Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi (2015) & The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (2015)

I’m doing a first on this site, and that is talking about documentaries that I saw at the Boston Asian American Film Festival last weekend. My reviews will be brief, but I will say that both of them need to be seen.

Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi

In my new home of the Boston area, one event that basically shook the world was the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The bombing was perpetrated by two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar (I might have spelled this wrong and I honestly don’t care) Tsarnaev. Tamerlan died in a shootout with the police later on and Dzhokhar has been apprehended and, in the big news from earlier this year, has been sentenced to death. You know you’re in Boston when people care more about Tom Brady’s suspension for cheating that led to the Patriots winning the Super Bowl than a convicted terrorist’s sentencing.

In a time period coincidental to the bombing, Brown University student Sunil Tripathi seemingly disappeared. His family, recognizing the advances of technology, took to Facebook and launched a social media campaign to help find Sunil. However, it didn’t take long for the Internet to decide that Sunil Tripathi was also the Boston Marathon bomber.

The main reason I believe this movie is important is because it addresses two topics that are a lot like Asian-on-Asian racism, in that they are things that people know are problems, but at the same time would prefer not talking about. These topics are the issue of mental health and the dangers that lie with the Internet with the rise of social media.

As an Indian-American, like Sunil, I know there is a lot of stigma associated with basically being anything out of the ordinary. My Indian colleague told me he got married at the time he did because he to avoid his father’s neighbors (his family lives in a small Indian rural community) gossiping that he may be sexually impotent or even gay (remember, India is still an extremely homophobic society and basically recriminalized being anything other than hetero). How Indians treat getting married after 30 should give you an idea how Indian society would treat mental illnesses.

At the screening, I was fortunate enough to meet Sunil’s mother Judy and his brother Ravi, and they were simply two of the sweetest people I have ever met. In addition to the movie, talking to Judy and Ravi revealed a lot about what Sunil was struggling with when he was at Brown. I’m also an alumnus of Cornell University, a school with an unfortunate reputation for student suicides. I always felt the kids who landed internships at SpaceX or Goldman Sachs and actually had something that vaguely resembled a fashionable dating life were always extremely visible so those who struggled more tended to sort of be invisible.

What is also equally important is social media as it stands today. Sunil’s name being besmirched started off as a Reddit post which basically exploded so everyone somehow concluded Sunil Tripathi was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because of a bad photograph (Really, the two look nothing alike, namely because Tsarnaev is in fact white. I hope that gives your average Republican something to think about).

Whenever something even remotely controversial happens, be it the Michael Brown incident or when the Gaza conflict erupted in the summer of last year, you’ll see the clicktivists come out in full force. Trying to reason through some pretty obvious logical holes in said clicktivists’ arguments is a solid ticket to getting yourself defriended or blocked. I remember even seeing someone post that they like seeing controversial events happen because then they know when to defriend anyone with differing opinions; I just wish I took a screenshot of it to post here. People on the Internet have a tendency to believe things because they want to believe them. There are people who still think Planned Parenthood is selling the body parts of fetuses because of a video, even after the people who made the video admitted they made the whole thing up.

The Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi Facebook page finding itself flooded with posts threatening the family was bad enough, but then real news outlets, such as NBC, caught wind of this and started posting things online with Sunil’s name in them because, as we all know, articles that generate clicks get ad revenue which ethical journalism with even rudimentary fact-checks don’t necessarily.

Basically, this movie needs to be seen because honestly I feel like Sunil Tripathi’s experience kind of gives an example of a lot of what I personally find wrong with our current society that is almost perpetually connected to the Internet. I also admire director Neal Broffman’s tasteful handling of what the movie covered.

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor

The title is no accident. The movie talks about physician Haing S. Ngor, who also in an Oscar-winning role portrayed Dith Pran (incidentally, at the time of his death, lived within a 10 minute drive from me in Woodbridge, New Jersey) in 1984’s The Killing Fields, and his experiences in the real killing fields in Cambodia. Thanks to The Killing Fields, the world has at least some knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and how they attempted their own cultural revolution in Cambodia very much modeled after that of Mao Zedong in Communist China, and that ended up being one of the worst genocides in history.

I think this documentary is important because this too addresses topics that people would be uncomfortable talking about, namely that Pol Pot’s rise to power was a result of the US bombing Cambodia in an attempt to take out the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Vietnam War and that much of the West supported the Khmer Rouge because they were a threat to the newly Communist Vietnam. Also, while Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi talked about topics that are as uncomfortable to discuss as Asian-on-Asian racism, The Killing Fields talks about Asian-on-Asian racism head-on because the Khmer Rouge also had a mission to ethnically cleanse Cambodia, particularly the many ethnic Vietnamese that lived there. I guess white and Japanese people aren’t the only ones capable of being racist after all.

I liked Arthur Dong’s creative (and tasteful) handling of the subject. The movie was a mix of archival footage and new animations to illustrate Dr. Ngor’s book.

This documentary really pulled no punches. I heard passages from Dr. Ngor’s book describing the Khmer Rouge’s violence, particularly against pregnant women, and the death of Dr. Ngor’s wife. Listening to them made me squirm in my seat, and it’s for that reason that I think it’s important that I saw it.

And that is why these two documentaries need to be seen: they will offend you, and through offense you will learn.