Who knew that Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins who gained fame as an attraction for P.T. Barnum's traveling circus during the early 19th century, eventually settled down and spent the final 35 years of their lives near Mt. Airy, N.C.? Moreover, who knew that those lost North Carolina years could become fodder for a feature-length, experimental docudrama?
Durham-based filmmaker Josh Gibson's The Siamese Connection will enjoy its world premiere as part of the New Docs program at this year's Full Frame Documentary Festival. Using a variety of filmmaking styles and storytelling techniques, Gibson has fashioned an intriguing look inside a story whose retelling is complicated by both the passage of time and a surprising lack of historical record.
Hailing originally from Davidson, N.C., Gibson first became interested in Chang and Eng's time in Mt. Airy almost by accident five years ago. "While working on another film in India, I was talking to my mother by telephone," remembers Gibson. "She was telling me she had purchased this 19th-century porcelain figurine of Chang and Eng Bunker for a few bucks on eBay. The seller told her he'd originally picked it up in India, and she thought it was really bizarre that this little figurine of Chang and Eng Bunker would end up in India. A couple of weeks later, I happened to be in this junk shop in Bombay, and I found another one of these Bunker figurines.
"I didn't know a lot about Chang and Eng at the time, but as I did more research, I started to learn more about their life in North Carolina. I became more fascinated, started collecting information and began the process of making this film."
Gibson found that Chang and Eng not only moved to North Carolina, but also established themselves as businessmen and Southern gentlemen. They settled on a plantation, bought slaves and assumed the surname "Bunker." They each married and fathered 21 children between them, which over time has created more than 2,000 descendants. However, in spite of their fame and personal prolificacy, Gibson's main challenge came from a lack of firsthand resources about the brothers' lives in North Carolina.
"One imagines they were drawn to North Carolina perhaps because they wanted to escape the spotlight for this rural town," says Gibson." "But, that's actually part of the problem I ran into as a filmmaker. There's not that much material out there about their day-to-day life, so much of that has been imagined in the contemporary imagination, from the lithographs depicting them to the plays written about them to my own reenactments in the film about their lives. As a documentary filmmaker, it's really hard to separate these facts from the mythology, and that's one of the reasons I tried to include these depictions of them in my film."
Indeed, some of the historical void becomes a focus of the film. "We may never know the full truth about their lives because Chang and Eng were a dark family secret for a number of generations. According to the family, the reason they were not talked about for a long time is because they were Asian. In the American South, that mixed-race heritage was something that was embarrassing.
"Of course, there were other reasons, too. Just the fact of these conjoined men married to two women automatically means there are sexual tableaus being broken, along with subtexts of incest and homosexuality."
Gibson used a variety of film stock—from 16mm to Super 8 to HD—along with Triangle-based performers and recreations of plays written about Chang and Eng, including a production of playwright Burton Cohen's The Wedding of the Siamese Twins performed at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater. He also incorporates footage from several Bunker family reunions, held annually in Mt. Airy.
"I see this film as a very personal film in many ways, uncovering history but also exploring different aesthetic interests," says Gibson. "I like nonfiction filmmaking, but I'm particular interested in blurring the boundaries between documentary, fiction and experimental, and I like to be able to draw from all of my experiences. I think some people have this notion that if you use a handheld, shaky camera somehow that's more true or real. But, I think style has nothing to do with truth. I think The Siamese Connection is preoccupied, on some level, with the idea of creating a stylized archive one can draw on to tell a story."
And, according to Gibson, the crux of this story is "[t]hese boys from Thailand [who] were once essentially purchased from their own mother and brought to America, but they got to the point where they thrived and even enslaved other people. To me, it was fascinating as this quintessential American, rags-to-riches story."
Josh Gibson will be present for the screening of The Siamese Connection at 5 p.m. Thursday, in the Civic Center.