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Meet the Vietnamese Creators of 'Centuries and Still,' a Short Decrying Anti-Asian Racism

How much history are you aware of?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has witnessed a wave of racial violence, often aimed at people of Asian descent. While it may be tempting to link the attacks on Asians to an unprecedented viral outbreak that began on this continent, a New York-based team of filmmakers, producers and multimedia creatives has placed them in the broader context of the country’s long history of violent anti-Asian incidents.

The result is Centuries and Still, a tabletop, paper-cut and illustrated short film utilizing mixed media to add historical context to ongoing discussions about anti-Asian racism in the US. It is currently a "staff pick" on Vimeo.

Saigoneer spoke to three members of the production team, all Vietnamese: director Sally Tran, who is originally from New Zealand; public relations specialist Nam Phuong Doan, from Hanoi; and producer Phuong Vo, who is from Saigon. All three live in Brooklyn.

The film opens with audio from news clips related to the fatal attack on Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco this past January, and the deadly assault of Pak Ho in Oakland in March. It then jumps back to 1849, when Chinese migrants began arriving on the West Coast in large numbers during the California Gold Rush.

A still image from Centuries and Still.

Tran began researching the film after completing 60 Years and Still, a video shot in the same style about ongoing police brutality against African Americans in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Once she got to the point of having a structure in mind, she approached Phuong to see if she would produce Centuries and Still.

Phuong agreed, and they set out to put together an Asian-focused (and largely female) production crew based in New York and elsewhere in the world, the result of which can be seen in the film’s credits, as well as the fact that it has subtitles in five languages: Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese. In fact, several other members of the team are Vietnamese, including Vietnam-based artist Lys Bui.

The New York part of the production team. Photo courtesy of Nam Phuong.

“I think just organically by connecting with each other and being able to work on a meaningful project, that is a way for us to learn about the history of our diaspora as well, especially during this uncertain time,” Nam Phuong says. “I mean obviously the way history is taught, whether in the States or in Vietnam or everywhere, it’s not ideal in the sense that a lot of pieces get erased or don’t get the visibility that they deserve. Personally, I learned something about our history.”

The film does indeed cover several events that I never learned about in school in Louisiana, such as the massacre of October 24, 1871 in Los Angeles during which 19 Chinese men and boys were killed; or the Rock Springs, Wyoming massacre of September 2, 1885 in which 28 Chinese were killed by a white mob. It carries on to the present day and the horrific string of spa shootings which killed eight — including six Asian women — in Atlanta on March 16 of this year.

When asked how she decided which events to include in the film, Tran said she didn’t have any set criteria.

“I kind of overdosed on media for two months, and as far as how to choose it, it was difficult,” she explains. “There was definitely some stuff that was just too much to explain, and I was trying to avoid any wars because that’s another thing on its own. I think by going from the 1850s and trying to find an even spread until now was kind of the idea. Some are better-known, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, but I tried to find resonance in all these stories.”

The result is intense and features language not suitable for children, but there is certainly no glossing over the reality of America’s extensive past of racism against Asian communities.

A still from the film depicting recorded anti-Asian rhetoric.

And, while the content and message of Centuries and Still are vital, the production also provided the team with a much-needed outlet as well.

“Living in New York, sometimes I feel like compared to the West Coast, the Vietnamese community doesn’t have a strong sense of unity, so being able to meet other people through this project and also connect through the same trauma and experience of being discriminated against makes it extra meaningful for us,” Nam Phuong said. “And what we got out of this project spans much further to a sense of community and being able to take care of each other.”

The crew has also received support from over a dozen Asian Pacific Islander (API) organizations across the US.

When it comes to the unique filmmaking style, Tran first decided to pursue this for 60 Years and Still.

In production. Photo courtesy of Nam Phuong.

“That was inspired because there was just so much traumatizing imagery online, so you see this stuff and it’s really full-on,” she says. “So how do you find content that’s interesting enough — history isn’t popular with young people, and that’s who we need to get this information in front of — so visually appealing to young people, but can also be made within our capacity and with our self-funded resources.”

“So you’re taking away a little bit of the reality,” Tran continued, “but it’s anchored in the real-life audio. You’re meant to be encouraged to do your own homework after watching this. We want people to learn more.”

To that end, the team has created a detailed spreadsheet featuring links to news stories, videos and other research related to the events discussed in the film.

While Tran spent two months on research, the actual production of Centuries and Still was something of a sprint. “In total, from briefing to actually putting it together was less than three weeks,” Phuong says. “We built the sets over two weeks and then shot for two days.”

“The purpose of the film is not to get a concrete answer or statement, but also to spark an interest in learning more, and also to have discussion and debate, which doesn’t happen a lot, especially when it comes to race,” Nam Phuong adds. “So it’s giving people the time and space to reflect and then to bring that forward into conversations and the fabric of daily life.”

“The reception has been really rewarding,” she shares. “There are people who can empathize with what’s going on in the film, and I think we accomplished the goal of sparking debate because there are people with questions about how the issue is framed, and some of them definitely challenged what we were trying to convey.”

In production. Photo courtesy of Nam Phuong.

This is unsurprising, given how emotional discussions of race and racism can be for everyone involved.

“Some people missed the message of the film and felt attacked,” Nam Phuong explains. “If we’re being frank there’s a little bit of fragility that some people feel, which I think is a normal thing that happens when you see a piece of media like this, and from my own point of view I think it’s a success that we’re able to spark that conversation.”

Phuong Vo, for her part, appreciates how the project connected people who have faced similar difficulties based on race, despite coming from different backgrounds.

“So the reason that everybody came together — it’s happened to all of us, regardless of our background, as we all have very different backgrounds — the three of us are Vietnamese, but Sally was born and raised in New Zealand," she shares. "I’m from Saigon and Nam Phuong is from Hanoi, and as soon as I arrived in the States I experienced, but now we have a platform to show it.”

“It also sparked issues of generations gap, so older generations tend to stay away from trouble, so my parents would say ‘just stay away from all that, just stay home,’” she says. “The difference in our generation is that we want to take action, we want to talk about it, we want to change it. So even Việt Kiều who were brought up differently, we’ve found something that we have similar to each other, it’s something we have to go through together.”

Centuries and Still.

Top image: A still from the film depicting the Asian women killed in the Atlanta spa shootings and signs supporting the community.