be shown at 7 p.m. June 12 at the Egyptian Theatre, as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. For information and tickets see www.seattlefilm.org.

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