During the remembrance of Vincent Chin, Asian American filmmakers gather in Detroit to support the Midwest
Asian American documentarians had their first official Midwest gathering in Detroit this weekend, bringing together artists and creatives for potential collaboration and building filmmaking momentum in the region.
The gathering was part of the 40-year remembrance and rededication of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man killed by two white people in Detroit, days before his wedding. His murder and case are often credited with sparking the modern Asian American civil rights movement.
Both local and national organizations contributed to the four-day remembrance, including the Detroit Institute of Arts & Detroit Film Theater and the American Citizens for Justice. The documentarians' convening was organized by the Center for Asian America Media. Events included an interfaith reflection of Chin's legacy and performances by the Electronic Music Ensemble of Wayne State.
For the filmmakers, it was two days full of providing resources, screening films, and, sometimes, sharing anxiety over financing their vision. Panels were moderated by directors like Grace Lee, who is also the co-founder of the Asian American Documentary Network.
Speakers and attendees were especially thrilled by the event's emphasis on the Midwest and its diverse voices since the West and East coast tend to be the center of conversations about film making and that the Asian American experience in the region can be different from the coasts.
Zosette Guir from Detroit Public Television said on the second day that there is a desire to stay in the Midwest and tell its stories.
“So many times — even with the Vincent Chin story — people have wanted to come in and tell that story. It is a Detroit story. And it should be told from the perspective of Detroiters and extend outwards. And I think — we have a right to be kind of protective about that,” she said.
Guir said Michigan has had a hard time letting go of its automotive legacy and is often known to others as a one-industry town.
"And we have a hard time re-imagining Michigan as a place that includes supporting infrastructure for the arts," she said. "There is this question about the Midwest and does good film making happen here? We know that it does. How do we challenge that perception that is out there?"
The films showcased include Bad Axe, the story of a Cambodian-Mexican family fighting to keep their restaurant alive in rural Michigan while also grappling with the trauma of the Cambodian Killing Fields.
Eden Sabolboro screened her short film, Ne Notoca Kiauitzin (my name is little rain), about Aztec artist Kia I’x Arriaga who lives in Detroit.
"We really saw eye-to-eye in terms of what it means to be a mother, be a creator, be somebody in kind of a foreign land that you're living in now that is kind of your place now," she said of Arriaga.
Sabolboro moved from the Philippines in 2014, and says her "Asian American experience is relatively still fresh." But it was "serendipity" to have landed in Detroit, a city that helped her find her voice and the stories she wanted to tell.
"I remember knowing no one. And not having anybody to connect with," she said. "In Detroit, the ecosystem is very supportive of each other. It's a big city, but the people that are doing things all know each other."
Shiraz Ahmed, who grew up in Texas, presented parts of his upcoming documentary Alive in Detroit, a public health tale following a patient, pastor, and physician. It is a story inspired by both the vibrant history of Detroit and his mother's emergency heart surgery without healthcare.
"Facing debt or death, she chose the former. And then, it all went away," his Kickstarter reads. "When the bill came due, the hospital forgave it, leaving her healthy, whole, and free. This was the event that led me to turn my camera to free health services and community care."
"(L)ike many in Detroit and beyond, she had to rely on the good will of others. And while we were grateful, the disparity between what my mother deserved and what she received was too great to fully celebrate."
Other Midwesterners were also represented at the panel, including Jason Rhee from Chicago. Rhee showed parts of his documentary about a celebrated Louisiana basketball player once called the “Korean Magic Johnson of NCAA women’s basketball” by Sports Illustrated and how she had been set aside throughout her coaching career. Jenny Shi discussed her film Finding Yingying, about a young Chinese student going missing in Illinois.
The panels dove deep into industry advice, while providing a space for the creatives to talk frankly about the difficulties of the field and institutional barriers — which is why many said it was important to build a new fabric based in the Midwest and bring funding to the region.
Minnesota artist Naomi Ko told the audience she didn’t like the idea of relying on the institutions of the East and West coast, because finances can change.
“(W)e can't necessarily rely on these things," she said. "But what we can rely is that if we come from this region, if we understand and we remember...what it feels like to be undervalued, ignored, neglected. You know, people saying, 'the flyover states.' And we remember our roots here in the Midwest."
"Midwest filmmakers (who) do have some success or do have access to these resources being able to be willing to help other Midwesterners as well — I think that's really important."
Representatives from organizations included the Center for Asian American Media, Asian American Documentary Network, Detroit Narrative Agency, Final Girls in Detroit, the Freep Film Festival, Kartemquin Media in Chicago, and Color of Congress grant winners.
A remastered version of the 1987 Academy Award-nominated film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, will also be broadcasted on Monday and Tuesday on PBS at 10 p.m.