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Bumper Crop of Local Asian-American Docs
by Mara Math
Autobiographical Docmaker Deann Borshay shows the three orphan girls who were Cha Jung Hee.
It's been a banner year for locally made documentaries at the 2010 Asian American International Film Festival, running March 11-21 all over the Bay Area from the Castro and Kabuki to the Asian Art and San Jose museums - see:
. Cultural identity is a central theme with these films, whether uncovering the intersection of politics and personal history, limning biography, recounting communities coming to power, or revealing the evil that can emerge when "The Other" is dehumanized.
One exception to this trend is this year's potential sleeper, "Scrap Vessel," which began as director/producer Jason Byrne's thesis for his CalArts film MFA. The astoundingly beautiful 51-minute short bears witness to the last voyage of the 30-year-old coal freighter "Hari Funafuti" as she sails from Singapore to be dismantled in Bangladesh. Every nook and hidden corner of the scarred workhorse is lovingly recorded, revealing a weird beauty that recalls the industrial photography of Steichen and Abbott and the lyricism of Edward Weston: the pleasing colors of two waste barrels side by side, the wake viewed over the anchor, the surprisingly sinuous snaking of the anchor chain.
Byrne and cameraman Theron Patterson follow the "Hari Funafuti" to the Bangladeshi beach where she is dissected, listing to one side like a wounded elephant, and to the inland steel mill in Chittagong where the slabs cut from her cladding are re-milled. Nearly dialogue-free, "Scrap Vessel" is a poignant meditation on aging, obsolescence, and capitalism.
"In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee" a Korean-born adoptee, Deann Borshay, takes a second crack at searching for her true identity - the first was explored in her much-lauded 2000 doc, "First Person Plural." Borshay returns to Korea looking for the orphan Cha Jung Hee, in whose place, and under whose name, the orphanage sent her to her American adoptive parents.
Borshay laughs, with only a minimal regret, at how appropriate her first film's title would have been for her second film, since her identity proves even more "plural" when she uncovers a third girl who figured in the orphanage's chain of deception. Since the shoes her adoptive parents sent to the original Chan Jung figure prominently in this film, Borshay says she was tempted to use variants of the "in her shoes" clich‚ for the title. "But, in the end we felt 'In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee' represented the story the best."
Asked if she sees any similarities between her experiences, where her family denied the reality of her past, albeit with benign intentions, and those of incest survivors, whose families often insist that the survivor's reality is untrue, Borhsay agrees. "I imagine that some of the themes are similar. I think the difference I felt while I was growing up was that I developed amnesia. Memory is fascinating. If you haven't experienced amnesia or the recovery of repressed memory, it's easy to dismiss."
Despite the human mind's affinity for triads/threes/trilogies, Borshay has no intention of making a film about the unknown third girl. "Never! No, no, NO! I feel that my search has been satisfied. Initially, I set out to find the right woman, but a good part of what I ended up learning was how much of my own life I hadn't claimed because I was supposed to be her. In the end, it was about coming to the resolve that I needed to embrace my own life, that it was my own life. That's why the film took so darn long to make."
Two very different biographies provide more explicitly political personal histories. In keeping with this year's festival's spotlight on Filipino culture, Tom Coffman's "Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power" details the life and assassination of the beloved activist/politician who took on the powerful dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Curtis Choy ("The Fall of the I-Hotel") paints a more impressionistic portrait in "Manilatown is in the Heart," a "poetic documentary" about the late San Francisco poet, activist, and "manong" protector, Al Robles.
"My last doc was about Frank Chin, the playwright, so I called that one 'a novel doc,' just a cheap joke," Choy says, "but this time I meant it. Al lived a non-materialistic life along with his kind of Zen background. He lived in a world that is much more spiritual than the one that most of us know. I wanted to make an allusion to something other than the typical Ken Burns documentary - to remain true to what Al was."
Poet Activist Al Robles (bearded, in back) was dedicated to the "Manong," Filippino bachelors. photo AAIFF
Choy vehemently rejects voiceovers to fill the gaps that arise from his inability to penetrate Robles' fierce sense of privacy. "I grew up watching cinema verite, I always hated the idea of narration of any kind. To me, the narrator has to be organic to the subject, it's not the voice of God. Generally, I don't like to explain what can be shown."
Robles was reluctant to be his old friend's documentary subject, Choy says. "The ground rules were that basically I would not make him 'act.' Typically, if you shoot a documentary - well, how many times on PBS have you seen a professor walk across the campus? That's a setup shot. I could not do that with Al; I had to catch him doing whatever he did. Which was fine with me. That's why I don't like Errol Morris, he shoots with crane shots in 35 [millimeter film]. That's Hollywood bullshit."
Intensely modest, Robles was a challenge to shoot. Preternaturally aware of where the lens was, he'd instinctively turn his back when the camera started rolling. "I'd almost surreptitiously film him," Choy recalls, "sometimes without even looking at the finder, and when he caught on that he was being filmed, he'd gesture with his hand in a way that blocked his face. He wanted you to see his good deeds and emulate them, not celebrate them or him for doing them."
The development of community-wide rather than individual activism is depicted in Leo Chiang's "A Village Called Versailles." The largely Vietnamese community of Versailles in eastern New Orleans was roused from passivity to its first broad-based political action when the city, in a bout of blatant environmental racism, decided to situate a dump for post-Katrina debris, much of it toxic, next door. Chiang, having emigrated here himself at 15 with almost no English, was inspired to make the film when a friend, who was studying the recovery of communities of color, told him about the Versailles struggle.
"Being an immigrant myself, the idea of claiming your home and claiming your American identity resonated with me. I asked if I could tag along." Chiang hopes audiences, especially those from immigrant or disadvantaged communities, "and most especially, young people, will come away from the film saying, 'We can do something about the things that are wrong; we can get involved; civic engagement is worth it; go register to vote!'"
Chiang's current doc project springs directly from the community's empowerment: he's following the re-election campaign of Versailles resident Representative Joseph Cao, who was the first Vietnamese-American ever elected to the U.S. Congress, not coincidentally in the wake of the Versailles political invigoration.
Perhaps the most controversial of the locally-connected docs is "Lessons of the Blood," in which James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen conclusively reveal the horrors still lingering from Japan's bio-warfare experiments during World War II. During the Japanese occupation of China, Unit 731 conducted experiments on Chinese civilians, the horrors of which are still active in those who survived. It's a corrective particularly relevant in the Bay Area, given that just an hour north of San Francisco, the Travis Air Force base hosts the Jimmy Doolittle Air and Space Museum. As "Lessons" documents, the (in)famous Doolittle Raids in China were among the events whose terrible reality has been obscured by propaganda and mythologizing.
Hong and Chen's decision to make the film was sparked by the publication of a new Japanese high school history textbook in 2003 withih which the Nanking Massacre was described as an 'incident' and relegated to a footnote. While working on "Lessons," which took six years, Hong made the 2007 short "731: Two Versions of Hell," which Chen describes as "two different perspectives on one historical issue. You see no talking heads, no interviews, and no human subjects in that movie."
Hong's take is slightly different. "The '731' movie was an experiment with some of the footage. There was always the intention of making a longer film that dealt with more historical issues. The issue of 'balance' comes up a lot. But what balance is there when one side just says it isn't true? It seemed essential to me to address the prejudices we have when we hear about China or Japan."
The former San Franciscans left their home of twelve years to complete "Lessons." "We moved to Berlin in 2008 because we got a grant from the German government to finish this movie," Hong explains. "I'd applied for a lot of grants in the U.S. and got almost nothing." He agrees that one likely reason the German government supported the making of "Lessons of the Blood" was to show that the Nazis weren't the only war criminals. But in Europe there's more support for the arts generally, it's easier to get funding here, it's not easy at all in the U.S." The couple currently lives in the Netherlands, where Chen has a multi-media artist's residency.
It addition to its excellent docs, this year's festival has ample local features of interest, notably "Dear Lemon Lima." Director/writer Suzi Yonessi's debuts feature-length film, it is centered on a 15-year old half-Yupik girl (who, blue-eyed and fair-skinned and unacquainted with her absent Native father, identifies as white) and her high school environment, adults as well as teens will enjoy this witty, intelligent film. The uniformly excellent cast includes Melissa Leo in a radically different role the always-interesting Beth Grant.
Posted on Mar 01, 2010 - 01:34 PM