Review: Moving Mountains


As the U.S. pares down its war in Afghanistan, how friendly will the replacement leaders be towards the interpreters and auxiliary staff of U.S. Forces? How will the girls and women fare who were supported in pursuing education and professional careers? What happens to those persuaded to collude with enemy forces during a time of war in their own country?

Look to history.

A very timely showing of a 1989 film, “Moving Mountains,” shows the predicament of the Yiu Mien community in Laos when the US pulled out of the region at the close of the Vietnam War and the new Pathet Lao government sought revenge on those who had supported US efforts.

Leaving behind all that they knew, the sacred land of their ancestors, the Yiu Mien were given safe haven in a barbed wire refugee camp in Thailand. They were not allowed to work or leave the compound. While they were given shelter and one meal a day, there was no education or infrastructure. To subsist they trapped mice and rats.

What was supposed to be temporary lasted months. The documentary tracks the Saechao and Saelee family after an American church congregation volunteers to sponsor them. The Yiu Mien had been agrarian workers who told time by the rooster crow and the moon. Even though they had lived in a community with no education or electricity, they desperately wanted repatriation in their own land. The rumor was that in America people like them were killed and eaten for dinner. They were terrified at the prospect of being sent to the US.

The similarities between the Yiu Mien are similar to the agrarian workers today in Afghanistan who have lived without electricity. Many do not know about 9/11 and do not distinguish between the Russian invaders of the 80’s and the Americans.

Like the Laotians, some have been bribed, coerced, converted or convinced to supporting American forces. Others have supported all sides just to survive another day and preserve their shelter and community in an area of conflict.

Already refugees and asylum seekers, persecuted and threatened by both sides, are streaming all the way from Afghanistan into Thailand and Australia, where they may wait years for processing. What responsibility does the US have to support those who have supported US efforts abroad? Once determined that an individual has a right to refugee or asylum status, what are the best ways to assimilate these people? What lessons can be learned from this telling documentary on the experience of the Yui Mien community?

Elaine Velazquez, who did a superb job of editing and directing this film project, shows the greatest difficulty lies with the acculturation of the oldest generation. Keys to success include education, paid work, English skills, community support and a strong work ethic.

Ironically, what held the Yiu Mien together in Laos, their teamwork, their religion, their patriarchal culture, and their self-sufficiency (making all their own clothes and growing all their own food) are what cause conflict in America. In most cases, the more they are able to assimilate and take on the cultural norms of America the more successful and content they become. This does not mean that the American norms are better or even desirable, but in acculturating there is less of a disconnect between their children learning a new way of life in American schools and being employable in a wider array of job options.

History can be our best teacher. This 1989 documentary is extraordinary in its prescient warning and advice for a new wave of refugees.

“Moving Mountains: The Story of the Yiu Mien” is playing Sept. 13, 2012, at 7 p.m. at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Ore. After the screening, Velasquez will preview a cut of her work-in-progress, “Gaining Ground: No Food, No Justice,” which shows how growing healthy food can be the catalyst for igniting hope and empowerment in rural and urban communities.


Producer: Elaine Velazquez
Cinematographer: Eric Edwards, John Campbell, Harry Dawson
Sound: Barbara Bernstein, Sheila Rubin, Carl Vandervoort
Editing: Elaine Velazquez
Language: All foreign language is interpreted through voice
Featuring: Ay Choy Saelee, Fou Choy Saelee, Lai Poo Saelee, Low Choy Saelee, Sarn Kouei Saechao, Fey Finh Saechao, Farm Yoon Saelee, Sarn Ta Saechao
Sound: Barbara Bernstein, Sheila Rubin, Carl Vandervoort
Acknowledgements: Translators: Sarn Kouei Saechao (Andrew Zel), Ay Choy Saelee (David Lee), Farm Yoon Saelee (Susan Lee), Pao Choy Saepharn; Voice-over translations: Num-Kock Hwee, Vivian Wong, Susan Chao, Chiem-seng L. Yaangh, Kao Chiem Chao; Mien music: Fou Choy Saechao; Mien chanting: Farm Yoon Saelee, Fou Khuan Saepharn, Yien Liem Saelee, Koy Fou Saechao; Original music & sound consultant: Barbara Bernstein; Breakdancing music: Jon Newton “Heartfelt thanks to the Mien community in Portland, Oregon…” Production assts: Sandra Burgess, Eric Herman, Sharon Niemczyk, Charles Riggs; Optical printing: Ron Paul Finne; Sound rerecording: Wayne Woods; Negative cutter: Karen Thorndike; Anthropological consultant: Michael Sweeney
Funding: Funded by Oregon Committee for the Humanities, California Council for the Humanitites, Oregon Arts Commission, Metropolitan Arts Commission, Pioneer Fund, Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowship Program, Mary Winch.
Copyright: 1989, Elaine Velazquez
Runtime: 58 minutes, Color
Original format: 16mm, 1989
Distributor: Feather & Fin Productions

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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. coach #

    This sounds amazing.

  2. salvatore ferragamo #

    Great review!