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40 Years of Radical Media

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[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]

An Interview With Christine Choy
(and collaborators Allan Siegel, Worth Long, and Renee Tajima)
Scott MacDonald
A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
University of California Press, 1998

One of the more significant developments in recent years, at all levels of film production, has been the emergence of films from particular ethnic communities that have traditionally been left out of film history. A distinguished instance of this pattern is Christine Choy's From Spikes to Spindles ( 1976). Choy's film bears witness to contemporary Chinese-American life in New York's Chinatown by focusing on the demonstrations that followed the police beating of Peter Yen and relating this controversy to the history of the Chinese, and especially of Chinese women, in the United States.

By the time she made Mississippi Triangle (1984), in collaboration with Allan Siegel and Worth Long, Choy had become less interested in the continuities of particular ethnic heritages than with the intersections of the multiple ethnicities that coexist within virtually any community in America. While much of Mississippi Triangle focuses on relatively familiar elements of the American South, Choy's sections focus on various ways in which Chinese-Americans have negotiated a personal, social, and professional space between the European-American and African-American experiences in the Delta.

The complex intersections of ethnicity have remained, at least for me, the most interesting and most "critically" effective dimension of Choy's prolific career, and they are central in her most conventionally successful film (receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary), Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988), a collaboration with Renee Tajima. Who Killed Vincent Chin? focuses on the case of Chin, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat outside a Detroit bar by Ronald Ebens. Ebens murdered Chin believing he was Japanese and, therefore, responsible for the economic doldrums of the Detroit auto manufacturers: that is, Chin's death was a result of Ebens's inability to distinguish between a Japanese and a Chinese person. When Ebens went free, on the grounds that the murder was self defense, Chinese-Americans responded in protest, but the resulting civil rights trial freed Ebens a second time. For Choy the ethnic confusion at the heart of the case, and the larger context of Detroit, provided an opportunity to explore the relationship between ethnicity and the American Dream, and, at least implicitly, to critique the simplicity of most ethnic representations in commercial film and television.

I talked with Choy in New York City in April 1994. Since Choy has nearly always worked collaboratively, I have interviewed several of her collaborators. I spoke with Allan Siegel and with Worth Long (about Mississippi Triangle). I sent Renee Tajima questions about several projects, including Who Killed Vincent Chin? Tajima wrote responses. The comments of these collaborators—Siegel’ s and Long's in interview form; Tajima's in excerpts from her letter of September 27, 1997—are bracketed within my conversation with Choy.

MacDonald: Formally, it's a conventional documentary—a lot of talking heads. There are some nice formal moments: that opening shot, for example, where we think the train is moving, but then realize it's the camera. But what I find interesting and novel are those almost surreal moments where we hear this down-home southern drawl and then see this Oriental face speaking. It throws all the movie dialogue we've ever heard from Chinese-Americans into a new context, and we confront how limited our sense of ethnic experience is.

[I asked Renee Tajima to review her involvement in the films she worked on with Choy. What follows is an edited version of her letter in response to my query.]
Tajima: In thematic terms, Who Killed Vincent Chin? was for me the culmination of a political agenda and of the perception of the Asian-American identity I had come to during the seventies and eighties.

At that time in the late seventies, it was the first wave of Asian-American independent cinema—urgent, idealistic filmmaking—from groups like Visual Communications in Los Angeles and Third World Newsreel in New York. I settled into the community of media-activist filmmakers. We spent half of our time fighting Charlie Chan revivals and other assorted racist portrayals from Hollywood, and the other half making up for lost ground by documenting Asian-American reality.

In my work, I have tried to locate the eclectic points of cultural intersection that bind us as Americans, regardless of ethnicity. I believe it is eclecticism that defines the Asian-American cultural experience, and the American experience as a whole.

 

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