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Through a glass eye; Documentary series explores culture clashes from a Hmong perspective.

By: Kristin Tillotson; Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) June 30, 2002, Sunday

Polygamy. The exploitation of young girls. A small town up in arms over an old-fashioned slaughterhouse. Domestic abuse.       

Promo teasers from the latest TV-news sweeps week? No, they're four of the six topics explored in "Glass Eye/Metal Face," a documentary series that delves into sensitive issues for Hmong-Americans. The difference between these programs and most news coverage of this community is that they are told from a Hmong point of view _ that of filmmakers Va-Megn Thoj and Noel Lee of Frogtown Productions.      

Titled after the English translation of the Hmong words for "camera" and "television," the series was funded by the Center for Hmong Arts & Talent in St. Paul. Thoj, 30, and Lee, 26, intentionally focused on subjects no one wants to talk about _ which might guarantee audience interest in the final product but doesn't make the job easy, especially on a budget of $50,000.       

A previous short festival-circuit film by Thoj, "Borne in War," offers snapshots of his life, from his birth on a CIA base in Laos to his college days, when he opposed the Persian Gulf War. He and Lee now make educational videos and commercials, including spots for Hmong political candidates.      

While they demonstrate an obvious empathy for the Hmong side when cultures clash, they also attempt to show balance through interviews _ or at least attempted interviews _ with the opposition: In last week's look at the closing of a Hmong farmer's traditional cattle-slaughtering operation in the small farming town of Hugo, Minn., news clips of the city's attorney and other officials were used when town residents declined to speak on camera. Most impressively, the filmmakers don't gloss over ugly behavior from their community's bad apples.      

Tonight's installment, taped at a Hmong refugee settlement in Thailand, trains a critical eye on foreign men who prey on the naivete of village girls by promising them money and marriage for appearing in cheaply shot, low-quality videos. Not usually pornographic, these videos are popular with older Hmong in the United States for the glimpses of home they provide, but the girls are paid relatively little money.      

What enrages the villagers most is that these arrogant flimflam men are Hmong-Americans: "We should be one heart, one people," says an elderly man, "but they pluck away our daughters. Hmong-Americans have money, so they do what they please."      

The opening shot circles a group of mesmerized children gathered around the body of a beautiful young woman who committed suicide after the betrayal of a filmmaker. Her mother, both grief-stricken and ashamed, has placed the body outside as a cautionary tale, and to distance herself from the tragedy. Hmong funerals are usually held indoors.      

Upcoming topics range from the educational to the incendiary, including a profile of the first Hmong Boy Scout troop in the nation, a Hmong breast-cancer survivor in her 60s who defied a cultural aversion to the surgical removal of body parts, and the unofficial polygamy still practiced by Hmong in this country, in which a man's marriage to one wife is legal but another woman will share the household as a second, common-law wife.      

I haven't yet seen the multiple-wives installment, one that's likely to raise brows and ire across the state. But I hope Thoj and Lee approach it in the same manner with which they expose the racism we all know simmers just under the Minnesota Nice veneer _ with simple storytelling that quietly drives home the point, rather than provoking the defensive reflex brought on by whining and aggrandizing.      

If an immigrant community's history can be measured in waves, the first comes when their numbers are great enough to be noticed by the mainstream population and warrant news coverage. The second comes when they are settled to a point at which their cultural contributions are noted (some appreciated, some disparaged).      

"Glass Eye/Metal Face" rides the crest of the third wave _ a generation of Hmong raised in Minnesota, telling stories of value not only to one segment of the population but to all of it.

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_ Kristin Tillotson is at ktillotson@startribune.com. Read past PopStands at http://www.startribune.com/popstand

Glass Eye/Metal Face      

What: A documentary series produced in St. Paul that explores controversial issues between Hmong-Americans and the community, including polygamy, traditional methods of slaughtering animals and domestic abuse. Tonight's episode focuses on the exploitation of Hmong girls in Thailand by Hmong-Americans.      

When: 8 p.m. Sundays thru July 28.      

Where: KTCI-TV, Channel 17.