By Jennifer Merin
JM: It seems The Third Wave, your documentary about the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004, became a personal odyssey for you. How'd you become involved?
AT: My boyfriend, Oscar Gubernati and I were watching TV when the tsunami hit. We watched TV reports for the entire day -- just sitting in our comfortable apartment, eating Chinese food. And then I thought, "We've got to do something." I'd been a rescue worker following Sept. 11, working for nine months as a volunteer. I said to Oscar: "I've got to help. I'll collect some medicines and go for two weeks as a volunteer." I asked him to go, too. Finally he said yes.
We didn't have any money -- only a few hundred dollars to our names. But we called friends for help, and we bought one ticket and got another frequent flyer ticket and we just took off. When we got to Sri Lanka, at the airport we met this guy, Donnie Patterson from Australia, and he joined us. Then we'd met this chef from Colorado -- Bruce French, who was the chef for Pearl Jam. We'd talked to him once before we left and arranged for him to meet us there, and he did. So, there were four of us who rented a van, filled it with food and water, and took off down the coast giving basic first-aid and water.
Then we found Perelya, the village where the famous train wreck had happened. We just stumbled upon it. There were 2500 bodies on the ground, the whole village was destroyed. A 40-foot wave had swept the entire village inland and wiped it out. So we set up a first-aid station, giving out food and water. It started from there. We intended to stay two weeks, to maybe help at a camp or something. But we ended up being in charge of a refugee camp for 14 months. There was no one else there, and the four of us just started each day by saying we'll stay another day, or a few more days.
By S.T. VanAirsdale
STV: What can you tell me about Manuelle Labor?
ML: It's a little collaboration I did with Guy Maddin. We've known each other for a while now, and I've always made film portraits of different artists. The last one was on Richard Foreman, and the last one at Tribeca was on George Kuchar. So I asked Guy if I could film him, and he said: "No! I hate my face and I hate my voice." So I said: "OK, well, film your hands or your feet, and I'll do something with it." So he actually shot his hands on Super 8 film, and a year later he sent me the reel. I was asked to finish this short film for the Berlin Film Festival, because Guy was the guest of honor there for Brand Upon the Brain. I made a little silent film using his hands. I shot a film around them where I'm getting sick and pregnant and I'm giving birth to a pair of hands. And they're his hands.
STV: Why did you want to give birth to Guy Maddin's hands?
ML: It's kind of the best way to give an homage to him. In some ways it's completely kooky and it goes with the style of his films and my films. It's always related to the mother and the belly. Everything's superimposed, and there's the craziness of silent films. Also, giving birth to him is like giving birth to a portrait. It's an homage to him. Instead of playing with his hands, it's actually living with them; he's inspiring me in my work -- his friendship.
By Jennifer Merin
JM: You brought your seven-minute documentary, Night Visions to Tribeca in 2006. This year, you’re back with the 25-minute Miss Chinatown USA. Other than length-wise, how do these films differ? What’s similar about them?
KH: Night Vision is about a young soldier returning from Iraq. He’d enlisted for idealistic reasons, went to Iraq and came home a very different person. Miss Chinatown USA is the story of a young Chinese-American woman who, through machinations for which she’s only partly responsible, competes in the Miss Chinatown USA contest in San Francisco. Both films are basically portraits -- Miss Chinatown’s protagonist is Katie Au, who’s slightly confused about her identity.
JM: How is she confused?
KH: She’s a beautiful Asian-American young woman who’s been raised in a white community. All her friends are white, she doesn’t speak any Chinese and she’s a member of the Seattle Sea Gals, the cheerleading team for the Seattle Seahawks football team. I don’t know if you know that -- I didn’t know that, I’m quite ignorant about football matters. Cheerleading squads tend to be filled with girls who’re very blond and blue-eyed and have very curvaceous bodies. And Katie does not -- but she has this wonderful athletic ability as a dancer. She’s brilliant. She’s actually on a world tour now, dancing.
JM: How’d you find Katie?
KH: Honestly, I had no intention of making a documentary like this. My interest had been in the Miss Chinatown USA pageant. I was in the Masters in Documentary Filmmaking program at Stanford, and decided to do my project on the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant because its history is so fascinating. The pageant started at a time when Chinese-Americans were considered saboteurs and Communist spies, so Chinatown in San Francisco was losing a lot of business -- nobody was going there, the FBI was raiding. So business leaders of Chinatown got together and decided they wanted to put their best faces forward with an event that would draw people to their section of town. They created the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant.
It was a very social and political event, highly charged for the era. I thought I’d do my project on that. I even interviewed a woman who’d competed 50 years ago and was still alive. I went through all the archival material. Then I started getting this nagging pressure, this voice inside me saying it’s great to make an historical documentary showing why this pageant came to be, but what I don’t understand is why it’s so popular today. I couldn’t figure it out. It seemed so anachronistic. I know a lot of ethnic pageants are still very popular, especially for newly arrived immigrant groups. There’s a Miss Pakistan, Miss Ethiopia and all that. But for Chinese-Americans, we’ve been here a bit longer than the (other) immigrant groups. We’ve successfully made our way into entertainment venues and all that.
So, for me, the idea of why the Chinese-American community still needs a pageant to celebrate itself was fascinating. Why would a girl join now? I shifted my focus from historical documentary to a portrait of a young woman participating in the pageant, trying to understand what drove her, what were her motivations.
By Jennifer Merin
JM: On the Downlow reveals the hidden lifestyle of bisexual men, more specifically of African-American men in Cleveland. They’re quite candid, seem to want their stories known. Yet, it‘s crystal clear throughout the film that bisexuality is a keenly sensitive issue and a very uncomfortable subject for them. Why this emotional dichotomy? Why not just come out?
AC: The men self-describe themselves as downlow, as dipping on both sides of the fence -- meaning they have sex with women and men. What’s controversial about this is twofold, in my opinion. First, bisexuality, itself, isn’t recognized in the gay community -- where some people say it doesn’t exist, and that it’s just cowardice. Secondly, in the black community, "gay" itself is suspect -- which has to do, I think, with our political and social environment, where masculinity, and black masculinity in particular, is especially valued, and where a man, and particularly a black man, is supposed to have children. So, I think there’s the issue of bisexuality, then there’s the issue within the black community -- there are those two directions of controversy.
By S.T. VanAirsdale
STV: What can you tell me about the story and background of A Man of Two Havanas?
VLW: It's a documentary that I made about my father. He was a revolutionary in Cuba and he was best friends with Fidel Castro. My father was the head of propaganda for the revolution because his biggest asset is that he's very eloquent and a very good writer as well. So he would go back and forth between Havana and the mountains and broadcast via radio against the Batista dictatorship. When the revolution came to power, my father had a falling out with Castro over the liaison with the Soviet Union, and he left to Miami. But when he arrived in Miami, he had a third position, which was both against the Cuban government as well as against the US policy toward Cuba. That position later evolved to include embracing dialogue and peace and trying to reunite the two Havanas. Hence the title.
But the movie's a hybrid. I went to film school and studied fiction film; I didn't care much about documentaries or reality. So for me, what I wanted to explore was my relationship with my father. So primarily it's a personal story. But because my father's a political, public person, it ended up being a hybrid between a political activist film about Cuba and anti-Cuba terror, and an expose of the groups that were responsible for keeping the embargo in place -- as I tell the story of my growing up in this climate of violence and repression, with drive-by shootings.
By Jennifer Merin
JM: I’ve visited New Orleans often, but never discovered the Mardi Gras Indians tradition shown in Tootie‘s Last Suit -- tribes of African-American men and women dressing as Native Americans in elaborate feather and jewel costumes they’ve constructed, parading through the streets, challenging each other to determine who‘s ‘prettiest.’ It’s fascinating. How were you introduced to it?
LK: Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my first knowledge of Mardi Gras Indians was years ago, when I heard Wild Tchoupitoulas, the first album where the Neville Brothers performed as a family. The Neville Brothers came from Mardi Gras Indians culture -- their uncle was a famous Mardi Gras Indian chief named Chief Jolly. Wild Tchoupitoulas was the name of his tribe. That album, released in the early '70s, was hugely popular. My first awareness of the Mardi Gras Indians came through it, but I didn’t know what it was about until the early 90s, when visited New Orleans and met Michael P. Smith, a photographer who’d been documenting Mardi Gras Indians for years.
I was knocked out by his photographs -- the beauty and the boldness of the self-representation of the people. I was fascinated, deeply curious to know what this was all about. I didn’t investigate further until the late '90s, when I went to New Orleans and shot footage of the St Joseph Night Parade. I kept that for a few years, not knowing what to do with it. But a screenwriting student of mine at Bard College and I fell into conversation one day about Mardi Gras Indians. He knew about them. I said I had Super 8 footage of them and he offered to have his friends transfer it to digital and cut it for me. My students helped me begin this film.
Simultaneously, I was writing a screenplay, which has been many years in evolution, with Charles Burnett. He and I developed a great friendship while working on that script; I told Charles about my Mardi Gras Indians documentary idea, suggested that he direct it. He said, “Make it yourself. You know these people. You did the research. Make the film.” Because I have such esteem for Charles, I thought, you know, he knows what he’s talking about, so I did it.
JM: Autism: The Musical -- now, that’s an intriguing title. What's behind it?
TR: Actually, we had a lot of difficulty coming up with that title, because this is not your typical issue film about autism. It‘s a film with a lot of humor and love. We wanted a title that didn’t sound sanctimonious, that gives people a clue that they’ll have fun watching this movie -- without being insulting to anybody in any way. We wrestled with titles for months and months and months and months, and finally my editor came up with this idea. We liked it. We tested it around, and people seemed to like it, too. So, it stuck.
The main thing is that we asked the moms of the people in the film how they felt about the title, and they really liked it. So that made me feel we’d really captured the spirit of the film.
JM: What, in your words, is the film about? Why’d you choose the subject? Did you have a personal involvement?
TR: Yeah. Back in college I’d studied autism in an abnormal psych class and became so interested in it I interned for a semester at an autism clinic they run at Binghamton University. But after that, my friend Janet Grillo‘s (one of the movie’s producers) son was diagnosed with autism at age three, and I was brought back into that world.
People approached her to make a film about autism, but she didn’t have any experience. She asked me if I would help guide her through the process and I said yes, but that, basically, I wouldn’t want to make a movie about autism because the subject is tough, painful, hard. I said we’d need to create a structure where autism an obstacle in the film, not its subject -- where people are the subject and autism is the thing getting in the way of their succeeding in doing what they want to do. We’d need to find a group of autistic kids who are trying to do something together, like put on a play. Then, Janet said, “Oh, I know this amazing woman who puts on plays with autistic kids.” That’s how I met Elaine, who runs The Miracle Project, which our film follows.
My idea was to make a movie that would introduce these autistic kids to the world in such a way that the world would value them, understand them. It would demystify autism. And, in return, we would find a place in our world for autistic kids.
By Jennifer Merin
JM: You and Rosario Dawson go back a ways. How did you connect? How important is that connection to you work?
TL: It’s phenomenally important. We go back to when we were acting students at the Strasburg Institute in NYC, where we both grew up. She was 16, I was 15. I was there because I knew I wanted to direct. We hit it off immediately and had dreams of making films together as early as that. Since then, we’ve made short films of all genres -- at that time and through my film school days. The reason Descent exists is because she and I wanted to make a film together that she would act in and produce, and I would co-produce and direct.
JM: What made this script the one to go with?
TL: We were determined to do films that matter to us about things we passionately care about, no matter how difficult it would be to make them. Also, we love films that are older -- I have a passion for films from the '60s and '70s -- that allow you to explore topics rather than tell you how to feel about them, that contain different genres and tones within themselves, that change within themselves without explaining themselves. There’s a lot of qualities of films we love that we wanted to imbue our first feature with, and we were able to do that with this script.
By Jennifer Merin
JM: I assume your getting pregnant while making this film about natural childbirth was happenstance -- what made you conceive of the film before you conceived, so to speak?
AE: Ricki Lake brought it to me. The subject’s been a passion of hers for a while, and she‘d wanted to do something on it. I didn’t know anything about it, wasn’t sure I was interested in it. But she gave me a book to read and I got interested. I started from absolute ignorance.
JM: How'd your becoming pregnant effect your filmmaking, and how did being in the middle of this film affect your pregnancy?
AE: It was ironic, kooky -- but it didn’t affect my work. When interviewed people, they’d ask if I’d put my pregnancy in [or] show my birth in the movie. I’d say, "Nah -- there’s nothing interesting about my story." But, by the time I got pregnant -- two years into filming -- I’d learned so much I wasn’t able to make blind decisions the way I’d probably have done several years ago. I knew I had choices and took my time exploring them. I went back and forth -- I’d film an awesome, easy home birth and think I’m going to do that. Then, the next day, we’d film in a hospital and hear scary stories and I’d think I should find a birth center.
By S.T. VanAirsdale
STV: Your film is a world premiere at Tribeca. What kind of background can you provide about it?
BM: The film focuses on two suburban American moms (Susan Retik and Patti Quigley) who lost their husbands on Sept. 11. It was really a starting point for them to really open their eyes to the world. When I first heard about it, it really surprised me; you'd think that people become much more insular or even xenophobic in a situation, and that everyone would understand if they had. Instead they did the opposite, and began to really learn about what happened on Sept. 11 -- how did this happen to them personally, to America.
And they started obviously to hear a lot about Afghanistan. Where is this place, what is this place, why are terrorists being trained there, and what's going on there that makes this possible? And they really started to learn about life in Afghanistan; first just in general, then more specifically what life was like for women. Then they stopped and thought: 'My God, if life is that bad for a woman, what must it be like for a widow like us?' That's what they wanted to do something about. What I thought was pretty extraordinary from the beginning was the kinship with the women -- so far away, coming from such different backgrounds. I thought, "Is it really possible?" I know that they feel this inside, and they have such a longing and a desire to go there and to meet the women, but I really wondered when they got there, would those connections be true? Could they be true? Indeed they were. It was really powerful to watch and to film.