About halfway into Seadrift, which opens this year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival on Thursday night at Broadway Performance Hall, dread sets in. The documentary, from director Tim Tsai, begins as a wide-lens look at the community of refugees who escaped Vietnam during the war in the 1970s and found work in the crab and shrimp industry in Seadrift, Texas, a fishing town 150 miles south of Houston. But increasingly, it centers on the dispute between the white and Vietnamese fishers, which a newspaper dubbed a “Crab War.” That came to a head when Sau Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese crabber, killed Billy Joe Aplin, a white crabber, following a dispute over crab-pot placement. A jury of 12, all white, found the shooting to be in self-defense and acquitted Nguyen. But plenty in Seadrift had doubts. Then the Ku Klux Klan got involved.
Surprisingly—since you can hear echoes of the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric from many a MAGA-hatted citizen today—the movie doesn’t end in dismay, or hopelessness. Some of that dread actually lifts. Seadrift’s city council kept the KKK out, and most interviewed here appeared to have learned something from the upheaval. (Though one white fisherman says of the Vietnamese at the end, “I don’t hate them no more,” which is a start, but a small one.)
The rest of SAAFF’s program this year—12 features, eight blocks of shorts, appearing at Northwest Film Forum and Broadway Performance Hall—hews to similarly timely material. You can check out Jeronimo, about Jeronimo Lim Kim, who joined the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro, his law schoolmate. The documentary Born to Be covers Dr. Jess Ting, a groundbreaking plastic surgeon at Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery. The Illegal, a drama, tells the story of a kid from India who heads to UCLA for film school but has to drop out and becomes an undocumented worker at an Indian restaurant. Happy Cleaners, about a Korean American family losing its dry-cleaning business, closes the festival on Sunday.
The opening night party kicks off at Washington Hall, following the Seadrift screening, with dancing and performances by Aleksa Manila, G Yamazawa, and Seattle’s Rogue Pinay. For prices and the full film list, see SAAFF’s website below.
2020 Seattle Asian American Film Festival
Feb 20–23, Various Locations, $13–$90