A still from Walk Run Cha-Cha, a short documentary about immigration and love by director Laura Nix ’89.
A still from Walk Run Cha-Cha, a short documentary about immigration and love by director Laura Nix ’89.

Walk Run Cha-Cha All the Way

Will Laura Nix ’89 win an Oscar for her powerful new documentary?

By Katie Pelletier ’03 | February 4, 2020

At 5 a.m. on a January, Monday morning, filmmaker Laura Nix ’89 sat holding hands with Paul and Millie Cao in their Los Angeles home, glued to a laptop screen. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was announcing the award nominees, and they were waiting to hear whether their film, Walk Run Cha-Cha, would lead them on an Oscar adventure.

From a field of 96 submitted films, 10 had been chosen for consideration. Now five would be nominated and presented at the high-profile awards ceremony in February. The announcer worked alphabetically through the nominations for short film documentary. Finally, she said, “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” and the group of friends erupted into cheers of excitement and joy. 

It was the first Academy Award Nomination for all of them, something that Laura, an accomplished director and producer, has long worked toward, and something that Paul and Millie, two ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, likely never dreamed of. 

“I just think it’s amazing that Paul arrived as a refugee, and 40 years later he receives an Oscar nomination. We were so happy and so blown away.”

Walk Run Cha-Cha follows the Caos, a couple who have taken up dancing in their early 60s in order to reignite the romance in their relationship—a romance that was interrupted by war, separation, arriving as refugees in the United States, and later, the day-to-day struggle of rebuilding their lives in a foreign country. 

Laura met the Caos after stumbling into a dance studio one day while researching another project in the San Gabriel valley, east of Los Angeles. In the middle of a weekday, under a dynamic rainbow of nightclub lighting, she saw a crowd of older Asian-American couples—about 50 people—dancing the tango.

“What is this beauty?” she thought. She wanted to know more, and so she enrolled in classes. 

As she learned more about the community of this dance studio in suburban L.A., she began to envision a film. The instructors were professional ballroom dancers, mostly from eastern Europe and Russia, pursuing their careers while teaching standard and Latin American dance on the side to members of the local Chinese-American community. The cultural mix inspired her. “This could be an amazing way to talk about what America is. And what Los Angeles is,” she remembers thinking.

She took classes for a year and she got to know Paul and Millie, an electrical engineer and an auditor who were dedicated dancers, practicing after work, four or five nights a week, and entering competitions. She wondered “Why did they dance so seriously?” This question would ultimately drive her project. One day, she “popped the documentary question,” as she puts it, asking the couple if they would let her film them. They agreed and she spent the next six years filming, all the while juggling other projects and deepening her friendship with the Caos.

“I believed in the film so much. I believed in them so much,” she says. She thought their story was remarkable, even while they assured her it wasn’t. They kept telling her repeatedly over the years they were ordinary people. Every Vietnamese refugee story is the same, they said. But Laura disagreed. 

“This is the thing,” she says; “every refugee story is extraordinary. What people go through to be able to find refuge in a new land is extraordinary. And once they land, they must reinvent their lives. It’s something exceptional.”

Laura's other films have received critical acclaim as well, playing widely at film festivals, in theatrical and television releases. Her 2018 feature documentary Inventing Tomorrow, about teenagers from around the globe who are solving environmental problems, premiered in the US Competition at Sundance Film Festival. It went on to win multiple awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, and it was broadcast on the PBS series POV. She’s covered a wide variety of topics from a girls Qur’an school in Syria in The Light in Her Eyes (2011), to the hilarious and mischievous duo known as the Yes Men (one of whom is Igor Vamos ’90) and their highly inventive forms of climate activism and political protest in The Yes Men Are Revolting (2014) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009). A rising star, she was recently named a Breakthrough Filmmaker by Chicken & Egg Films, a prestigious award given to women documentarians.

At Reed Laura was a history major, writing her thesis on American domestic architecture and gender with Julia Liss [history 1987–89]. “My education at Reed is the foundation of so much of what I do as a filmmaker,” Laura says. “And that’s because I was taught to think critically, and how to engage in a multivalent dialogue.” In fact, when budding filmmakers ask her for advice about what film school they should go to, she says, “I’m not sure you should go to film school."

Her social science background has helped her seek out different sources and points of view to inform herself, process them, and then make something. “I’m not intimidated by having to research subjects that I don’t know a lot about, synthesizing a huge amount of information, coming up with analysis of that, and putting it into play. That’s what my Reed education gave me. It’s helped me with every single film I’ve ever done.”

Walk Run Cha-Cha, is testament to Laura’s ability to plunge into the depths of a subject and deliver a unique and nuanced work of art. The film is available to stream at the New York Times, and is part of their Op-Docs series, which features short documentaries by independent filmmakers. She notes in her introduction, “Films about refugees and immigrants are often focused on the point of entry, when the newly arrived are at their most vulnerable. But it’s essential for us to hear stories about what happens next.” Indeed, one of the film’s many achievements is the way in which its line of inquiry gives space for Millie and Paul to express themselves how they choose, which has been through dance. 

The Oscar announcement came on the heels of two important dates. The day prior had been the 40th anniversary of Paul’s arrival as a refugee to the United States. It was also the 30th wedding anniversary for the couple. “I think it’s because of their history that they are so willing and able to reinvent themselves in their early 60s, forty years later. But this time, the reinvention is about pleasure and creativity and joy.”

Tags: Alumni, Performing Arts