A Vietnamese Students Association film screening Wednesday evening was quickly disrupted by an angry protest led by local residents who opposed the film’s alleged pro-Communist tone.
Immediately after the screening of “Living in Fear,” more than a dozen audience members wearing U.S. military hats began waving South Vietnamese flags and verbally attacking the film’s director, Bui Thac Chuyen, for what they saw as a positive portrayal of Communism. The Yale Police Department was called to the scene by members of the audience as a precautionary measure, but officers soon left as the situation dissipated. Members of ViSA said the demonstration was an overreaction to the film.
The screening — which attracted more than 30 people, including the demonstrators — was a part of CommUNITY Week, a student-led week of events designed to celebrate cultural diversity. “Living in Fear” takes place in 1975 and chronicles the life of a South Vietnamese man who served on side of the United States during the Vietnam War.
ViSA member Jerry Nguyen ’08 said a group of middle-aged people began causing a disturbance during the question and answer session with Chuyen.
“They were harassing the director, which was disrespectful,” he said.
The protestors accused Chuyen of being a “traitor” and “Communist worker.”
Nguyen said the situation escalated when members of the group charged Chuyen with portraying the South Vietnamese main character of the movie as a coward while favorably depicting Communist officials.
Some of the protestors verbally attacked a Yale student when she tried to mitigate the tensions, Nguyen said.
Five YPD officers were dispatched to the event, though they departed around 10 p.m. after determining that physical violence was not likely to occur, ViSA members said.
ViSA President Cecilia Ong ’09 said the event organizers were sent an e-mail by the Harvard Vietnamese Association warning them about the controversial nature of the film, which received heavy criticism when it was screened at Harvard University a week ago. Ong said ViSA decided to show the film because organizers thought it would foster discussion of Vietnamese culture.
“I definitely understand how people might get really riled up about it, and they certainly have a right to be,” she said. “But the concerns and opinions they were trying to vocalize may have come off a bit more strongly than we would have liked.”
Ong said despite the call that was made to the YPD, she did not feel that the Yale students at the screening were in physical danger at any point in the evening.
“Living in Fear” claimed Best Film in New Asia Talent at the ninth annual Shanghai International Film Festival last year, where 200 films were screened.
Vietnamese language and literature professor Quang Van, who teaches in the Southeast Asia Studies program that co-sponsored the event with ViSA, said he can understand the protestors’ “hard feelings and resentment” because he himself escaped Vietnam with his parents in 1975. Van said the group believed the director was spreading Communist propaganda because all media in Vietnam is controlled by the government.
Nguyen said the director remained quiet and reserved while listening to the charges leveled at him.
Some ViSA members said they could see why the film has sparked controversy. In the film, Chuyen shows the main character Tai as a bigamist who frequently engages in “rough sex” and acts fearful of his Communist brother-in-law. In contrast, Communist characters were depicted as surprisingly understanding instead of corrupt or cruel, Caroline Nguyen ’09 said.
But Nguyen said she thought that the film’s overall tone was well-balanced.
“It was hard to discern anything terribly wrong with it,” she said.
Thang Tran, the president of the Institute for Vietnamese Culture & Education whose organization represents Chuyen, said members of the Vietnamese community have in general responded well to the film, and he regrets that the group of protestors was in attendance at the Wednesday screening.
“Living in Fear” was screened at Cornell University on Thursday, and Chuyen and Tran next plan to take the film on tour in California.