Documentary irons out a life


A few years ago, while visiting a farmers market in Oakland, California, Giap Thi Byers and her son, Tony Nguyen, went to a food stand that used ironing boards as dining tables.

Byers went up to one of the ironing boards and looked at the underside, which piqued her son’s curiosity.

“I walked over, and she looked at me and said, ‘I make these at work,’” said Nguyen, who was shocked by the news. “When I saw her inspecting the ironing board, it just dawned on me that I didn’t really know too much about my mother. I knew she worked in a factory, but I didn’t know exactly what kind of work she did.”

That spurred Nguyen, a 39-year-old filmmaker, to document his mother’s story. It initially was going to be a video for him to share with family and friends and be a memento for his mother.

But after he showed some of the footage to one of his mentors and award-winning filmmaker, Steven Okazaki, Nguyen was encouraged to make it a documentary.

After gaining approval from his mother’s bosses, Nguyen flew from Oakland to Seymour a couple of years ago to film his mother’s last day of working on the assembly line at Home Products International Inc., which is the only ironing board factory remaining in America.

“Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory,” a half-hour documentary directed by Nguyen with producing and editing by Okazaki, will have its Midwest premiere at Indy Film Fest in Indianapolis as part of the Long Goodbye Short Films program. It will be shown at 11 a.m. Sunday and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Deboest Lecture Hall at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Byers, who still lives in Seymour, and Nguyen, who is flying in from Oakland, will attend the showing and answer questions at the end.

The film also tells the story of how Byers, who was a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 when she fled the country after the fall of Saigon, ended up in Seymour. She was pregnant with her son at the time, and the film follows his childhood in Seymour.

This past spring, the film was shown at a documentary festival in Montana. It also was shown at other film festivals, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In San Francisco, Nguyen won the Loni Ding Award in Social Issue Documentary.

Nguyen said his mother saw an early cut of the film, but Indianapolis will be the first time for her and other family members to see it together on the big screen. Nguyen’s sister, Kimberly Tran, who lives in Seymour, also is in the movie. He said he has several other family members who live in the area.

The film is a part of the Hoosier Lens series, which involves narrative or documentary films with strong production ties to Indiana. It cost more than $100,000 to make.

“I’m really excited about screening in Indiana and for the premiere to be at the Indy Film Fest,” said Nguyen, who visits the Hoosier State at least once a year. “I think that festival is a wonderful venue to showcase the best films out there, so I feel really honored to be a part of it.”

Several years after graduating from Seymour High School in 1994, Nguyen became a self-taught filmmaker. This is his second film. His first, an hourlong murder-mystery titled “Enforcing the Silence,” came out in 2011.

“Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory” is the first of a three-part autobiographical series Nguyen has dubbed “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

That stems from the feelings Nguyen and his family felt in 1975 when they were the first Vietnamese refugee family in Seymour. Also coming to America were Byers’ brother and his wife and kids and Nguyen’s grandmother.

“A lot of Americans didn’t really want a lot of the refugees to come over because it was going to be such an influx of immigrants,” he said.

But there were some, especially religious people, who felt Americans needed to help the Vietnamese, he said.

Refugee settlement camps were set up around the country, and Nguyen and his family wound up in Pennsylvania. At the time, former State Sen. Joseph Corcoran led a committee at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Seymour, and they decided to sponsor Byers and her family.

Corcoran helped Byers get a job, and she first worked at the former Excello Shirt Factory before spending 24 years at Home Products International.

Now 69, Byers is enjoying retired life. This past winter, she went to Vietnam for the first time since 1975.

“It was the first time for her to be together with all of her siblings in one place,” Nguyen said. “She still has two siblings that live there.”

Once the film goes through the festival phase, Nguyen said, the Center for Asian American Media will distribute it to be broadcast on PBS.

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What: “Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory” documentary showing during the Indy Film Fest

When: 11 a.m. Sunday and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The Deboest Lecture Hall at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis

Tickets: $10 (can be purchased online at or during the festival)

Synopsis: In 1975, a seven-months pregnant Vietnamese refugee, Giap, escapes Saigon in a boat and, within weeks, finds herself working on an assembly line in Seymour. Thirty-five years later, her aspiring filmmaker son, Tony, decides to document her final day of work at the last ironing board factory in America. It turns into a painful but loving journey.



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