For the past forty years, documentarian Arthur Dong has produced a body of vital, revelatory and moving films that explore the complexities of the American experience, through the lenses of the Chinese American and LGBT communities. In addition to an Oscar nomination for his short film “Sewing Woman,” Dong has earned a George Foster Peabody Award, three Sundance Film Festival awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award, and five Emmy nominations.
This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents a mini-retrospective of Dong’s films, a rare opportunity to see several of this influential filmmaker’s works. Included are “Hollywood Chinese” – a historical exploration of the experiences of Chinese American actors, directors and producers, “Sewing Woman,” Dong’s Academy-Award nominated short about his mother, who worked for many years as a garment worker, and “Living Music for Golden Mountains,” which examines the life of Leo Lew an immigrant who toiled as a laundry worker but kept spiritually alive through his love of music. All of Dong’s films are available for free to Comcast subscribers, through a partnership with the Center for Asian American Media.
You’ve dedicated much of your forty-year filmmaking career to exploring Chinese American and LGBT stories in your documentaries, from your most recent film “Hollywood Chinese” which is available this month on Xfinity On Demand, to your Sundance award-winning “Coming Out Under Fire” which explores the experience of being gay in the US military. What are the big questions you are seeking to answer in your films that have sustained you over these years?
AD: I’m intrigued by how injustice and bigotry manifest themselves in our daily personal lives, whether overtly or subtly. I’m most engrossed when a story leads into an opportunity to scrutinize veiled attempts to diminish human rights, especially efforts that use excuses like tradition, morality, and religion to validate oppressive mandates. Unfortunately, the forces and people behind such acts don’t seem to grasp the notion that the principles of fairness and equality apply to everyone, and I continually come across situations that stir me to speak up.
“Hollywood Chinese” examines the history of Chinese American actors and directors over the past century, looking at the experiences of individuals like actress Anna May Wong, as well as Ang Lee, as they have practiced their arts and professions, but also worked within a system that has also marginalized them. What were some discoveries you made during its making which expanded how you think about these ideas?
AD: It was important for me to interview non-Asian personalities like Luise Rainer and Christopher Lee who performed yellow face in “The Good Earth” and the Fu Manchu films, respectively. I wanted to meet them face-to-face to explore the motivations that inspired their screen portrayals. While I’m not certain if they fully understood the sociological parameters of race relations in the film industry that they worked in, I appreciated their point of view as actors who wanted the freedom to practice their craft, regardless of what ethnicity they were portraying. It goes back to a discussion of the burden an artist chooses to take on, that is, whether one creates for the sake of art, or whether one considers the larger implications that results from a creation. It’s a kind of balance that I know some Asian American actors are forced to consider in an industry that doesn’t often present enlightened opportunities, pushing them to accept less than desirable jobs in order to work.
This month we have available two of your older short films, “Sewing Woman” and “Living Music For Golden Mountains.” When you revisit these works, what strikes you most? Are they documents of the past, or a record of a certain political or cultural or personal moment? Are they living documents that are still in conversation with your current works?
AD: Yes to all of that. As a storyteller, I look for personal narratives that embody a multitude of areas that I can get excited about, whether they are political, cultural, historical, personal, or a combination. Having become a father recently, the theme of family, which resonate in both these films, have come into sharper focus for me; when I look at these films, I can see that I may have just been preparing myself for some life lessons to come.
You began making films in 1970, and much has changed since then, culturally, technologically, politically. While efforts to diversify Hollywood and television are still an uphill battle, we have a new generation of YouTube stars like KevJumba who have millions of viewers in very different platforms. What is exciting you right now in our media landscape?
AD: The idea of instantly watching or showing a production – and by “production” I mean anything from a quick cell phone clip to a produced webcam series – is mind-boggling to someone like me who, in the 1970s and into the 1990s, had to wait days for film negatives to be processed in a lab before seeing what I shot! You know, my favorite part of filmmaking is editing – exploring the infinite choices that the art form allows – so I’ll continue producing work that permits me the luxury of time to create. But it’s inspiring to see artists who seize new technology and broadcast their work in a flash. Also, I’ve been self-distributing my films for over 30 years now, adjusting to new tactics as each advancement comes along – I’m not certain how I’m going to get my next film out, but I’m really excited about the unknown prospects yet to come.
What are you working on next?
AD: In addition to parenting and teaching, two things:
I’m finally putting together a book about Chinese American nightclubs in World War II San Francisco. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since releasing my 1989 documentary on the subject, “Forbidden City, U.S.A”. I have a treasure trove of memorabilia from the era, as well as the oral history interviews that I conducted for research. This is my “fun” project, and it’ll be published in time for an exhibition of my collection I’m curating for the San Francisco Public Library, April – June 2014. Folks can follow us for updates.
I’m also in post-production on “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor”. Ngor survived the Khmer Rogue’s reign of terror and later appeared in The Killing Fields, winning an Oscar® for this first acting role. He became the de facto ambassador of Cambodia to the world, only to be gunned down in Los Angeles Chinatown in a case still shrouded with questions of international conspiracy. It’s an inspiring, yet horrifying story that builds on my 30 years of work on films that focus on personal stories to investigate history, social prejudice, violence, and public policies. For the first time since 1970, I’m working with animation again as part of the story-telling strategy and plan to finish up for a late 2014 release.