Operation Babylift: Filmmaker Wins Hearts, Minds and Awards

Thank you to Cherri Gann at SMU Magazine for a wonderful article on ATG President Tammy Nguyen Lee and her current project Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam. You can read the article on the SMU Magazine website here.

Operation Babylift: Filmmaker Wins Hearts, Minds and Awards

As an infant in her mother’s arms, Tammy Nguyen Lee ’00 was carried out of war-torn Vietnam in 1978. Three years earlier, before the fall of Saigon, thousands of children escaped South Vietnam through Operation Babylift. Nguyen Lee, a filmmaker, didn’t draw parallels between the two events until she heard the story of American nurse Mary Nguyen.

Shortly after graduating from SMU, the cinema major met the nurse who recounted taking part in Operation Babylift, a U.S. military evacuation of more than 2,500 Vietnamese orphans. The story struck a personal chord with Nguyen Lee, who had occasionally wrestled with her own experiences as a refugee growing up in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas.

Nguyen.jpgTammy Nguyen Lee at filmAsiafest in September.

“I related to this story as an Asian American who felt torn between two cultures, looking a certain way, being treated differently and trying to fit in,” she says. “However, the need for acceptance and belonging is something we all feel.”

While earning an M.F.A. from UCLA in 2004, she received a grant from the UCLA Mickey Dude Fellowship to create a film of her choice. She quickly started work as producer, director and writer of Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, which became a nearly five-year labor of love. The 72-minute documentary looks at the humanitarian effort and its aftermath through the eyes of participants: airlift volunteers, adoptive parents and the Vietnamese adoptees.

The film premiered at the Vietnamese International Film Festival in April and won the coveted Audience Choice Award. In September, the Crow Collection of Art’s inaugural filmAsiafest hosted the first North Texas screening of the documentary at the Dallas Museum of Art to a packed auditorium of more than 300 guests.

In 2006 Nguyen Lee founded Against The Grain Productions, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to promote Asian-American cultural awareness and to raise funds for Vietnamese orphanages.

Nguyen Lee juggles her nonprofit venture with a demanding, full-time position as director of development and distribution at Dallas-based AMS Pictures.

She feels fortunate that her SMU professors – including Rick Worland, Tom Bywaters and Kevin Heffernan – were so generous with their time and encouragement while she was a student. “I’ve always been an ‘out there’ kind of thinker; they just let me be free to be a filmmaker. It was amazing to have that support,” Nguyen Lee says.

– Cherri Gann

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