The documentary Seadrift was in the making before Donald Trump’s presidency spread the wildfire of xenophobia and racism throughout the USA. But the 2016 election made it hard for director Tim Tsai to unsee the nearly word-for-word similarities between the archival footage of KKK rallying against the Seadrift Vietnamese refugee community and the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally.

In the mid-70s, the small-town of Seadrift, Texas had their crab-catching economy disturbed by change. Vietnamese refugees, escaping the ravages of the Vietnam War, settled into Seadrift to forge livelihoods in the crabbing business. As the Vietnamese had little guidance on understanding the Seadrift fishing customs, the white native fishermen became wary of the competition—xenophobia mixed into their attitudes—as the Vietnamese weren’t provided translators or mediation to understand long-established customs. They inadvertently crossed fishing boundaries and trouble brewed between boaters. Disputes peaked when Vietnamese fisherman Nguyen Van Sau shot and killed local white fisherman Billy Joe Alpin. When the jury acquitted Sau on the reason of self-defense, the Ku Klux Klan banked on the discord by burning the boats and homes of the Vietnamese.

Taiwanese American filmmaker Tsai did not know of these disturbances until he happened upon the subject in the book Asians Texans by Irwin A. Tang. He was fascinated by a passage about Vietnamese assimilation into Seadrift by sociologist Dr. Thao Ha, the documentary’s associate producer. The Seadrift incidents, the fishermen feuds, the shooting, and the KKK rampage…none of this was uttered in any of his history classes. So he set out to preserve a part of Texas history locked out of the common Texas consciousness to counterpoint the dearth of Asian-specific history in Texas. 

A Kickstarter-funded Slamdance-selection, Seadrift stirs in the testimonies from the locals who remembered the culture clashes that lead to the shooting and the KKK intervention. It compiles testimonies from Billy Joe Aplin’s daughter, Beth Aplin-Martin; fisherman The Nguyen; fisherman Bang “Cherry” Nguyen; former constable Johnny Davenport; and others. 

Tsai notes the lack of government aid to accommodate the Vietnamese integration into a small-town with specific customs and boundaries, though the epiphany tragically comes too late for the Seadrift residents in the film. “When you think about government responsibility and national programs in dealing with refugees, they lack a strategy to deal with a large refugee population. There was a lot of money allocated to help the refugees to integrate,” Tsai says. “But in a rural area like Seadrift, not many resources trickled down there.”

In a turbulent Trumpian time where migrants are terrorized by racist institutions and ideologies, Seadrift emphasizes the lesson of local accountability when institutions fail to intervene. “National governments need to provide more resources but responsibility also lies in the local communities,” Tsai says. While mutual empathy and understanding have lagged for decades, Seadrift concludes when divides are mended—even if turbulence is a mere memory. The Seadrift residents in the film are at a better place than they were before. The director continues, “Seadrift is a story about a community that learned to accept their differences and get past division. Local communities dealing with local refugee populations are capable of opening a line of dialogue between different sides.”

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