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Documenting Past and Present

Works in this year's Documentary Film and Video Happening risk much to connect personal experiences with the world in which they happen

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How do you document something in the process of disappearing? How do you take a photograph of someone, some place, some thing no longer there?

The potential pitfalls of such work include falling in love with what's been lost and remaking it in one's own image. There's the pull toward sentimentality, the feeling that we need to be careful with, or even protect the past. It's the risk of getting stuck in the circuits of memory, of hearing only the refrains of memories we "know by heart." It's the danger of losing the connection between the personal past and other people's past--or history.

Since documenting family often involves returning to someplace you haven't been in a long time, the work also frequently involves dealing with the difference between what you think lies back there, waiting to be rediscovered, and what you actually find.

Family belonging and loss are difficult issues to talk about, and harder still to document. With all their potential dangers and risks, it is remarkable how many participants in this year's Documentary Film and Video Happening are laying hands on family and reworking memory.

This seventh annual mini-festival of regional amateur, student and professional documentaries, sponsored by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies and its Program in Film and Video, features 13 works from a field of 42 submissions. Ranging from five to 22 minutes in length, all but two were shot in digital video. An additional seven works in progress will be shown. The group covers an impressive range of subjects and exemplifies various formal approaches to documentary filmmaking.

Christine Choy, this year's featured filmmaker, understands the importance and difficulty of connecting people's personal experiences to the broader social realities they inhabit. In Who Killed Vincent Chin? the filmmaker takes on more than the issues of class and race in Detroit, Mich., during the mid-1980s; she also addresses the problem of forgetting as a personal and political issue.

Who Killed Vincent Chin? investigates the events leading up to the murder of the title's subject, a Chinese-American man, by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, two unemployed autoworkers. The Academy Award-nominated film also illustrates, graphically in places, the bitter disappointment and unchecked hostility of Detroit autoworkers, coming to terms in the mid-1980s with what globalization meant for their piece of the American Dream.

In one sequence, we watch as Detroit residents take turns bashing the hell out of "little foreign cars" with baseball bats. The footage is striking. It feels so violent; it seems to explode with frustration and rage, especially when projected in slow motion. In cutting from one car beater to the next, on and on, Choy documents the coalescence of a community's outrage: its capacity and taste for violence, its class-based longing and hostility, and its racial prejudice. In these images, we see how social, cultural and economic forces give rage its shape.

There is a scary slippage that occurs between "damn foreign cars" and "damn foreigners." In the context of a film about an Asian-American man beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat, images of people beating on cars with the same instrument become no longer amusing or weird, but sinister.

In such a context, how a culture avoids the trap of nostalgia becomes a grave question, when such nostalgia takes the form of longing for a time when there weren't "so many foreign cars flooding our markets" and "so many foreigners trying to take our jobs."

Milan Kundera once observed that "Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life. . . . But forgetting is also the great problem of politics." Choy responds to this by asking if economic "progress" requires forgetting, then how are we supposed to know whether or not we are really getting anywhere? As we forge ahead, how are we supposed to see clearly what we are leaving behind?

The filmmaker tackles similar questions as she attempts to reclaim her family's home in Shanghai in her latest documentary. Ha Ha Shanghai¸ which will also be screened at the Happening, attempts to connect Choy's personal past to what we call history.

In 1962, Choy's family was split between two countries. Her father had left China for his home in Korea, while the rest of the family remained in Shanghai. Though no one was being allowed to leave China at the time, Choy recalls, "My mother wrote a letter to Chairman Mao entreating that it was important for our family to be reunited. Somehow, we got a visa." With permission to leave, Choy's mother handed their house over to the government in exchange for travel money. Choy was 9 years old at the time of their departure. Thirty years later, Ha Ha Shanghai documents her return.

Though the film wasn't available for preview, the prospect of returning to recover your childhood home without being swept away on a wave of nostalgia is likely to speak to the concerns of local documentarians participating in the Happening. It's the daunting challenge Choy sets for herself in Ha Ha Shanghai.

If growing up is about leaving childhood, the family home and the hometown behind, what's the relationship between all we've left behind and where we're going? North Carolina filmmakers Cynthia Hill and Curt Gaston take up the question in Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, which premieres at this year's Happening.

The documentary begins with a close-up of a big, green tobacco leaf, in an opening scene that evokes a child's-eye view of a farm. Up close, everything looks bigger than it really is. With our faces in the leaves, we can't see the field stretching into the distance.

The opening child's-eye view also captures what's at stake for filmmaker Hill in this project. It lets us in on the filmmaker's dilemma: how to tell this story, her story, without waxing nostalgic.

In the late 1990s, Hill realized she wanted to make a documentary about tobacco growers, farm workers and communities struggling with the decline of domestic tobacco production.

Turning her attention to tobacco farming meant going back home. Born and raised in the tobacco farming community of Pink Hill, the filmmaker spent childhood summers working in tobacco fields alongside family members, friends and neighbors. "When I began this film, I think subconsciously I was hoping to find my childhood memories, to recreate the romantic vision that I had in my head," Hill says. "But the family farms, the operations where school kids and families work together, don't really exist--or they do, but they are disappearing." In response, Hill left New York in the late '90s to begin work on Tobacco Money Feeds My Family.

Hill's film has the urgency of someone desperate to get a picture of the rainbow before it disappears. This is Tobacco Money's power--and its potential weakness. The film is openly nostalgic about the life of the tobacco farmer and vocal about the filmmaker's sadness and regret over its disappearance.

While recognizing this about the film we ask ourselves how could it be otherwise? Like the cowboy before him, the tobacco farmer's time has largely passed; the global economy no longer works for him. The social stigma smoking carries now is known by all.

Tobacco Money Feeds My Family feels nostalgic because it is. In it, Hill mourns the loss, not only of a way of life, but also her own childhood.

Elizabeth Iams' Spinning Wheel also attempts to document how people negotiate the disappearance of traditional ways of life as the world around them modernizes. Spinning Wheel is a visually stunning film about a group of women who practice traditional silk weaving in a Taiwanese village. Working with the government and business sectors, this collective of weavers manages to support their families while living in accord with their own, traditional values. The one lingering question about this documentary concerns the lack of coverage given any possible downside to the project. Where is the edge here? A woman returns to the village to raise her children and weave silk: well and good, but what of her husband, the children's father? Where is he? Did he prefer life in the city to the village? What is the price of the "blessed" program? What sacrifices does it demand of the villagers? Though I'm all for good government, I found myself not quite believing that everything is running so smoothly as Iams' film suggests.

Finally, two documentaries this weekend point to possible escape routes for those trying to document family without too much sentimentality. Fiesta Postcard looks like a postcard sent from a place that stopped being home a long time ago. Instead, the film reverberates with the hostile, plaintive voices of drunken relatives demanding to know why you never come back. Created by Durham resident Joyce Ventimiglia, the brilliance of this short is that it's constantly approaching and disrupting its own sentimentality. This is achieved, in part, through the film's loose connection between image and sound. Jam Cake by filmmaker--and grandmother--Vivian Bowman Edwards, tells her grandmother's story with elegance. The filmmaker shows artful restraint, never forcing the viewer to feel that family is special and meaningful. Yet, this is precisely what we are left with at the end of her film. EndBlock

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