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by Loni Ding

Reprinted from MOVING THE IMAGE: INDEPENDENT ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN MEDIA ARTS, edited by Russell Leong; a collaborative project of UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Visual Communications, Southern California Asian American Studies Central, Inc. (University of Washington Press, 1991)

Missing Images: Lost and Found

I noticed him sitting on the end of the row, this elderly Chinese man in his seventies maybe. He looked like one of those bachelor men I imagine having spent most of his life working the Chinatown restaurants, thinking someday he'd get back to visit his village in Toishan. All afternoon he'd been sitting there in the auditorium watching the English lessons on television, over and over. "Sut Yung Ying Yee"—basic practical English—a T.V. series produced by a collaboration between the local Westinghouse station and the Chinese community, was continuously replaying three sample programs at the community screening. It featured a bilingual approach (Cantonese/English), with a Chinese host and many community volunteers acting out the vignettes of practical scenes from life—getting on the bus, shopping for shoes, seeing the doctor, etc. All the roles—bus driver, sales clerk, doctor—were played by Asians.

"How do you like the lessons?" I asked.

"Pretty good…not bad," he answered, and went on to say a few more things, swinging into more English than Cantonese.

I was puzzled because these lessons were very beginning stuff. "You speak English pretty well…."

"Yeh, I don't need them."

"But you've been here all aftemoon…and I’ve seen you really watching them."

"Well…I just like to see the faces."

Fifty-plus years in America, and all of it in Chinatown, you’d think he’d had enough of seeing Chinese faces. What’s so special about seeing them on T.V.?

That was 1970, with an elderly immigrant, "long-time Californ." Sixteen years later, something similar happened with a student at UC Berkeley. I heard a knock on my office door. There she was, standing with an open box of take-out food, chopsticks sticking out of the top.

"It's lunchtime….I have this Chinese food and I thought you might like to share it."

She was a mass communications major, who'd grown up in San Jose. All semester I hadn't heard much from her in class, but here she was ready to share her chopsticks. Real intimate. I was surprised. Something was definitely up. Taking the box obediently—no sudden moves or the bird might fly away—I mumbled my thanks, hid my amazement in silent eating, and waited.

"I went to see the movie Dim Sum (1985) last night."

"Umm humm…" (more silent eating).

"I don't know why, but almost from the first moment when the show started, I started to cry…and I cried off and on throughout the whole movie. I don't really know why. Her mother isn't really like my mother, and I'm not in her situation…my mom is not after me to get married. But everything in the movie is familiar…the people and the way things look…." It is the real image you don't know you need and you're missing…until one day it's there.

It is somehow not enough that we've lived among a group of people, and see them every day in life. Something essential is missing when that existence is not also a confirmed public existence. The subtext of media absence is that the absent group "doesn't count," or is somehow unacceptable. And psychologically we know it affects our sense of self, our feeling of being agents who act upon the world.

Images may not always have been so important in the days before the power of contemporary media. It may also be that the absence of authentic media images of women and workers, too, is equally significant to their sense of identity. But no one doubts the critical role of media in defining public images of minorities.

Television imagery is particularly critical in this way, not only as a pervasive formative influence on the young, but as the public institution present in the home of almost every family. It may be junk on the T.V. but it's junk that—along with consumer goods and the public schools—we share in common with "every other American." Television is the contemporary, publicly accepted record of faces and voices. To be absent in T.V. imagery is a special kind of "non-existence" or way of being "non-American."

Making Mass Media

Almost all my work has been for television, designed for reaching a mass audience. In doing that, I've made certain assumptions about the audience. I assume, for example, that they carry somewhere in their minds three common misrepresentations of Asian Americans: the common stereotypes of Asians as perpetual foreigners; as resigned, silent victims; and most recently, as successful "model minorities" who "contribute to America."

I have tried not to counter these misrepresentations directly, but rather to address the three kinds of stereotypes in my overall project design…to "show the opposite" rather than to "explain, argue and oppose."

For the problem of absence, the main work is to create presence. My preferred approach is to displace stereotypes by creating vital images of Asian Americans as real human beings, with individual faces, voices, and personal histories that we come to know and care about.

They would not be the Americans whose differences are dissolved in the "melting pot," but people speaking with the distinctive accents and rhythms of their real individual and family histories; neither looking nor sounding like the "typical American."

Authentic images of minorities do not abound. For ourselves too, we have a need for the objectifying record. We think we know what we look and sound like, until we’re surprised or shocked by hearing our actual voices on a tape recorder, or seeing our physical selves in moving images.

The Camera's Gaze

My works have often been celebrations of ordinary people and celebrations of particular communities.

"Ordinary people" of no particular position—not heroes, stars, celebrities, scoundrels, criminals, or monsters—are yet capable of doing extraordinary things. Individually and collectively they can have the power to engage us: to hold our interest, draw us nearer, fascinate, instruct, and charm us.

Possibly they have this power because we empower them with our attention. Someone once startled me with the proposal that if you were to gaze at anybody long enough, you could become enamoured with them. Like the primal bonding of mother to infant, even one "so ugly that only a mother could love" (which still leaves the mystery, why this attachment is so wondrously blind and unreasoning). Perhaps the gaze of the camera does the same, in the hands of someone who turns towards the camera subject with respect. The question is not raised, "Is this person worthy of my attention?"

He/she exists, and the camera muses in his/her direction.

In Robert Nakamura's Wataridori (1976), portraits of three Issei, I vividly remember a moment when his camera slowly moved along the tools on his father's work table. It was like a meditation about his Issei father's life. A few scenes later his father is driving in his car, singing a Japanese song to himself. The camera just sits on him and its quiet gaze makes us love this man.

More recently there was a scene in a documentary La Offrenda (1989) by filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, about Mexican traditional beliefs and practices concerning the dead, and how one communes with them.

A member of the crew asks a villager amidst a mass of burning candles, "Can you really see the souls?"

"Yes. With that apparatus (points to his camera), you can see them."

Indeed. The camera sees the soul. A human gaze is empowering; equally empowering is the camera's gaze

Casting the Storytellers

I think selecting your on-camera personality is akin to answering the question, whose face is mine, whose face could be mine?

The very "ordinariness" of our camera subjects is their humanity, which affirms and extends ours; their ability to do extraordinary things when called upon resonates in us stirrings about our own possibilities. The experience would be very different, I believe, with images of "celebrities and heroes," who can put us into states of passive sycophany, anxious envy, and aggressive ambition. Those kinds of images of "heroes" take something away from us.

Whether a film is fiction or documentary, I see it as storytelling. On-camera persons—actors or interviewees—are chosen for their ability to be convincingly themselves. I have looked for camera subjects not to show an exemplary character (charismatic, articulate, handsome or talented), but to show diversity and a representative, credible character. On Island of Secret Memories (1987), the boy cast to play the lead, Joe, was considered by some to be "pudgy" and "nerdy"; so why not find someone more handsome, stylish or thinner? In Bean Sprouts (1978) a man was cast for the role of a father who some complained fitted the stereotype of the immigrant father—stern, serious and traditional. But in each case, the actors "worked" in their roles because they projected conviction about themselves, and by the end of the scene, they'd won us over.

To me it is particularly important to put Asians on camera who don't sound or feel only like vehicles for information or ideas in the sense that they've got the appropriate formal credentials, or satisfy journalistic conventions. I'd rather put on people who have personal vividness and credibility as human beings, because Asian Americans are invisible or missing from the media in exactly that way—as human beings.

Finding Emblematic Images

Besides images of credible human beings who are given the aura of the camera's gaze, I have been looking to find what might be called emblematic images. These are the "true images" that have power because they embody a central theme or contradiction of the story being told.

Nisei Soldier (1984), for example, has as its central contradiction the issue of inequality and the Japanese American soldier's struggle to obtain a future equality. Studying the footage at the National Archives, I saw many images flicker by of officers pinning medals on Nisei soldiers in some military ceremony. Typically, in these scenes, the soldier's eyes were downcast, his body language humble. But one image caught my eye: the Nisei soldier looked up, met his general's eye as they shook hands. In a profile view of the two men facing each other, they leaned forward with vitality and mutuality, smiling at each other: and the viewer is witness to a fleeting instance of rare equality achieved. The image is emblematic because it embodies the issue of equality. It became a freeze-frame in the film.

The Interview as Communion

At its best, the interview may be like the vision of the angels presented in Wim Wenders' film, Wings of Desire (1987). Wenders' angel, as an agent of God visiting among earthly mortals, has the power to cause what is really in one's heart to be said out loud. Whenever the angel appears, merely by standing nearby, the person is able to reveal what he/she truly feels at the deepest level.

I think an interviewer's presence can be a form of communion that can cause much the same thing to happen. In ordinary life when undergoing an experience, what one says to one's self or to family and friends at the time is not necessarily significant, and yet the experience may be profound and critical.

Years later, in remembering these moments, the recounting may begin as a long dry session of banal surface details, matter of factly told. But if the interviewer waits out the silences and maintains a close and expectant inner ear, asking the questions that spring from a confidence that there is "something more," then somehow, that "something" often emerges, and floodgates of emotional truth open. The initial recounts are then more like a prelude, a circling before you find home.

This should not sound like therapy because that is not the purpose. The purpose is to uncover and present a human story. But the person interviewed is not being "used just to tell a story," nor "mined" as an "information source"—as with journalism—but instead is offered a vehicle through the film to be a tribal storyteller, to present himself/herself as a central character playing out the drama revealed.

Looking Ahead—Stretching the Documentary Genre

The right to tell our stories has largely been won—although it seems that right has to be continually reasserted. As a producer, I have become more and more interested in developing new forms, new ways of telling the story. Mainly, I have been looking for more subjectivity, and searching for the first-person voice. To present the historical past with this type of subjectivity and voice, I've been exploring the use of devices like metaphors, surrealism and tableaux.

For example, with The Color of Honor (1987-1989) the central metaphor is one of uncovering a buried past. The film's opening image shows a first-generation Japanese father and his Nisei son digging in their California backyard, searching for a crate of Japanese possessions the family hastily buried on the eve of their forced removal by the U.S. government forty years earlier. A montage of torn pictures, from family albums and historical archives, begins to appear and grows throughout the film, each piece a torn fragment of the diaspora not quite acknowledged, filling in the holes as the story unfolds. By the end of the film, the overall mosaic is a metaphor for the collective portrayal of that generation.

Also in The Color of Honor, a Nisei woman speaks of how ordinary scenes can trigger a haunting memory. She recalls the group of young volunteers for the Army from her internment camp posing for their group portrait, "sitting in the desert in their Sunday best." We use the location of a California desert in a somewhat surreal manner: the triggering image is a row of empty folding chairs seen set out in the midst of nowhere.

A tableau is conceived as a still life or scene where objects are brought together that might not ordinarily be arranged in that particular way. They are not "re-creations" or simulations of the past, as in naturalistic "flashbacks" or docu-drama, but are stylized representations of subjective reflections and memories. The tableaux materialize interpretations and are evocations of significant feelings and states of mind made visible.

In Island of Secret Memories (1987), the program on Chinese detention on Angel Island, eleven-year-old Joe imagines the bed his grandfather occupied in the barracks. He enters the tableau and sits on the bed, handling the various personal items lying there (historical artifacts): a bottle of Chinese pills, a Chinese-English dictionary, a pair of spectacles. As he tries on the glasses, he "sees" another tableau from the past: an interrogation in progress, played in limbo—a young Chinese male being questioned by the immigration officer, posing the actual questions used by the immigration protocol of the time. The tableau is stylized; we hear only the questions of the interrogator and see the mute petitioner. Only as the scene ends with the tableau dissolving to a matching black-and-white archival picture of exactly the same kind of interrogation, do we hear him speak: a single word ringing, "No!" The echoing resonance bridges the historical images that follow, showing the ways in which the Chinese of that time protested and resisted their unjust detention on Angel Island. I look forward to utilizing these and other techniques that weave together the fictional, non-fictional, and experimental to create a more subjective and first-person voice.

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