SEADRIFT – Over 40 years have passed since the August day when Sau Van Nguyen fatally shot Billy Joe Aplin.
A crowd of 50 gathered Sunday to watch a screening of “Seadrift,” a film documenting the racism leading to and resulting from the shooting. The director, cast and community members met in the bayside town’s Vietnamese Community Center, a monument to the immigrant community’s impact on the town.
The 1979 shooting depicted in “Seadrift” was proceeded by an influx of Vietnamese immigrants and competition between local fishermen and the Vietnamese for the crabs in the bay. Following the shooting were threats of violence, which only de-escalated after locals refused a Ku Klux Klan rally in the town.
Director Tim Tsai said the film has special significance in today’s political climate.
“Refugees and immigrant communities are under attack,” Tsai said.
For Aplin’s daughter, Beth Aplin-Martin, the path to reckoning with the toll taken by racism and its side effects has been one of empathy.
The film’s first 15 minutes paint a picture of war-torn Vietnam and the process by which the refugees found themselves in rural Texas.
The pain of Vietnamese refugees and their struggle to establish themselves in a foreign country is something Aplin-Martin said she’s come to recognize in the years since her father was killed.
“How do I turn around the grief?” she asks in the film.
The answer, she’s found, has been to try and find forgiveness, especially for Sau Van Nguyen.
Watching “Seadrift” by @TimTsaiFilms at Seadrift’s Vietnamese Community Center. The film chronicles racial tensions in the small fishing town following Vietnamese immigration in the 1970s.Here for @Vicadvocate pic.twitter.com/m5NIyXUxX6— Morgan O'Hanlon (@mcohanlon) September 29, 2019
“I keep getting asked, ‘Did the Vietnamese reach out and apologize for what happened?’” Aplin said. “My question is, ‘Did the white community reach out and apologize?’”
Following the screening, Aplin-Martin said in a question-and-answer session that she struggled to bring herself to talk with Tsai.
Aplin-Martin ultimately agreed, but Tsai said many of the people he approached when filming didn’t want to be interviewed.
“Racism is kind of a bad word now, and we don’t want to be racist,” Tsai said. “It hopefully is something that we can be able to identify in how we see things and try to change it.”
Tsai said working on this project opened his eyes to how people in a small Texas town view race relations on an individualized level.
Although members of the community met peacefully Sunday, relations in the town weren’t always so cordial. Threats of Klu Klux Klan rallies and violence led much of the town’s Vietnamese population to flee.
In 1979, Molly Ivins reported for The New York Times that 100 of the town’s 150 Vietnamese left town.
Sau Van Nguyen moved to Louisiana after he and his brother, Chinh Nguyen, were acquitted for Aplin’s murder.
The number who left also included Thé Nguyen, who now owns Dockside Bait in Seadrift.
Thé Nguyen said he came back shortly after moving to Louisiana because he came to love the bay town. About 35 Vietnamese families still live in Seadrift, he said, although many of their children have since moved away.
As a teacher and coach at Seadrift School, Bobby Anderson said he’s taught many of the children of people who appeared in Tsai’s film.
Despite having taught in the town for more than 20 years, Anderson said he’d heard passing bits and pieces of the story but never the whole thing.
“When I first got here, I’d heard shadows,” Anderson said.
But his primary understanding of the shooting and surrounding events stemmed from watching “Alamo Bay,” a 1985 movie loosely based on the story of Seadrift and denounced by locals as a blubbery dramatization.
Anderson said watching the film was eye-opening.
“It’s very tragic and sad because it seems more like two cultures misunderstanding each other,” Anderson said.
He hopes the film will be understood by others as a lesson to build bridges through dialogue.