One boat with 110 passengers escaped from Vietnam
After 37 days of drifting, only 52 survived
This is their story

Winner of  2009
Northern California
Emmy Awards

Outstanding Achievement in  Documentary
Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition 


On a moonless summer night, a lone wooden boat cruised slowly on the Mekong River toward the ocean. Its mission was to quietly crept away from the shore of Vietnam in search of a new asylum. At the same time, the USS Dubuque of the US Navy, departed Sasebo, Japan. Its operation was to head a minesweeping force in the Persian Gulf. Their courses collided and the meeting exploded into a horrifying headline- "Cannibalism at Sea."

In June 1988, the USS Dubuque, an amphibious transport dock ship stationed in Japan, was ordered to Bahrain as a flagship for mine-sweeping in the Persian Gulf. While crossing the South China Sea, the Dubuque encountered a small wooden boat equipped with a makeshift sail. This boat carried over 100 Vietnamese refugees, who frantically waving for help. When the Dubuque came within 500 yards of the boat, some refugees dove into the water and swam toward the ship. The Commanding Officer, Captain Alexander G. Balian, refused to allow them to board. The crewmen threw life preservers to the swimmers. The Captain, to avoid giving the refugees false hope, ordered no more preservers to be thrown. Consequently, at least one swimmer was reported to have drowned. Balian, then ordered a motor whaleboat with an investigative party to inspect the refugee boat from a closer distance. Meanwhile, the swimmers attempted to climb the "monkey lines" attached to the ship but were shaken-off by crewmen. Dubuque's Executive Officer in the whaleboat circled the boat from ten yards away. No one boarded the refugee boat to check the condition of the boat or its engine. Despite the distress shown by the passengers onboard, the officers determined that the junk was seaworthy and no medical assistance was needed. No one from the investigating team was debriefed. Balian gave the refugees food, water, a navigational chart and directions to land, but refused to rescue the passengers. A compass was not included. Captain Balian, a twenty-five year Navy veteran and a recipient of a Silver Star and a Purple Heart medal during the Vietnam War, had been involved on two previous occasions with the rescue of refugees. However, this time he decided to leave them behind.

What followed in subsequent days was a grueome calamity. After the disappointing two-hour encounter with the U.S. Navy ship, the Bolinao floundered for 18 more days. Phung Quang Minh, who was in charge of the boat from day three when the boat engine broke down, took control of the rations and water given by the Americans. Based on the false information given by the Vietnamese speaking petty officer from the whaleboat, Minh and his companions were misled to believe that another ship would come to their rescue within two days. He and the other passengers exhausted the food and water within a week. On day 12, after the encounter with the Dubuque, the refugees were dying at the rate of two-a-day. Minh approached Dinh Thuong Hai about the fate of his weakened friend, Cuong. Hai understood that his friend would be killed for the survival of others but said: "What I couldn't understand was why he had to take someone who was still alive when so many were dying." Indeed, Cuong was taken to the rear of the boat and drowned while he was alive. The meat then was cut up and boiled in sea water. All survivors on board consumed the flesh. Hai said. "We were told we had to eat to stay strong, and if we didn't we would be next." Hai's cousin was also cannibalized one day before the destitute refugees were rescued by Filipino fishermen.


While the notion of closure has become one of American culture's most banal cliches, "Bolinao 52" earns its catharsis, because the subjects have lived with the pain for so long they're ready to let some of it go. In telling the story of one boat, Nguyen is hoping that he'll ease some of the burden of many who survived the South China Sea passage.

Long after the Vietnam War had ended, refugees were still streaming out of that country on small boats pathetically ill-equipped for long ocean voyages. Of the millions who attempted to escape, it is believed as many as half died. One of the most horrifying such odysseys is recounted in this documentary by Duc Nguyen.

If you're looking for the doc competition's most horrific narrative, seek out Bolinao 52, a nevertheless gracious film that gets to bottom of what happened to a group of Vietnamese "boat people" who attempted to leave their country in 1988... And if that kind of trauma can eventually lead to healing, there's hope yet for the subjects of all the other films-- not to mention the world as a whole.
Be prepared, be ready to have your heart bleed for your race, the human race.
This film showed what mental and physical endurance really means. When there is nothing left but hope and a strong belief in faith--when food and water are at stake.


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