Documentary Re-Examines Controversial Hmong Shooting

A Hmong immigrant is convicted of killing six white hunters in a violent confrontation during deer hunting season in northwestern Wisconsin. Was it a racial incident? Was it the random act of a madman? Part courtroom drama, part intimate portrait, the hour-long documentary "Open Season" looks at the root causes and reverberating impact of this tragedy. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Lu Lippold and Mark Tang, co-directors and producers of the documentary.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the bestselling poet in the U.S. actually wrote his verse 800 years ago in Persian. We'll find out why he's such a hot commodity now.

But, first, a story about a clash of cultures that ended tragically in this country. Hmong immigrant Chai Vang went deer hunting in the woods of northern Wisconsin, not far from the town of Rice Lake in November of 2004. Hunting was one of the few pastimes where deep-footed American and Hmong cultures co-existed, until that day. In the span of a couple of minutes, six white hunters were killed and two were wounded. And Chai Vang was facing multiple murder and attempted murder charges.

Vang was refused a change of venue for his trial. One Hmong community activist saw the ensuing trial and media coverage like this.

Unidentified Man: Well, I felt this was an example of the equivalent of, sort of like an O.J. trial in our community. And that depending on your ethnic makeup and your background, your ethnic experience, racial experiences - it gave you a very different picture of the judicial system.

LYDEN: A look at the shooting, the controversy and the trial that followed and the Hmong people in this region of the country. They're all part of the new documentary called "Open Season." And I should point out for those who might be unfamiliar, that Hmong is spelled H-M-O-N-G. The Hmong are ethnic hill tribesmen from Laos and thousands of them came to the U.S. from Laos after helping the U.S. war effort in Laos and Vietnam.

With us today are the film's co-directors and producers of "Open Season," Lu Lippold and Mark Tang. And they join me now from the Twin Cities. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. LU LIPPOLD (Producer and Director, "Open Season"): Thank you.

Mr. MARK TANG (Producer and Director, "Open Season"): Thank you.

LYDEN: Lu Lippold, will you tell us what happened in November of 2004?

Ms. LIPPOLD: Well, in sum, Hmong hunter named Chai Vang was hunting in northern Wisconsin, he trespassed onto the property owned by Terry Willers and Robert Crotteau. To give you a picture of what these lands are like, there's a lot of space out there. So trespassing is pretty common. Chai Vang went up into a tree stand, which is a structure that people build on their land so that they can stand up high and see deer and shoot from there.

Terry Willers was out hunting. He saw Chai Vang in the tree stand, ascertained that he was not one of Terry's friends or Robert's friends and asked him to leave. Chai Vang started to leave. They had some conversation. Then, Terry Willers radioed to his friends who were back in the cabin to say, we got a tree rat, in other words, somebody trespassing and using their tree stand.

Apparently what happened then is the other property owner, Bob Crotteau and some of the rest of their hunting party decided that they were going to teach this guy a lesson. They were sick of trespassers and as some have said, they were sick of Asian trespassers in particular, because there have been other incidents of Hmong trespassing on people's private lands up there.

LYDEN: Mark Tang, you're a Chinese-American filmmaker from the Twin Cities. What made this story something you want to explore?

Mr. TANG: When the incident happened, it was around Thanksgiving and it really shook not only the hunting world and also the rural communities, but also in urban areas like St. Paul, Minneapolis, where we have the largest urban concentration of Hmong-Americans. And it seems like at that time emotions were pretty high and the soundbites on nightly TV news really put, you know, the whole Hmong community and Hmong culture on trial.

So I was really interested in looking at the impact on not only the Hmong-American community, but as a whole on the larger community. And hopefully create some understanding, you know, of all the issues that bubble up, you know, after the incident happened.

LYDEN: Pretty quickly, the Hmong community felt that it was itself on trial and that didn't help really shed light on the incident. You interviewed Tujir Yan(ph) who says this about how the community feels.

Mr. TUJIR YAN: This is the first time the Hmong community is being introduced to all corners of the country and here we are, the first Hmong guy they see on TV is in a red jumpsuit and on trial for six counts of murder, you know. So what does this say to our community? What kind of picture does this paint about the Hmong-American community?

LYDEN: But, Lu, six people were dead and charges were filed. I mean, what was going on in the Anglo hunting community?

Ms. LIPPOLD: Well, in the Rice Lake community in particular and in the rural white community, there was a lot of defensiveness about racism because they felt that the world was coming down on them, as look at - see these racist white hicks are tormenting this Asian guy and, you know, this is what happens. So they didn't feel like their community was being characterized very favorably either.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

And I'm speaking with Lu Lippold and Mark Tang, co-producers and directors of the new documentary "Open Season," about the shooting deaths of six hunters in Wisconsin in 2004.

Let's listen to what Chai Vang, who went on trial, would later be convicted said. Here you have a Hmong hunter, he is carrying a weapon, alleging that he's been harassed, fearing for his life. Be warned this language in this section, even though we've censored some of it, isn't necessarily meant for all ages. Let's listen to what he said on the stand that the white hunter said to him.

(Soundbite of film, "Open Season")

Mr. CHAI VALE: Do you know you are trespassing 400 acres of land, you damn (beep). You (beep) Asians keep coming to my land, I'm going to kick your (beep) Asian (beep).

LYDEN: We should add that later in the film he's somewhat dispassionate, saying that two of these people actually deserved to die.

Mark Tang, the jury was all white. How do you think that fact played out in the jury room and the way the testimony was presented?

Mr. TANG: I think one of the best kind of explanations or defensive kind of answer to that by actually the defendant's lawyers that had there been a jury from a diverse population, the verdict could have been different.

LYDEN: He was eventually convicted of first degree murder six times and attempted murder twice. Lu Lippold, watching this, your documentary does leave open exactly what happened in terms of who fired that first shot because it was never established who did, correct?

Ms. LIPPOLD: Correct.

LYDEN: Why was that?

Ms. LIPPOLD: There were forensics and firearms experts at the trial, but there was no testimony as to who fired first.

LYDEN: And the defendant, Chai Vang, keeps saying, I felt threatened, I felt like they were going to kill me. But he also is questioned by the prosecutor who says, Mr. Vang, do you think these people deserved to die? And in two cases he says yes. Was he represented well, Lu?

Ms. LIPPOLD: I think the fact that he so clearly shot people in the back, murdered people in cold blood, one might say, whether or not he was threatened, he was going down. I mean, there was no way to defend those actions. The fairness of the trial I think is partly judged in the Hmong community by the fact that we don't know how threatened he felt and was there an element of self-defense?

And, also, the sort of wasted opportunity to bring up these cultural issues that had to do with the bullying of the Hmong who trespass and the fact that Hmong do trespass, and the fact that white hunters and Hmong hunters have a lot in common. And none of these issues were raised in the trial at all by these attorneys. So I think that's part of the frustration on the part of the Hmong community.

LYDEN: Have you had different reactions amongst Asian audiences and white audiences, or film viewers, I should say?

Ms. LIPPOLD: We had an audience - we did a focus group screening and there were probably, I don't know, 70 people there maybe. And many of them were Asian, many were Hmong and one response from that audience was - it was like what Tujir said about the O.J. trial, people did not want to hear bad things about Chai Vang, about his previous violent behavior. There is some sense in that community of him as a folk hero in that he stood up to this kind of racial taunting, even though nobody is going to say, yes, it's good that he killed people. I mean, that's just not cool.

But there is a little bit of resentment about, now we are tainting Chai Vang to some degree with the information that comes out about him in the documentary.

LYDEN: And have there been any efforts for the two communities to heal this breach in any way?

Mr. TANG: Well, the saddest thing is it took so long for the completion of the film - first of all, there was another case two years later where a white hunter killed a Hmong hunter and hid his body. And, also, we were trying to follow a few individuals from the Hmong-American community here to reach out to the Rice Lake community.

So there were some initial moves, but basically, as a filmmaker's observation is that a lot of things bubble up from this violent incident, but there has not been any effort on both communities to reach out across the aisle to talk to each other, other than beyond saying, oh, we're going to need to educate more Hmong hunters to make sure they know how to read the signs.

LYDEN: But this is about a lot more than simply trespassing, obviously. Well, perhaps your film will be that opportunity.

Ms. LIPPOLD: That's what we hope.

LYDEN: Lu Lippold and Mark Tang are the co-directors and producers of the new documentary "Open Season" about a Hmong immigrant who shot and killed six people during a hunting trip in northern Wisconsin. They joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Thank you so much and good luck with your film.

Ms. LIPPOLD: Thank you.

Mr. TANG: Thank you.

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