Oscar broadcast lifts teacher back to red carpet

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Brenda Lewis displays some of her Oscar memories.

Every year as she watches the Academy Awards on television, Brenda Lewis is transported back in time to the year she walked the red carpet.

Only four years ago this Blackman High School culinary arts teacher got the chance to travel to Beverly Hills, Calif. and take a limousine to the Oscars held at the Kodak Theatre.

"When I saw that red carpet, I thought I got to do that," Lewis said. "Walking the red carpet is something a normal person doesn't get to do."

Lewis attended the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony as a part of the delegation for "Daughter from Danang," a film that was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Lewis said she was treated just like a movie star. She was stopped by the paparazzi for photographs and she was asked for her autograph.

Unfortunately, the film didn't win the coveted trophy.

"It makes you feel like it is all worthwhile," she said of attending the Oscars. "We didn't mind not winning. We were glad that we got to go."

The film, however, did win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Prize Golden Gate Award at the 2002 San Francisco International Film Festival and was the feature selection at the 2002 New Directors/New Films New York Festival.

Lewis said you never know where your life is going to lead, and she had no idea that befriending a young girl would lead to a gripping family drama and an award-winning documentary.

The documentary, produced by Gail Dolgin and directed by Dolgin and Vicente Franco, is about the reunion of Heidi Bub, who grew up in Pulaski, and her birth mother in Vietnam in 1997 after being separated 22 years.

Bub's mother, Mai Thi Kim, sent her daughter to America as part of Operation Babylift, a Ford administration program that got mixed-race children out of the country after the war. Bub's birth father was an American serviceman.

Lewis spent several years helping Bub locate her birth mother, even enlisting the help of the television show "Unsolved Mysteries," which investigated the case for years. Bub's adopted mother wouldn't help in the process. She had actually worked to keep Bub hidden for decades.

In a sense, Lewis became Bub's family after she also later became estranged from her birth mother.

"I always told Heidi that I couldn't give her her family, but I could give her her roots," she said.

Lewis was interviewed for about two hours by the filmmakers. She appears on screen for what she estimated as 10 seconds.

"I play myself in the movie," Lewis said, "and the movie is dedicated to me."

According to a letter written by Bub that tells her story, "Unsolved Mysteries" located an agency in Oregon that handled her adoption. Through the agency, Bub learned her mother had been trying to locate her.

The adoption agency had a letter from her mother and attached to it was a business card for T.T. Nhu, a native of Vietnam who had tried to help Kim relocate to the United States to find Bub. Bub called Nhu who helped her get into contact with her mother.

The filmmakers found out about Bub's story from Nhu, a friend of Dolgin's. "Daughter from Danang" captured the emotional reunion and the cultural conflicts that followed. Shortly after the reunion, Bub's new family wanted her to financially support them.

That was something Bub wasn't willing to do because she didn't feel it was her place and due to the dynamics of the family. Bub currently doesn't communicate with her Vietnamese family.

Lewis is still astonished about how friendly and down-to-earth the movie stars were.

It was thrilling for Lewis to see stars like Catherine Zeta Jones, who won best supporting actress that year for her role in "Chicago," and Michael Douglas. She remembers chatting with such stars as Queen Latifah and being within an arms reach of John Travolta, Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg.

The Governors Balls, the official post-Oscar party hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was spectacular in its presentation, Lewis said.

It featured a multi-course, sit-down meal prepared by famed Chef Wolfgang Puck and gold-dusted chocolate Oscar trophies. Lewis saved hers. She also saved her ticket and program from the ceremony, a ribbon embellished with the film's title and several newspaper clippings from the event. Lewis spent a total of four days in the Beverly Hills area.

She traveled everywhere in a limousine and everything was free.

"You come back to Tennessee and your bubble was busted," she said.

But Lewis said her time in California and Bub aren't forgotten. She still gets e-mails and phone calls regarding the film. It still plays every now and then on public television.

Lewis even screens the documentary every year for her students. Lewis also still keeps in touch with Bub, who has moved to another state, by telephone every few weeks.

She may never make it back to the Academy Awards, but Lewis hopes to see Bub this spring.

Tagged under  Blackman, Brenda Lewis, Education, Entertainment, History, Movie, Vietnam, War

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