Cinema Asian America: It’s A Magical Life: A Conversation With Filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming

This month, Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand features the award-winning documentary ‘The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam.’ A charming look at the life of a Chinese magician and vaudeville star who performed throughout Europe and the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century, the film is a glimpse into a forgotten family and cultural history. Made by celebrated Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, the film uniquely makes use of animation and archival footage to delve into the worlds of magic, migration, the Great Wars, one family’s legacy of art-making and world travel.

You come from a long line of artists and entertainers, and in fact, Long Tack Sam is your great-grandfather. How did you come to discover this wonderful, hidden part of your family history?
AMF: When my grandfather passed away, I came in to the possession of some 16mm films that were home movies of Long Tack Sam and his family traveling around the world. The film was falling to pieces and I originally just wanted to donate it to an Asian-American entertainer’s archive. I went to see the film “Forbidden City, USA” by Arthur Dong, about Chinese-American nightclub performers in the 1930s-1940s and Arthur told me that he know of Long Tack Sam, and that his sister was starting up an archive in San Francisco. They didn’t have funding yet for preservation.

The archivist Ron Mann helped me transfer the footage onto tape, and introduced me to a magician, David Ben, who opened up this amazing world of magic and vaudeville that I found out my great grandfather was an integral part of. It was pretty exciting! I had no idea he was that well-known, and in so many different ways.

Long Tack Sam’s story is not only a family history, but one which captures many of the larger historical forces of the 20th century; migration and two great wars, as well as the rise magic and vaudevillian acts as popular entertainment. What was the experience of simultaneously uncovering a personal history and seeing it in a larger historical context like?
AMF: I believe that the personal IS the political, and that we are all affected by the geopolitics of our time. Being mixed race myself, I have always been interested in the historical implications of this identity. If you say what your background is, when you were born, what country you are in and what year it is, this says a lot about the world. We are still moving all over the world for economic and political reasons. I very much wanted to put Long Tack Sam in this context. Also, because he traveled so much, it really was an opportunity to see a global snapshot of the much of the 20th century.

Despite the two generations which separate you and Long Tack Sam, there are many connections linking you; your engagement with the arts, your mixed race Asian background and that of Long Tack Sam’s Chinese-Austrian children. Did making this film change the way that you look at your own history?
AMF: I know this sounds odd, but I have never quite understood the connection my family has with art. The arts was just something we were all engaged in, mainly as a hobby, but not as a way we defined ourselves. Maybe this had to do with being Asian immigrants. And Long Tack Sam’s show business background was not something the family was actually proud of.

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It’s pretty interesting, how today there is not the same differentiation made between “high” and “low” art forms, and this democratization has had a positive effect. For me, this film shows me that our entire family are really a “chip off the old block”. My mother is a pianist, her sister: a dancer. My cousins are photographers, drummers, painters, dancers, flame artists. Animation, which I do quite a bit of, is the direct legacy of magic. The first films by Meliés were made with the collaboration of magicians and photographers. I never realized we were actually biologically programmed to make art! Traveling to all the same venues as Long Tack Sam did in his vaudeville days and touring with the film about him was also very moving and illuminating. The show does go on!

Growing up, my being mixed race was always commented on, and always held up as a great thing, especially by my grandmother. I didn’t really realize it, until researching the life and times of my great grandfather, that it was not so well accepted and that my grandmother was trying to boost up my self-esteem. My generation is maybe the first where miscegenation STARTED to be considered okay. (At my age, had I been born in eighteen of the United States, I would be from an illegal union. But now, everyone looks like me!)

Along with the feature length documentary “The Magical Life Of Long Tack Sam,” you also turned his story into a graphic novel. Why both formats?
AMF: I was actually asked to adapt the film into a graphic novel by an editor at Riverhead books in New York, who had seen the program on TV. She thought that the mixed media format of the film would lend itself perfectly to print form and it would be particularly empowering for inner-city immigrant kids. It was on the American Library Association top ten list for teens!

You have a widely celebrated body of work that includes both short and feature films, animation, documentary, graphic novels and much more. How do you connect together all of these seemingly disparate artistic forms? What kind of storytelling are you most interested in doing?
AMF: Apparently, I have this “grazer” personality. I am endlessly curious and attracted to many different subjects and media. I’ve trained in music and fine arts but have always thought of myself primarily as a writer. My first films were actually a way to self-publish, and film lets me explore in every possible way I want to. I’m trying to learn Chinese calligraphy and Farsi and am studying up on Tang Dynasty wushi and Edo period painting for an animated project I am working on. I’m not really a linguist, but I do realize that language is culture, and you have to know some to understand some. Learning German allowed me to begin to research my film on Long Tack Sam.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming year?
AMF: Well, I just finished “I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors,” an animated adaptation of Bernice Eisenstein‘s illustrated memoir, made for the National Film Board of Canada.

I was also commissioned to be part of a collection about the “seven deadly sins” for Bravo, where my little Stickgirl avatar (who I’ve made short animated pieces about) demonstrates “gluttony.” I hope to be in production soon on an animated feature that takes place at a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. It’s kind of a slightly futuristic, slightly utopic vision of Iran as a pluralistic, internationalist, Islamic society. It is a father/daughter story, where a half-Asian girl travels to Iran to find the truth about the man who she thinks abandoned her as a child. People ask me, “why Iran?” It’s a long story, but it makes perfect sense. Funding is hard, though, as you know, but I’m optimistic and determined.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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