By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
During the Visual Communications Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) this year, a number of Asian/Asian American documentary films were featured as part of the lineup. A running theme with the documentaries selected this year revolved around stories on histories, determination, journeys and resilience. Films like Try Harder, Wuhan Wuhan and Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, had strong showings because of the topics they were based upon.
Try Harder directed by Debbie Lum follows the journeys of five Lowell High-school students as they journey the road in achieving academic excellence in one of San Francisco’s oldest and most Asian American populated high-schools. The documentary received high acclaim after having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
When the conversation around Asians and education is floated the question about “tiger moms” and living up to “model minority” ideals always arises. Lum told AsAmNews that the original premise of Try Harder was about exploring the world of Asian American tiger moms, but instead turned into a documentary showing the pressures, achievements and the human side of teenagers striving for academic success.
“I was originally looking into a story about from the perspective of an Asian mother like myself. Lowell high school was one of the schools I was following” Lum stated.
“It turned into one about following the journeys of five different Asian American students and finding out about their highs and lows, their wins and losses. It was really an emotional journey for myself and the students involved.”
The film tackles the issue of competing in a school where almost every other student wants to be number one in academics. But does the film dispel or perpetuate more generalized Asian stereotypes? Lum said, it does a bit of both, but she emphasizes that the bigger issue is when a stereotype is only “partly” true, it is interpreted by the mainstream as being fully true and all Asians are categorized into it.
“I mean the “model minority” is a major stereotype we have to deal within our Asian communities. This stereotype may be partly true, but the problem is the one bit that is truthful becomes the fabric of complexities and nuances in our community and this can be harmful to our Asian kids” Lum says.
“It heightens the expectations of the Asian kids to perform and they feel their only choices are to be perfect, be nobodies or just to be not good enough.”
Try Harder is publicly released in the USA on December 3, 2021.
Wuhan Wuhan is a documentary directed by Yung Chang, Donna Gigliotti and produced by Peter Luo and Diane Quon. Its executive producer is none other than Donnie Yen. The film tracks the events following the COVID-19 Pandemic unfolding in Wuhan, China and follows the emotional and gut wrenching journeys of a doctor, a nurse, a volunteer psychologist, a mother and a volunteer driver as they navigate the collective pandemic experience.
Because of the emotional impact of this film, it would have been a very difficult process in getting to know the five people, filming, editing and getting this film ready for release. AsAmNews spoke with producer Peter Luo about his experience in being involved with the documentary.
“Our director Yung Chang told me about how emotional he felt engaging and getting to know the five people Wuhan Wuhan follows, because he was there with them following their gut wrenching journeys. As for myself, just being involved in the process of making this film, made me reflect a lot on how this pandemic has impacted both negatively and positively on different people’s lives”.
One takeaway, audiences watching Wuhan Wuhan can go home with is understanding that beyond all the confrontational geo politics, and COVID anti-Asian racism in the west, that when the pandemic first unfolded in Wuhan, the quick containment of the pandemic was due to human resilience, passion and determination. Luo speaks about how this is forgotten, and that those looking in from the USA need to recognize this.
“When audiences watch our film, I hope they can see that the pandemic containment efforts was due to normal people who were experiencing medical difficulties when the pandemic hit, but also those who risked their lives to jump in help in trying to stop the spread of COVID”, Luo says.
“When we are living in the USA, we sometimes forget that beyond the shadow of geo politics and racism, the containment efforts in China is all about the courage and determination of regular people.”
Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust ,a documentary by Ann Kaneko and produced by Jin Yoo-Kim, focuses on the colonial legacy of injustice shared at the site of Manzanar. The film takes you on a journey talking about the site’s role in the Japanese American incarceration of WWII, the injustices of Native Americans fighting for their land rights and the fight against climate change.
Director Ann Kaneko, talks about how making this film was personal for her, because her parents and grandparents were incarcerated during WWII ( not at Manzanar site but at other incarceration camps), and that Los Angeles is where her family has called home for three generations.
“For me, this documentary is personal. Both my parents and grandparents were incarcerated during WWII, so this is a history I have a deep connection to” says Kaneko.
“Before making this documentary, I was already aware of all the great documentaries made about this history and hence I have always been hesitant to touch this topic. However, I realized this is a documentary I must make because it’s one I can talk about.”
One interesting thing about the structure of the documentary film is that it cleverly connects three different communities/histories to the land Manzanar, but it is not told in a chronological way, but it overlaps each other as it is built thematically. Linking the colonial legacy of injustice with issues around climate change and environmental conservation was an interesting twist which made this documentary very unique.
“Audiences watching this may ask why it isn’t told chronologically”, says producer Jin Yoo-Kim.
“We tried the linear type storytelling, but it didn’t work for our film as there were many overlaps of things happening at different time with different communities. We knew we must build this film thematically and both Ann and our editor Susan used the idea of flowing water to connect each theme of the the film. We want this film to push boundaries and make the audiences feel the land is alive, and that is how we structured the film”.
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