by Neelanjana Banerjee
Filmmaker Grace Lee’s documentary and narrative films investigate how one’s identity and ideas influences the world around them. Whether it is her acclaimed first feature-length film “The Grace Lee Project,” which investigates the lives of other people named Grace Lee, or even a mockumentary called “American Zombie,” which imagined a world in which zombies walk among us and claim zombie rights, Lee’s point of view is consistently exploring the subtleties and significance of politics, organizing, and how power lies within all of us. Lee grew up as one of the only Asian Americans in Columbia, Missouri, and now lives in Los Angeles. We spoke on the phone about her films, and her recent experiences at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
How did you get into filmmaking? Did you always know you wanted to make films?
Definitely not. My parents were immigrants. They never even knew filmmaker was something you could even do, and either did I, really. I was always interested in writing and storytelling and thought I was going to be a journalist. At least that’s what I thought in high school and college. I was always interested in people and stories and asking questions and that sort of thing. After college, I spent a year in Korea and I had never really been there before. I went to learn more about my Korean heritage. I was volunteering at a support center for Korean women, especially those who were in relationships with American GIs—mostly women who worked around the American military bases and bars. I made a short film about the experiences of these women. That was really my introduction to visual storytelling. I say this a lot, the visual medium was so visceral that I didn’t really feel like a pen and paper were enough to convey what I was feeling or seeing. So that’s when I decided that I wanted to do this. I came back to the U.S. and tried to get as much experience as I could on productions. I worked for a few years associate producing or researching for documentaries, or assisting on independent feature films. Eventually, I went to graduate school at UCLA.
Why do you like documentary storytelling over narrative?
I am really drawn to people and their stories. Maybe that is part of growing up in the Midwest, where in school you’re taught a certain narrative and then you go back home and realize there is a whole other Asian American experience going on here.
I ended up majoring in history after I left journalism. So I was always interested in finding other kinds of perspectives. I think non-fiction filmmaking allows you to enter these worlds that are co-existing with your own but offer a different perspective than what you’re used to. I think that’s why I do a lot of documentary, or any kind of film—to explore a different perspective, get the audience to step into the shoes of someone else.
How did you decide to make “The Grace Lee Project?”
Again, it was a really personal observation I had. I grew up in the Midwest, and there weren’t a lot of Asian Americans around, not a lot of Grace Lees. No one was even named Grace. I thought I was pretty unique until I started living on both coasts and people started telling me about the other Grace Lees that they grew up with. This portrait began to emerge that kept reoccurring: the overachieving, Asian, “Model Minority” stereotype. And the ways that people talked about Grace Lee made me feel uncomfortable because I couldn’t really relate, but at the same time I could relate. For many years I would joke and say I’m going to make this Grace Lee project and meet all these other Grace Lees, but then I also thought, ‘Nah, who wants to see that?’ It feels really self-indulgent. When I enrolled in UCLA film school there were 12 other Grace Lees in the directory at my time, and I kept getting their emails, so I thought, okay, maybe this is a thing. I used that idea to explore who all these other Grace Lees are. What do we learn about Asian American model minorities or Asian American women by meeting a bunch of different Grace Lees? As specific as it was, it became more universal. I think a lot of people ended up relating to this project because no one wants to be pigeonholed because of the way they look or because of their name. It hit a nerve.
You made a film called “Janeane from Des Moines” where the actress Jane Wilson pretends to a woman living in Des Moines who attends the 2012 Iowa Caucuses and tries to figure out which Republican candidate she wants to vote for. Along with scripted scenes with her family—who are suffering from middle class strife like job loss and no health insurance—she also interacts with various candidates like Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman. Are you a political junkie? How did this film come about?
I’ve always been somewhat interested in politics in general. In the last maybe eight to nine years, it’s just gotten so polarized. “Janeane from Des Moines” was kind of a reaction to that. Jane Wilson and I had worked together on a previous feature film I had made and we both had been having a lot of conversations when the Tea Party was coming into existence. It is even more heightened these days. But back then, we felt like, what is happening to this country? We just didn’t understand what was happening. We made this project to really explore the perspective of people we knew from the Midwest, or even here in California, who seem to vote against their own self interest. We created “Janeane from Des Moines” out of that desire. It is always motivated by a question. All the films that I make start with that. We had both had experience at the Iowa Caucuses and that is a very unique political event and we thought, we could make something there. Let’s go for it.
How scripted was the film? What was the process like? Did people ever suspect what you were doing?
The film is mostly scripted. We had an opportunity to create scenes around real life improvisations in real life events. When we went out to the media events, we just didn’t know what was going to happen. The thing is, even though Jane is an actress, she is a real person. Her character is drawn from so many people that are in her same boat. We would go to these events and she would really be in improv mode for hours. And that really helped inform the character. There are so many other kinds of conversations that she had because she is such a great actor. It’s not like we were trying to punk the candidates. The critiques that some people had that we were like Borat, it’s not really that. There is no hidden camera. There are a million cameras actually in all these situation. And we weren’t trying to get a candidate in a private moment and get them to say something that they wouldn’t already be saying in public as they are running for president. It is just that she is asking a real question that is critical to her existence at this moment in our story.
Your film “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs“—about the Chinese American Detroit activist and former Black Power leader—was political in a different way, focusing on one of Asian America’s most active heroes. How many years were you working on that film? What were some of the challenges?
I met her when I made “The Grace Lee Project.” So, I met her in 2000, and the film came out in 2013. I wasn’t actively working on that film the whole time, but I did tell her one of the first times I met her when I was filming in Detroit, ‘I want to make a longer film about you.’ I mean, it took over ten years to make that film but not full time. A project like that was just very difficult to make for a variety of reasons. One of them was just how to do you make a compelling story about a 90-something-year-old woman who spends most of her time thinking or writing or reading. It is not very dynamic or cinematic. A film about ideas is hard to make. You can’t just follow them to an exciting event, you have to build it from scratch and find out why ideas are so exciting to her. Really we wanted to recreate the feeling we had around Grace Lee Boggs because one of the first times I heard her speak publicly, I just got so excited. So it was about how you recreate that excitement with this woman.
What was your strategy to make a film about someone who lives her life on mostly an intellectual plane? Did you know from the start how to tell her story?
It was an evolution. Even when I first met her, I didn’t feel like I was qualified at that time to make the film. When I first met her, I was still making “The Grace Lee Project” and I had this idea that there has got to be this larger film about her someday, but I had no idea if I was going to be the one that was going to make it, or if it was going to be any good or what. I didn’t even know enough about her then. I would just stay in touch and go to Detroit and just try to learn. It was really a labor of love. I mean, no one was giving me any money to do that. But, I wanted to be around her. There was some moment, maybe it was 2008. I had finished “The Grace Lee Project.” I had made a feature film, there was another feature film that I was working on that fell apart—then I had a kid. After a year of trying to juggle all these things, I was like, my time is very limited and I want to make something that is going to be meaningful to me and something I can really sink my teeth into. Then I was like: The Grace Lee Boggs film! I thought, how old is she now? It had been a few years and I remember calling her and saying, ‘I think it’s time to do this film,’ she saying, ‘Well, you better hurry up. I may die soon,’ which was seven years prior to her passing. And that’s when we really started in earnest. It took another five years after that.
How was the response for the film from Grace and everybody?
She really loved the film. What was amazing about Grace was that she never pressured me about when the film was going to be done, or when she could see it. And even if she suggested that somebody should be in the film, it was never about her, it was always about some cool person or project that was happening in Detroit. But I think she really loved the film. Some of the footage in there with [her husband] Jimmy Boggs, I don’t think she had ever seen before, so I think it was very moving for her to see that.
I realized after she died, that it really helped bring a lot of people to her that might not have known about her otherwise. I think that’s what I always envisioned when I first wanted to make a film about her. She definitely wasn’t as well-known back when I first started trying to make the film. Her profile definitely grew in the time that I knew her and was making the film. It was a great experience that it has such an impact on people, not just that it is on television but that it is in theaters and film festivals and educational settings, and winning awards [The film won a Peabody Award in 2015]. It has been more than I expected. I mean, I knew early on that she was an exciting person. I never imagined that I would meet an elderly Asian American woman in the Midwest who embodied history itself, and who was so politically active. I knew she would have a broad appeal. That’s what kept me going all those years when it was difficult to raise money and that I was trying to convince people, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting, you know.’
…She was one of the most profoundly influential people I’ve met in my life. I think I also needed my son to know who Grace Lee Boggs is. I had this access to her. The people I know in Detroit have been so blessed to spend so much time with her. She’s not this icon. I thought, if I can show her to a broader audience, how amazing would that be. Back in college when I was interested in Asian American anything, because there was nothing, if I had seen a film or even just known about Grace Lee Boggs, I think my life would have been different. I think you are drawn to people for different reasons. Having made the film and meeting people who tell me that getting to know Grace through the film profoundly influenced them is really cool.
You just returned from the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. What were you working on and did you see lots of Asian American representation?
I was working for World Channel for PBS. It was an experiment to capture some content for their social media. I was also doing a project on next generation women in electoral politics. I am very interested in women who come from non-traditional backgrounds, or are not reflected in politics right now, whether they are women of color, or people from immigrant backgrounds, people who come out of organizing. So, I was really looking at not just electoral politics but also movement politics and where the two meet. I think there is a lot of that happening right now, so even though we are living in volatile times, divisive times, as Grace Lee Boggs has said, new movements emerge out of these points of conflict or crisis.
I definitely saw a lot of Asian Americans at the DNC. There were a lot of younger women running for Congress and local offices. More than I’ve ever seen before. I did this thing for PBS, the Maker Series, which was more looking at the old guard, more of a historical take on the long slow fight for getting equality in Congress, but I think at the state and local level, there are a lot of people getting involved. Just some of the people I talked to at the DNC included, well Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to congress, but also Helen Gym from Philadelphia, who comes out of a few decades of political organizing but now she is a City Councilwoman in Philadelphia. There are people coming out of different delegations. It is critical for Asian Americans, in certain states, I was hearing that they could be a swing vote. Asian Americans are going to have much more of a presence moving forward.
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Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press.
Watch Grace Lee’s films, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” and “Janeane from Des Moines” on Comcast on Demand this month