Interview with Loni Ding
by Barbara Abrash, April 28, 1991
reprinted from Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc.
ARTIST AND INFLUENCE
1992 Volume XI
Barbara Abrash (BA) is Associate Director, Center for Media, History and Culture, New York University
BA: Loni you are a filmmaker, an advocate, a community organizer, a teacher. This is a very rich and complex life. You are a major force in independent filmmaking. How did this journey begin?
I was the last of seven kids. My mother and father came from China in 1919 to San Francisco. We grew up in Chinatown for the first three years of my life and then we moved into a part of San Francisco which was, at that time, a place where "Orientals" did not live. There was something called "restrictive covenant", so you could not just live anywhere in the city.
All through my school years right up until the time I went to college at U.C. Berkeley, I attended schools in which my sisters and brothers were the only Asians. So I had the experience of growing up very aware that I was different from every one else. It was also really clear to me that we as a family were embattled and everyone of us had a role job to do: to represent ourselves as a Chinese family.
We were only six miles from Chinatown, but it might as well have been on another planet because life was still that segregated.
Very early I had to make up my mind what I felt about being Chinese. Was that an inferior thing or not? Luckily, because of the kind of family I grew up in, I knew absolutely that the problem was not mine. But the reality was that we were powerless. So I had to think of strategies and I would keep certain things to myself.
Outside is not inside; inside the home is not outside on the street. That constant duality was something that I lived with all of my life, including what I thought to myself within my family and what I said out loud within the family.
Anyhow, as the youngest child in a fairly hierarchic family, you are not the one who speaks up. You can see that I've changed! I think that created an inner life for me. Ultimately, it helped to develop a multilayered kind of consciousness, not only in the way you act but also in the way you get used to having to balance things against each other. So long as you are not troubled with the feeling that there is something basically wrong with you, which I was spared, then it becomes complexity rather than contradiction and conflict. I don't think I was particularly conflicted.
BA: You mentioned in the course of developing your identity as an artist how important your trip to Mexico was.
Yes. I didn't grow up with middle class whites. I grew up among Greeks, Portuguese, Irish, Italian, Catholic working class. We lived upstairs from an Irish tavern, Cavanaugh's, and there were broken families and a lot of drunkenness. I could see that even with my family's embattled state that other people had less than I did, except maybe the Mexican families whom I thought of as very warm and engaging people. That whole experience of Mexican people and culture came back to me many years later when I went to Mexico for a work camp with the American Friends Service Committee.
Before I went to Mexico, my whole sense of myself and my esthetic sense of what I liked in shapes and colors in clothing, furniture, sculpture, buildings, anything, was really into WASP culture. I liked gray colors, linear, Gothic shapes and hollow-cheeked people. I wanted to be a hollow-cheeked person, a wispy, tubercular type. Instead I was sturdy, chunky, mesomorphic.
Then I hit Mexico. I just went for the work camp but ended up seeing the murals of Diego Rivera, Orozco, and a lot of countryside of Mexicothe colors of the earth and people. I started to see that all the good people in the Rivera murals were the round, brown people: I saw the orange and the reds, the deep greens and the purples of the culture, and the round bodies painted by Rivera. When they sat down on the little chairs, part of their buttocks would hang over the edge! Very real and tender. The lean, gaunt faces were of Henry Ford, Rockefeller, the Conquistadorsthe evil people.
When I came back my tastes had completely turned around. I looked in the mirror and I rather liked this round person that I saw! Everything turned into reds, oranges and brilliant colors. I also looked differently at someone like Eric Sevareid, the news commentator who was a classic WASP type. I used to think that he was the absolute last word. And when Sir Kenneth Clark, in a PBS series, would talk about "Civilization," by which he meant only western European cultureI used to think that this was wonderful.
Well, when I got back I suddenly looked at both of these men with a totally distant eye. I had a skeptical attitude, and they no longer had any power over me. I thought they were quite ordinary.
BA: How did you become a filmmaker?
When I started college thought I was heading into medicine like a typical good Asian female. Medicine was something I could use in a social way like public health-type medicine. But I wasn't interested in chemistry. All my time was spent reading psychology, philosophy and flipping through the art books, but never thinking I should major in art because that was not an appropriate thing for a serious person like me. Luckily, I got saved by my lousy grades. I would have to study something else.
I happened to have had an excellent teacher at that time at Berkeley who was a social psychologist out of the Chicago school of sociology, which was exactly the kind of sociology that I found sympathetic: the real world, not quantitative survey sociology. I had always been trying to figure out the difference between my family and other families. What was the difference between the part of the city where I lived and San Francisco Chinatown where I would go to Chinese language school? Two different worlds; in one world you were considered to be independent, have your own opinions, express yourself and the teacher is supposed to encourage you to do that. In the other world the boys and the girls were separated in the classroom and the teacher was an unchallengeable authority, and you recited by memory pages out of texts, the whole point of which was getting good grades and reciting as fast as you could. Not expressively, not meaningfully, but fast, without error.
I was really very happy to be in Chinatown, whereas people who lived there acted like they could hardly wait to get out of the place because they thought it was so provincial. But to me Chinatown was warm and accepting so I formed attachments to the place and the people. And this very close feeling for them, taking shape when I was eight to twelve, came back to me many years later when I started making films.
So I went into sociology and right about that time the civil rights movement came along. Like everyone else I was watching what was happening in the south on television and felt like I had to do something about it. I thought of going down to Mississippi Summer, but I got pulled away from it by family matters at the last minute. I finally married David who was in Mississippi during that same summer; he became my life partner, a key person in my development and my work.
He was at that time a writer with the Detroit News and wanted to go down and cover what was happening. The editor said, "What do you have to do with the South? You have got a job to do here. He said, "Okay, I'll take a leave." The editor said, "If you take a leave, you are fired." He said, "Okay, I'm fired." And he went and it was the most important time of his life. Coming from such different backgrounds, we might not otherwise have met.
Then the Vietnam war came along while I was doing my dissertation. I had teaching positions and everything was going well for me except that the war was truly overwhelming. Being at Berkeley at the time, we were among the leaders of the anti-war movement. I ended up finally leaving the university for full-time organizing against the war. That put me out into the Bay area communities and I found that I was truly happy doing that instead of being in the stacks with my books and writing and re-writing very turgid stuff.
So I organized against the war for about two years and thenit just happened somehowI got shifted into grass roots organizing for the arts. I helped put together a grass roots neighborhood arts program for the San Francisco Bay area under the San Francisco Arts Commission. I did that for a couple of years, and during that time I had married and I had my daughter, and somehow it all worked togetherhaving the family, doing community work, doing community arts work. It was truly liberating and creative, and it put me into contact with a wide range of interests and artists, folk arts, classical arts, ethnic arts, contemporary arts, everything, the whole range.
At that time I was also involved in media advocacy. Communities of color in San Francisco were going around to the television stations in town and asking, "What are you doing for us?" That was during a time when the media had to answer to the FCC and stations could get renewal of their lucrative licenses only if they could show that they were serving communities in "the area of their signals."
The Chinese community wanted a TV series for teaching basic English to Chinese immigrants. I ended up being the project director and line producer for this TV series of English lessons done in sixty-five half-hour programs. It gave me my first experience in what television could do, and I loved it.
So I came out of the series thinking that this was the field I really wanted to go into. Right about that time there was an offer to go into a training program, and I said, "Fine, they will train me and I don't have to do anything or organize anything!" So I became a trainee at KQED public television in San Francisco, a training program for people of color. So there I was again, still a person of color, "officially" a person of color along with nine other "official" persons of color! We were to learn the engineering and managerial operations of this television station which KQED had been given as a tax write-off. KQED had a VHF station and a UHF station and this was the UHF station with a full studio of four cameras, lighting board, audio boardthe works. We were to learn to operate every piece of broadcast studio equipment, and then, after one year's time, we would operate it as a community station. That was the intent, the plan, the hope.
BA: After the seven years with the station, what did you do?
After seven years as a staff producer at KQED San Francisco public television doing mainly access production with Bay Area community groups, and a few national shows, I became an independent.
BA: You just decided to make the leap?
No, that was another accident. My life has not been based on a lot of planning. I became an independent because both the Chinese community and the station wanted to do a series on Chinese-American children ages nine through twelve. The Office of Education, the HEW, had sent out a call, saying, "We are prepared to entertain a proposal for a $300,000 grant on Asian American children." The station picked up this idea and wanted me to produce it. But I thought their idea was truly Mickey Mouse, a concept that I could never get behind. At the same time the community wanted to do something about identity, family, and community. I loved their ideas and I wanted to do it with them. The question was how to get the community project to be the one that the station would back. I was the one who had to make a choice and wrote the proposal for the community. However, the station did not want to back it. Instead they submitted a competing proposal with another staff producer.
What happened finally was that the community concept got funded and the station got funded for something else. The station then said, "Okay, you can take a leave of absence to do this project and you can return when you are done because you did offer us that project and we turned it down. Maybe we made a mistake." Also, the community people were extremely tactful. They said, "Can we say that if we get the proposal, we would be happy to work with you, and if you get the proposal we would like to have input?" It was very astute so that the station felt that it was all done on a friendly basis.
But after getting funded and leaving to do the project and being totally independent for the first time with the free choice of camera crew, own office, and having complete editorial and creative control, I truly felt that I could not go back to being an employee again.
BA: And that series was called Bean Sprouts?
Yes, it was a series of five half-hour shows on Chinese American kids, ages nine to twelve done in 1977. It has been fourteen years since I have been independent.
BA: The camera work in Bean Sprouts is so wonderful. How did you pick your crew?
I think these things are very political. When I got my grant to do Bean Sprouts, I had never shot a single camera narrative before. I had shot narratives in the studio with four cameras so you could set up multiple shots and call them. But to shoot a story line in which you have to use a single camera, you have to plan differently. I was asking around for who was a really good cameraman and a cameraman came up to me who was in fact the name recommended to me. "Well," he said, "I know about your project and the whole story of what happened, and I want to give you my services. I want you to succeed in this thing." He realized what was at stake before I did. He was an incredible cameraman named Rick Butler, a black, very politically conscious Stanford graduate who later went on to do some other projects for me, again in which his smarts and his knowing how to handle things helped me. I was doing a piece involving the San Francisco police, and he really took on those cops for me. He got them to respect the project, respect me and give me everything I needed, and then he shot it. He came out of a trained, educated sensibility. He was a wonderful cameraman not only in terms of his skill and his craft but also because he was completely at ease with the Bean Sprouts families and children. He understood who they were, and culturally he crossed that line easily.
For my other projects, I have continually chosen to work with people who may have relatively little experience in terms of craft but who have an involvement with and a sensitivity for that subject, a commitment to the project, and general smarts. They know how to write, make phone calls, they know how to operate in the world, but they happen not to have done sound before. In fact, they did learn sound, because I had two people who came out of the project terrifically skilled in sound by the end of the series who now earn a living at it as their craft. The closeness and the commitment form an attitude that shows itself eventually in the work.
BA: A lot of what you communicate is purely visual. How do you deal with both language and image? For example, in Bean Sprouts you show the child going to visit his mother in the sewing factory. How do you make those choices about the details, the moments, the gestures, the reaction shots that communicate so much about how people feel?
Yes, it is about moments. About that moment when the boy goes to his mother's factory and wants to be allowed to go on a camping trip, knowing that she's not going to want to say yes, in fact, has already said no. He has to negotiate, and what we want to say to kids is that when you find a difference between you and your folks, there are two ways you can go: you can lie and hide what you really are doing, or you can try to get it from them up front and try to find a common ground. We want to tell kids don't give up on being clear about differences between you and them and to believe that you can negotiate that difference. In putting boy and mother in the sewing factory scene, I think we looked around the room and said, "What are the ways that people express themselves in their relationship to work? What are they doing with their hands, their body language, that expresses their investment and involvement in their work? How can we present that?"
Just the idea to say to the cameraman, "Give me a really beautiful shot of this woman leaning into her machine. Show us the details of how that material feeds through." I don't mean aesthetic, exactly, but whatever it is that people do when they work with great skill, grace, confidence, and competence. All those things that you admire and respect in a person, I want the cameraman to give us that. So he does.
BA: Can you talk about teaching the child to be up front and clear in finding a path to negotiate? You did that in the affirmative action pieces on a broader base. Can you talk about that?
Bean Sprouts was done because Chinese Affirmative Action wanted it and the Teacher's Association wanted it. They teach and work with the parents in the community, and they know what the problems are.
They said, "Why can't we have a series that allows kids and parents to see a little bit of themselves in their natural setting and try to understand what goes on?"
This women's group called Asian Women United, a professional women's group, wanted to do something for Asian American women, so they got some money from the Office of Education to do something that would help women to be more open in their choices of education and their choices of jobs. Very specific stuff. We did a year's analysis and research to see how women make up their minds. Who influences them? How did they decide to go into a certain major and not another major? Who counts in helping them decide? What would really help them to make more open choices? So we did this series of four half-hour TV programs called On Silk Wings, and we decided to show women who actually were doing things that were unusual for Asian American women; e.g., a policewoman, a bartender, a TV anchor, a park ranger.
These jobs are particularly unusual for Asian American women. The TV anchorwoman talks about where she got the strength to keep coming back, after being turned down six times by the new director, trying to get it right. She said, "Well, I think about my father and how he, a Japanese American, lost everything during the war and had to be brave, have stamina, and do it again. I think about him." She thinks about him and that's how she decides to go back and do it again. I think that what we were trying to do in the programs was to show that no one has to be alone. You can have the company of those whose memories you carry because you are part of something that preceded you. You can have the courage of knowing that something you did will be carried on by someone, and will affect other people, and therefore something more is at stake and something more can be achieved than what you are doing at that moment. Taking that long view will help you out.
I think that a lot of what was being shown in these pieces were those kinds of moments where one woman is talking about how she is a union organizer for the hotel workers and how she came to a realization that she had to do this work and how she got reconciled with her father. When she recognized who her father really was, she knew she had to get rid of her anger toward him. He had a reason for acting the way he did. When she fully understood that, it gave her strength to do what she had to do. The way we deal with these shows is to show the connection between the past and the present and the relationship between the generations.
BA: Was it that kind of thinking that got you to do Nisei Soldier?
For me, the past has a way of bubbling up into my consciousness fairly regularly. Things that happen with people will suddenly come back to me. Understandings will come to me that I didn't have before.
The experience of the Japanese Americans during the war is specifically an experience of such bitterness and trauma that it remained buried. It was painful and humiliating, but it was also buried because coming out of the war, these people had to get on with life. They had a tremendous making up of time to do.
They lost everything and had to work overtime to get it back. If you are put in jail for stealing, and you come out of jail, you will not steal again. If you are put into jail because you are Japanese, when you come out, you will think about not being Japanese anymore. So, in a sense, that is not just a normal loss of memory. It is a buried thing, but the power of what that memory is really about is something that I find appealing.
I don't know why I want to dig things up. The way it actually happened was that I was sitting at a hearing that was going on in the community. It was a federal government hearing on the interment experience. Congress had appointed a body of commissioners to listen to testimony given by the Japanese Americans about how the war had affected them. It would be the first time all the generations would be sitting at the same table, each of them saying what it had done to them.
I found the whole experience absolutely riveting because there were these four generations sitting there who normally found it difficult even to talk to each other about these matters. Yet they had gotten together to do this joint appearance, and they were giving a stunning performance. They were appearing in front of a bunch of big wigs revealing publicly their very personal lives and yet every one of them had done it like a prime performance. Then I noticed, in fact, that the media were coming and taking their sound bites and leaving. I just felt that this shouldn't be happening. Right then I was thinking that something should be done. Then I heard about an exhibit, and I met some of the people involved in it. They wanted a documentary done. There were already two other people who wanted to do the documentary, and I also wanted to do the documentary. Then the director of the project turned to me and said, "I know three people who want to do the documentary on this, but I know that you are the one who is actually going to do it." I had been chosen! Now I was going to have to do it! He was going to help me get funding, etc. That's how it started.
BA: Did it take you a long time to do that project?
That project was actually quite short. It took about two years, but the next one, Color of Honor, took an additional four years.
BA: Did you do Color of Honor because you found a part of the story in Nisei Soldier that you felt needed to be extended?
Nisei Soldier was about Japanese Americans in World War II who were combat soldiers in Europe, and Color of Honor was about Japanese American soldiers who served as military intelligence soldiers in the Pacific. Both groups of soldiers faced a basic, incredible contradiction: their families were locked up, but the Army came into the camps and said, "We want you to volunteer for combat in Europe, and we need others of you for military intelligence in the Pacific, because we have to have people who speak and read Japanese." This was in the 1940s, and the United States was a very isolationist country. People barely knew foreign languages, and certainly not the Middle Eastern, African, or Far Eastern languages unless they were Sinologists or Japanologists. Those were senior professors and not the people who could go into the trenches of the Pacific War. You had to have young guys who spoke that language.
Some people would not do that under any condition and joined the draft resisters and went to jail. There were others who felt that army service was the only way to help their families, so they did it.
And still others saw it as a just war, a war against fascism and militarism. But because they had been locked up, it complicated the whole issue. So, the first film I did was just about the unit that went to France and Italy and fought in combat, a very straightforward kind of decision to risk your life. You don't have to risk your soul. It had nothing directly to do with being Japanese; you just had to go out there and shoot and be shot at.
BA: Mention the casualty rate.
Oh, they had a 30 percent casualty rate, and they were used as the point men in seven major campaigns, so they were very, very used or misused, however you want to put it. They felt that they had a lot to prove, and they had a tremendous burden. I knew that it was a complex story that I could never tell in half an hour but it was part of a series of half-hour shows. [The first half-hour program is different in style from the second story.]
The only way I could tell such a complex story in a half an hour would be to have a lot of narration, very straightforward and conventional. The second one was ninety minutes, and I had hoped to make it more "first person voice." People presented at greater length, the way they are with their own style and pace of speaking, and without so much narration.
But I was still stuck with narration, and I never successfully got that narrator to sound like a first person. He also ended up being the voice of God, third person. I did, however, try some new things in the second film, like creating tableaux and visual metaphors and not so much the straight documentary. It is a direction I wanted to go in.
BA: Could you describe one or two of those tableaux and the kind of metaphor you were going for?
One of the most striking visuals of that war is a picture of a group of volunteers from the army from the camps, dressed in their best outfits. They had left for camp carrying whatever they could carry in their hands, and yet they managed to have one outfit that would be the best outfit to go to church in. All these guys in the group were shot sitting in chairs in the middle of the desert because the camps were all in the desert. There is nothing around but mountains.
The incongruous vision of these men sitting in their suits and ties on chairs in the middle of the desert is very poignant because you knew they were about to go off into a unit which had an incredible casualty rate; when they left they knew they might never come back or might come back crippled, so they would end up not having helped their parents, but being a burden instead. But they are sitting, smiling and being very earnest. That picture was always, for me, a very haunting image.
One day I was driving along and I saw this valley. I looked out at it and said, "My God, that whole valley looks exactly like the desert picture." Those guys who used to be in that picture could have been sitting in the middle of that desert right now. I put some empty chairs out there with exactly the same line-up, and we shot it in color, then dissolved to the archival picture of these fellows sitting in their black and white image. Over it is a Nisei woman's voice saying, "I can still remember the volunteers sitting in the middle of the desert in their Sunday best." So that's the tableau that was created.
At another point we were talking about the fact that these linguists were all doing secret missions, anonymous work; you could never acknowledge that they were doing this work. They could never tell anybody what they were doing and never got any credit for it. All the pictures that the Army shot of the footage never showed faces; they would only show the backs of their heads and the sides; they would show who was being interrogated but never the interrogator. They did not want the Japanese military to know they had linguists working with them.
How do we show something that was purposely made invisible? One day when we were shooting, I saw these blackbirds, a mass of black figures strung out on telephone wires, silhouetted against a moody, darkening horizon of huge rain-filled clouds. These blackbirds were sitting there, fluttering their wings, and I looked at it and I said, "That's them! Those are our linguists up there."
So we shot this image and paired it with the Nisei veteran who said, "You could never get acknowledged for doing the one thing that would most prove your loyalty and help your family." I dissolved between the telephone wires where the birds were, the barbed wire enclosures of the internment camp of their families, and the the barbed wire of a prisoner-of-war enclosure where these linguists were doing their work interrogating the Japanese prisoners. I had not previously felt free to do that kind of thing, especially when dealing with someone else's very sensitive, exacting, and painful history.
BA: Do you think you brought in anything particular as a Chinese American woman talking about the experience of Japanese American men?
Oh, for sure. For one thing, I understood what it meant to feel the relationship between you and your family and how you try to do something for them and that the family is very interdependent. That's a very Asian kind of thing.
Here are these nineteen-year-old guys thinking that this is something they could do for everybody. I think I understood that kind of choice, the significance of that as a moral choice and how guys would do that even though they might be very klutzy otherwise! They might not be good at being soldiers and never have been particularly brave about anything else. But this is the one moment when they will do the heroic thing because they think that is the right thing to do.
I did not however, understand Japanese Americans. There is difference between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans but I did not know that at the time. The difference is felt in interviewing someone about a painful experience that happened forty years ago, a combination of memory loss and the fact that they are extremely self-effacing, and they do not want to sound like they are bragging. Continually it would be, "You don't want to talk to me, you want to talk to so and so instead. He knows more than I do." They would say things like that to me. Of course they would always say, "Loni Ding, that is a Chinese name. I guess your husband is Chinese." I said, "No, I'm Chinese." "You are not Japanese?" I said, "No, I'm not Japanese." "Oh, how come? How is it that an outsider like you would want to do a story about us?"
So I would have to go through this long explanation about how we were not all that different. I was basically saying that one is given tests in life like a stone on your back, and how do you carry this stone? I explained that to me what the Japanese American soldiers did is a very revealing and interesting story about identity and about being an American, but not looking like an American so people question you and make this terrible identification of you in such a way as to treat you as "the enemy." So I was interested in what people do with that experience internally, and a lot of them did terrible things to themselves. They accepted that feeling that there was something wrong with them, and it took a long time to recover from that.
Their reaction to my explanation was, "Umm..." In any case, they would definitely question why an outsider and a woman would be interested. I don't know anything about war or about weapons and battles; I have zero interest in war, but I had to find out what they were about in order to be able to ask intelligent questions. That was not easy. It was the restraint: people would say what they had to say with a lot of "umms" and "ahhs," which was unusable, so we had to go back and get it again until it would come out in one continuous piece. That was something I had not anticipated.
But since I had kept my own mouth shut so long in my life, I understood what it was not to speak with your own voice. I am interested in people's voices and faces and their own, distinctive way of being. Coming forward, being seen, being heard and given a vehicle. A vehicle that, on one hand, is realistic and shows them as they are but that also has the transforming quality of art. That gives them a frame in which they can be appreciated.
I remember someone saying, "If you stare at someone long enough, you could fall in love with them." That seems to me to make a lot of sense, because mothers have children who are not all beautiful! I say that the camera can do the same. The camera can and does do the same, depending how you frame people and how much time you give them and the attitude with which you approach them. So these men whom I saw as so unacknowledged and unappreciated and slandered had these really fascinating experiences. I wanted that to come forth.
BA: Did that film become a part of the movement for redress?
Yes. The whole way in which I heard about the subject was I went to the redress hearings. I see all my work as being very much part of the times. Bean Sprouts happened because the community at that moment had the chance and wanted to do it. Silk Wings happened because that group of women heard about it, and Nisei Soldier happened because the redress happened. That story has been around for years and years, but there was no readiness for the funders to fund that. There was no readiness on the part of the general public to acknowledge that this was the moment to examine that and understand what that was about.
BA: But, very specifically, didn't the congressional committee look at that?
Yes. One of the things that I have understood was how necessary it is to have strategy in all your planning and designing what the work will look like, and you have to have strategy to get it out there to reach its audience. Renee Tajima wrote that in an article about multiculturalism. She said, "In order to have this conference on multiculturalism, one of the things I realized is that multiculturalism doesn't talk about racism. It sounds like a menu of lots of cultures and lots of different kinds of foods, and everything will be ducky! As if there wasn't racism to deal with." My first independent production was on children. Nothing is more engaging than nine to twelve year olds. They are a tremendously lovable group of kids. The boys don't like the girls, so you don't have all that teenage angst stuff!
They think that you have something to tell them, so they are very respectful and you don't have any trouble. I was having a wonderful time with these kids, and yet all the time that I was creating something that was fun and magical, I was having to fight with the public broadcasting system in order to get the thing on the air. It was a bitter fight. I couldn't understand, with this kids' show which is so charming, why they were resisting it so hard and harshly. They would say, "People tell you they like this show? They are lying to you!" I finally decided after many of these experiences that an oppositional position has to be anticipated, and an oppositional stance is necessarily part of doing this work because there is racism and it shows itself in millions of ways. If you are smart you anticipate in terms of your strategy and what you are going to do.
You plan into your work who your audience is going to be and how much they will need to understand and how much you have to translate for them in order for them to understand what you are doing. If you are going to go to the tough, ugly stuff you have to place it in the right moment when you have led them up to that moment so that they can face it, otherwise they are going to shut off on you.
My audience was always the general public, meaning that the general public would not necessarily have any information about my subject, so you would have to break a little ground.
Nisei Soldier and Color of Honor which are the two Japanese American soldier stories, were done with my knowing that they could be part of the redress movement. The Japanese Americans attempted to get the Congress to both pass a bill that would acknowledge that a wrong was done and give them some reparations for that. That bill had failed to go through the first year and was going through a second year, and the completion of my film was timed to go with the opening of a major exhibit at the Smithsonian. That was part of why it's worth doing. You are extremely lucky if you get to do a subject that has a timeliness of that kind, where your work can be part of what the whole effort is. In this case that happened, so Color of Honor opened with the Smithsonian exhibition about the relationship between the Japanese American internment and the crisis of the Constitution. It was part of the Bicentennial Constitutional exhibit. Then it got shown in Congress, and I had two members of Congress who made sure that it got shown during the time that the redress bill was going through.
I am very pleased at that and that it could have a political use in that way, but I think that beyond that moment, when normally designing a program, I have two things in mind.
First, I want the piece really to be not only recognizable but really revealing and insightful for the people whose story it is. If they don't acknowledge that it is something that is theirs, then I feel I haven't done my job. My purpose in doing a documentary is to get close enough to what that story is and to bring it forth and put it together with some other things that they would not know about and together in historical and political context. It has resonance and meaning beyond what it would be as an individual set of stories.
The second thing that I want to happen is that it have meaning to the general public which means that on one hand it has to be very specific and very local, but also that you look for those areas of the story that can have universal resonance. That's what you try for.
BA: But you have even gone beyond that because you have built so much with other people. The advocacy and funding spaces and public television that will show it because there is not a world out there that's waiting for it. Can you talk a little bit about your role with public television and about all the organizing that you have been doing so that this stuff can exist in the world?
Working in the media is not any different than other areas which have significance for the general public. It deals with power and has an effect on revealing what power relationships are like, or allowing people to get enough consciousness of what is going on that they could make some important choices. They could take a stance. Whatever is experienced personally was so much part of what was happening to a lot of producers.
Anybody who was doing something that had "social significance" would find resistance of all kinds coming to their work. Independents in general are working on creating images that go against the conventions, go against status quo power arrangements even when they are not explicitly about social issues.
We know aesthetic forms are anathema; we know that from the NEA. How excited can you be about some things having to do with form and some content too? The whole resistance to art. There are a lot of us who recognize that, and it is only a question of whether or not we are going to get together and do this collectively.
Some of us started working together to formulate positions, to lobby Congress, to gather together the support of all the other independent filmmakers in this country to recognize that they weren't just doing their own work, they were doing really significant work. To me, art is a whole strategic field now. More and more than ever it is a very important area.
We had a claim upon the public money, we had a claim upon the public interest, so it was necessary to translate what our purposes and functions were into those terms and go do the political work. It has been fifteen years that filmmakers have been organized in that way. It started out as AIVF (Association of Independent Film and Video) in New York; it picked up in the West Coast area and then built connections across the whole country. We have been dealing with public broadcasting because that's where the public money is, but it goes beyond public broadcasting. The whole access work and the kind of work that Paper Tiger is doing, the kind of work that Deep Dish is doing, that's gathering the camcorder works that everyone now can get their hands on.
These kinds of representations of our reality and attempts to move that reality and change it are coming from all over, and it's growing and building. It's not just people who are going to be the professional filmmakers and so on, but a lot more people can and will be doing it.
BA: Were you all accepted as the only Chinese family in your neighborhood when you were growing up?
Oh, no. It was terribly hard, and my family looked for five years before they even found a house that would rent to us. One day my mother said, "I want to show you something." She lifted up the carpet, and the whole floor was a patchwork of metal plates which were covering up the holes in the woodwork. She had patched up the holes with some metal.
My family made a living as herbalists, which in itself was a very special thing because it meant that they made a living not selling groceries or obvious straightforward things. Medicine required a more trusting, closer relationship, but neither of my parents spoke English at all.
My mother ran an herb store in Chinatown and my father ran the one in the white district, and sometimes they exchanged places. Both of them managed to communicate with customers and were fearless about it. They had the courage and confidence to do that.
Then we moved out of Chinatown entirely with nothing but the livelihood of selling herbs in a white district. Anyway, my mother had these metal tins in which pills that come from China were kept. After the pills were used, she would take the tins and pound them out flat. That is what she used on the floor.
She said, "I want you to understand that this is the kind of house we moved into when we first came here. We covered it with rugs and fixed it up, and some of the woodwork on the walls was so crumbly that we had to shellac it with five layers of paint just to hold it up." That was the condition of the house that they rented to us. We lived above a brawling Irish bar which on Friday nights had a lot of loud crashing around, and in the morning you always found that someone had vomited on your doorstep.
You would find here and there people who were friendly to you, but overall you knew that the place as a whole was not receptive to you and that you would have to watch yourself. I was protected by elders and grownups who were very strong people.
BA: Were you the only Chinese family in that neighborhood?
Absolutely. We were the only persons of color around for miles.
BA: Did you go to school with the white kids?
Yes. They would say to me, "Oh, you are one of the Ding girls!" I would say, "Yes, I am."
BA: So you were famous?
Yeah, except there would be these little experiences. The teacher would send me around on little errands, like the March of Dimes to pick up the money collected in different classrooms. One teacher used to snatch my hand and say, "Look, class! Look at this little hand! Aren't those the tiniest little fingers you have ever seen?" I wanted to die! A china doll.
BA: Your parents were herbalists. Was that what they had been trained to be?
No. Up until 1965 you could legally come in only as either an American citizen, the child of someone who had been born here or as a merchant or a diplomat or a foreign student. My parents came in as merchants. My mother had been trained as a medical doctor, but you couldn't come in as a doctor. My father had come on an earlier trip here and built some kind of business so he could have some property and claim status as a merchant, then married my mother and brought her.
Things got worse after that. By the time we came to the United States in 1939 the quota was zero, and we were able to come only because we were bringing my great-grandfather to visit his son, who was in the U.S. There was no way you could stay. Our family was able to stay only because the congressman in Arizona put a special bill in Congress. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a zero quota. China was our ally during World War II so Chinese were given a quota of 105 people. That was in 1943. Then none of the laws changed again until 1965. I remember when I was five years old and living in Los Angeles the people behind us were Japanese Americans and I remember the day they just disappeared. And no one explained it either. We knew that they went away to the camps but they were just gone. They had to sell everything.
BA: I was very moved when you were talking about how we are affected by what comes before and then that affects the future. You talked about how things come back to you, and I was wondering if you have ever thought of making a film about those things in your life?
I was thinking about that today, and I thought that what really drives me and my work is emotion, feeling, the things you love and the things you are drawn to and want to do. Yet the whole process by which you actually create the piece is offered in tiny, little fragments. Somewhere along the line, for me, what happens in the carrying out the execution of it, is that my feelings get cloaked and they take another form. They are not my feelings but the feelings I have in order to understand something else and what I am trying to do is to get that clear.
What you are talking about is what do I want to do, or do I see doing a piece of work that is based on my feelings. I am coming to think about that a lot more. I do know that the direction I want to move in is to be much more subjective and to find a way to acknowledge that. To bring that forward as the subjective feeling of this person.
The person who is the author of this piece. I don't see myself ever on camera. I did use my voice in narration for the first version of Color of Honor but it was in response to an emergency. I was in the midst of doing my postproduction sound, and I had spent two thousand dollars on a narrator with a lot of takes on different pieces of it.
I was laying in his voice when my husband and daughter walked in, and my husband said, "Is that the narrator's voice? You can't use him!" I said, "Why, what's the matter?" "He's terrible, Loni!" I said, "Oh, no, no! I picked him out of fourteen people!" So I turned to my engineer, who was a person of real judgment and taste, and asked him what he thought. He said, "Well, he sounds like someone who is being paid to say what he is saying. Why don't you do it?" So I sat down and did it. I will say that I thought that my own narration was better than the narration I got later.
That is as close as I have ever gotten to putting myself into a film, and I think right now that's as far as I am likely to go in terms of using my own voice.
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