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She never told anyone her story of fleeing Vietnam. Now, it's the focus of a documentary

Long before Nina Newell was a pediatrician and writer here in Arizona, she and her family were refugees from Vietnam.

They made a narrow escape from Saigon on a boat in 1975 — and the trouble didn’t end there. After the family made it to the US, Nina endured a period of homelessness, before ultimately earning a Ph.D.

When she met filmmaker Cindy Lee in a writing class, Lee was bowled over by Newell's story and asked if she could turn it into a documentary film. That film is now premiering at the Phoenix Film Festival.

It's called "The Stories They Didn't Tell Us — Nina's Story." And it's the first time Newell has really opened up to anyone, including her own family, about the details of her harrowing escape.

Newell and Lee spoke with The Show about the delicate art of real life family drama.

"You know, I have certain memory and flashes in my head. But at one point when Cindy interviewed me, I was like that did happen. It wasn't a movie I saw. Oh, it wasn't in my imagination. So yeah, I had that," Newell said.

Newell said she felt at times she couldn't trust her memory of that time.

"Oh, totally completely. Because people ask, 'how did you survive that? 'You know, like when you're a kid. And I think actually I can dissociate a lot as a child. I remember being on the boat and thousands of people, and we had like a corner of a blanket that was our family space. And just sitting there and just seeing a lot of people crying, sad kids and a lot of things. And I remember going, 'OK, I'm not here. I'm somewhere else. And that was my coping. I'm not here. I'm whatever it is. I wasn't really living in the present," Newell said.

A particularly harrowing moment in the file comes before the crossing, and Newell is still very young. She is sent to get groceries, and has to step over dead bodies on the journey. But she remembers the main thing she told herself was that she needed to make sure she got the correct change at the store.

"The headspace, yes. And I don't think as a kid, I thought that was a horrible, you know, thing because it, it's kind of normal. And I remember feeling I was kind of proud that I got the change, and money and I was entrusted. I think it's like everything until I was, like, a lot older. And maybe when I was a parent, I was like, and my kids were 6 and I'm like, wow," Newell said.

Lee first heard about Newell's story in class.

"The first time I got any piece of it was when we shared the creative nonfiction introduction, creative nonfiction writing class. There was some story that she had written and it was really, it's one of those wild stories. And, yeah, so that was the first time," Lee said.

Lee said while the film is based on Newell's story, it's one that many people, including herself, could relate to.

"Well, first of all, the title of the film is "The Stories They Didn't Tell Us." And this is "Nina's Story." But that's actually my lived experience also. So my father came in 1948 just after World War II. He came from Korea and there were losses. He had lost his family to bombing during the Korean War when he was here. So there were stories that we never heard as kids growing up as American kids. My father just didn't tell us the stories. My father was 96 last year. My dad had some weird lung thing that showed up. So they wanted to do an MRI. I took him to the place where the MRI and he, he's getting in and, you know, it's a long tube thing," Lee said.

"And he said, 'you know, I have claustrophobia.' And I said, 'Really, Dad?' And he said, 'yeah, because when I was young, I was put into,' his family was involved in sort of an underground freedom movement. And, so he was actually as a, I guess, late teenager put into prison or jail. So he was in a room full of men. And sleeping quarters was shoulder to shoulder with people. And he said you could feel bugs running across you and so on."

"So in a normal household situation, going to work in the car and whatever you don't encounter this sort of, but suddenly the idea of an MRI and it conjured up in his mind. So it kind of made the correlation. That was the first time I'd heard about them, at 96," Lee said.

When asked if they felt they missed something by not hearing their parents' stories while they were younger, they shared about their thoughts at the time.

"Actually, I remember being a young child and feeling very responsible for my parents' pain or whatever it was that the trauma or just hard life?" according to Newell.

Newell said the experience left her with more of a motivation.

"To do better? So that's why when I had my children, it was intentional. You know, I didn't want them to feel responsible," Newell said.

Lee said she felt more pressure to fit into her suburban American neighborhood.

"When my father came, it was 1948. There weren't many Korean people, so there was no community. So we're in a suburban community and just want to fit in. So you're just interested in being like everybody else and you're a kid. So you're focusing on you and not about, gee, I wonder if my parents had some sort of history, that's interesting for me to know. Because your focus is on yourself, right?" Lee said.

"So really a lot of it is, we didn't ask. But as we got older, and my parents actually moved when he was 65, they moved back to Korea, we went to visit in Korea and some of the stories started coming out. And I said, 'Dad, how come we didn't ever hear these stories before?' He said, 'well, you were young and until you came to Korea, I didn't think you would be able to understand,'" Lee said.

Did Newell go to her kids and go to your husband before the film to let them know what they might see?

"I was content to let them find out from the film. So, even now it, actually, to be honest, even after the film, we still don't sit and talk about it. They didn't realize that the, the, the wall that I had put up inadvertently. And unfortunately, I think that wall doesn't come down as easy as I would like," Newell said.

Lee shared more about what was going on in her life when she started to make the film, and how that informed her choices.

"In January of last year, I lost my husband and I was in a podcast class and I thought I would just drop it. And then I decided, no, I want to keep doing what I'm doing. And we had an interview assignment. So I asked my father, would you be willing to let me interview you? And he knew that I lost my husband and he wanted to meet me up. He goes, 'I will do anything.' So I was planning to interview him in June and in mid-May, my dad fell, hit his head and died. So I had lost the opportunity to capture his stories," Lee said.

"So Nina, who knew that I'd lost my husband and I told her about my dad, and she said, I'm here for you. And so I came back to her and I said, would you be willing to let me interview you about your story? And her reaction was, 'oh, gosh,'" Lee said.

"I meant casserole, casserole," Newell said.

"She meant comfort and casseroles, but not necessarily that. So anyway, she thought about it and she said, yes, I will do that for you. And that's how this came about," Lee said. "So this film for me is more than just a film. It's about the amazing things that can come out of profound loss, perseverance, overcoming and becoming."

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record. 

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.