Cinema Asian America: Filmmakers Mark Tang and Lu Lippold On Their Documentary ‘Open Season’

In late 2004 while hunting in northern Wisconsin, Hmong American Chai Vang shot eight white hunters, killing six of them. The event shocked the nation and brought into national conversation the long-standing tension between Hmong and white communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Conflicting reports emerged. Was the incident a product of racial animosity? Was Vang defending himself as he claimed, or did he attack the hunters? What exactly happened in the Wisconsin forest and what were the larger social dynamics which would produce such a devastating confrontation? Minnesota-based filmmakers Mark Tang and Lu Lippold’s new documentary, “Open Season” examines the complex roots and explanations for the incident, going beyond news reportage to paint a nuanced portrait of the tragedy. “Open Season” is available for the month of October through Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand.

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“Open Season” is a film which you have spent five years making, and which unpacks the very complex and messy dynamics of race, class and assimilation which have developed between the Hmong and white communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Can you tell us a bit about why this film was so important for you to make?

MT: The immediate reactions to the tragedy were mostly divided across racial and cultural (rural vs. urban) lines. The two communities involved were subjected to intense media scrutiny in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. I felt that there was an urgent need to document the unfolding events and to provide a more balanced and nuanced look beneath the media sound bites and stereotyping. As a Chinese immigrant myself, I can understand the impact of one member’s action on the entire Hmong and Asian American communities throughout the Midwest. I believe that as a democracy we all lose if we don’t look past simplistic notions of good and evil and confront our own uncomfortable notions and feelings about other people. Hopefully the film can provide a space for viewers to process their own feelings that got stirred up by this tragic event.

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LL: The shooting incident took place near a cabin that my parents have been going to for years. It always seemed to me to be a peaceful, beautiful place. The tragedy shattered my notions of a pleasant life “up north” — I had been unaware of the tensions between Hmong and white hunters. So when Mark asked me if I’d co-direct the documentary, I was eager to work on something that I hoped would create greater understanding between cultures. In retrospect, I’m not so sure it was a great idea.

The film creates discomfort in many of its viewers because of the murky political and cultural terrain which it examines. An examination of Chai Vang’s actions is neither straightforward nor black and white and in many ways, provokes more questions than it answers. You sought to present a balanced look at this event, and to understand its root causes. Tell us how you approached dealing with such a complex and nuanced  story.

MT: Giving a lot more time to it, LOL!  It’s true in the sense that we were still around for a long time after the news trucks had all packed up and left. We tried to understand and bring out voices from both parties and communities impacted by this tragedy. Most of all we tried to be respectful to people’s losses and help them to speak their mind. To explore more fully the issues brought up by this painful event could make a whole TV mini-series!

LL: We tried to avoid exacerbating the conflict; we just asked people to talk about their perceptions. People were suspicious of us as documentary filmmakers, and rightly so! They didn’t know where we were going with the story, and they wanted to know whose “side” we were on. The absolute truth is that we didn’t really have a “side,” except that we were dedicated to the idea that this kind of tragedy shouldn’t have happened, must not happen again, and that communication between individuals and cultures is crucial to harmony, both in the woods and in the world. That’s a goal that everyone can get behind.

The events examined in Open Season occurred in 2004, and Chai Vang is now serving life in prison. How have relations between Hmong and Anglo communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota been affected by his actions?

MT: The tragedy raised the public’s awareness that there are people other than white hunters enjoying the woods and that there are tensions and misunderstandings that should have been addressed from the get-go. Field reports indicate that generally people are more mindful and respectful of each other’s presence in public lands. There were still a few incidents and harassments of Hmong hunters the year after because of overzealous vigilantes and law-enforcement efforts. And of course a Hmong hunter was brutally murdered by an openly racist local in the Green Bay area a few years later. For me it illustrates that it’s not enough for the DNRs to educate Hmong hunters on hunting rules, it’s more important that there should be a more comprehensive approach in our education system for people to understand how to be respectful of each other in a multi-ethnic society.

LL: It’s amazing how awareness of the incident remains extremely high. There’s no deer hunter in the Midwest who hasn’t heard about it. Hmong kids who were very young when it happened have grown up hearing about it. Evidence of whether relations between the cultures has improved is mostly anecdotal, so we can’t really say whether things are improving. One effect of the tragedy I’ve noticed has to do with trespassing: people who have always been very concerned about trespassing are even more concerned about it now. People are even more worried about strangers trespassing on their property, and they’re more careful not to trespass on others’ property. I think there’s a wariness that has increased, for better or for worse.

There are quite significant Hmong and SE Asian communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, however, the exposure most Americans have had to them has been through Clint Eastwood’s recent film Gran Torino. Can you tell us a bit more about the Hmong media making communities?

MT: There’s always been a thriving Hmong-American media culture. The Hmong people have been in the US for a little over 30 years. In Minnesota we have had a state senator and representative who are Hmong American. In the early days Hmong filmmaking had been focused to satisfy mostly the needs of 1st generation Hmong folks who missed their homeland and language. The community has always been very supportive of the younger filmmakers’ effort by buying up each new release of a feature love story or an action kung fu drama. We are seeing more modern independent efforts whose stories integrate more with the American milieu and genres coming from young and upcoming film school-trained independents in the Midwest and in California.

LL: I work at IFP Media Arts, which is a filmmaker support organization. In the past few years, we’ve seen more and more films from Hmong-American filmmakers, some that address Hmong cultural issues and some that don’t. It used to be unusual to see the surnames “Lo” or “Vang” or “Xiong” on a film project, but not anymore. In theater, music, and journalism as well, there’s a huge amount of talent in the Hmong community

What are you working on next?

MT: A narrative feature on the travails of a Chinese bone collector in the gold-mining days in the American West.

LL: I’m not making any more films. I’ve had it.

See a complete collection of interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers.

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

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