Interview by Christine Lin
Anita Chang is an artist who works with various media forms, including film, digital video, photography, installation and the web. She was born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1960’s, fleeing a dictatorship. She grew up in Akron, Ohio and Massachusetts. Chang received her BA in American Studies and English at Tufts University, an MFA in Cinema at San Francisco State University and her doctorate in Film and Digital Media from University of California at Santa Cruz. She has worked as a community activist, an urban youth counselor, civil rights investigator, and education director for a non-profit San Francisco-based media literacy organization. Chang has taught film and media studies at universities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, in Taiwan and Nepal. She is currently an assistant professor in the Dept. of Communication at California State University, East Bay.
Christine Lin: Since I'm in a feminist filmmaking class, the first question that I wanted to ask you was: how do you define the terms experimental and feminist and what do they mean to you?
Anita Chang: I think for the term feminist, as a filmmaker, it’s about foregrounding women’s experiences and also privileging their experiences. But in terms of representation, as an aesthetic, it would include unruliness: images that don’t follow the rules, that defy expectation. It’s participating and creating an archive of the rich experiences and complicated lives that women engage in.
Experimental work is always knowing that you might not succeed in the way you think you want to succeed with your work, because you’re experimenting. To me, it’s being able to push those boundaries of, certainly representation, but also the form you’re working with. So, defying expectation, having people on the edge of their seat questioning what they see.
CL: I could definitely see elements of what you’re saying in your works. I was very fascinated by how you tell a story.
AC: Yeah, a scholar, which at that time I didn’t know what he meant, but he said my technique offered an “effective rhetorical strategy,” meaning a way of making a point or of expressing the idea of persuading people towards certain viewpoints. So, whether it’s through editing or the juxtaposition of certain colors, rhythms… the subjects of my work are speaking, but you see something else... My film 100 Eggs A Minute was one of my first attempts at that.
62 Years and 6500 Miles Between (2005)
CL: I can also see that in your film 62 Years and 6500 Miles Between. I was fascinated by how you composed it. In the film, you used journal entries from years ago; did you plan to use them while you were writing the entries?
AC: The movie ended up being about history-making rather than really being about my grandmother. You know, she was not able to speak. So she couldn't exactly tell her experience in the traditional way, so it was more through her writings, because she could only move her left hand. Yeah, so with that, and then with everyone else that knew her while she was alive, that started to become a way of putting together a portrait of a person. I started to think about why I kept these journals, and it made me think about when I look back, and I realized I actually had recorded a historical moment without knowing. And so that was this idea of thinking through how each of us are participating in recording events somehow or being part of an event. These are some elements that we have in our archive, to be one of the pieces of the puzzle, you know, for whatever purpose someone decides they want to create—like, either a book or a movie, right? And then I guess, for me, it was a movie about my grandmother.
62 Years and 6500 Miles Between (2005)
CL: So the film 62 Years was very personal, in the same way that your film Mommy What’s Wrong? was also very personal, since they’re both about your family. Was it difficult to put something that personal and vulnerable out for the world to see?
AC: For Mommy What’s Wrong?, that was part of the San Francisco State MFA Program, and the assignment was to make a movie that defies all the conventions of first year production, so it was all about experimentation. I wanted to do something that was personal, that would confront my mother's depression growing up. It was a kind of art therapy for me at that time. And I thought, what would it mean to use film or filmmaking as a way of healing? I was looking through all this super 8 footage, and all the images are really happy, of our family during vacation. And I was like, “this isn’t the way I remember growing up.” So I took these images of my mother and just tried to investigate, like, what was she thinking at that moment? We were all so clueless, but she was going through so much. And with the interview I had with her, the things she told me were things I never knew.
It wasn’t a work that I thought I would show, it was just for me. I didn’t have an audience in mind, it was for my family, for us to watch together. My dad saw it with my mother and he was shocked. He said, “I didn’t know any of this about you.” It was almost as though this film allowed this group therapy to happen. I think this kind of silence is a deep conditioning that happens in a lot of Asian and Asian American families. In an interview some years ago, I had mentioned that silence is very valued in many Asian cultures, but in American culture if you’re silent then in some ways you self-marginalize yourself, because this is a culture of the loudest person gets heard. And so I think my mom felt her perspective was valued, and that my father was able to hear her. I was so surprised that the film was so popular and relatable.
CL: It was definitely relatable. It really speaks to a lot of people in the Asian community.
AC: When you work with family in a movie, there’s a little bit of permissible “exploitation” that happens, in that you as the filmmaker are also implicated in the family dynamics. With 62 Years, I actually almost gave up because I, in part, didn’t want to upset my family members because everyone was saying different things about my grandmother. They had their own imagination and desires about my grandmother's life. And I felt like I needed to do her some service. I think making a movie about family is actually, in a lot of ways, harder. And the way I measure the success of a family subject movie is when no one wants to kill you, and no one wants to, you know, stop being your relative.
Mommy What's Wrong? (1997)
CL: Do you feel that Asian American women have a complex relationship with feminism?
AC: When you say Asian American women, I think when we say Asian American, we also have to be just really cautious how we use that term. Like does this include Pacific Islanders as well as Middle Eastern women or South Asian women, right? But I do, yeah. I mean, I would say that there is a complex relationship with feminism because of these intersectional identities, and we can't pull them apart and look at them in isolated ways. For example, my mother, who escaped Taiwan because of possible persecution. And then, you know, she was the first generation to go to college. And then she also didn't marry till very late, so she was kind of compelled and forced to marry in some way. And you hear in the film Mommy What’s Wrong?, she says the best thing that ever happened in her life was this job that she got. It wasn't me and my brother! (laughs)
So it is very complicated. And that's why I think one woman's idea of feminism doesn't have to be someone else's idea. There are all different kinds of feminisms that we can embrace.
My mom’s side of the family thinks they’re Pingpu indigenous. There’s all these kinds of cultural practices that exist in her family. They’re matriarchal, they value all the girls and don’t put the boys above the girls. My dad’s side is the opposite. His dad is Hakka, and they are patriarchal. So they have huge clashes. So these differences exist, even within families, in Asian cultures. There's so much unspoken about one's identity in Taiwan because of the more than 350 years history of colonialism.
Tongues of Heaven (2013)
CL: Did the inappropriate portrayal of Asian women in the history of film and television affect your filmmaking journey?
AC: Yeah, I think so. Back when I was in school, there wasn’t anything like Asian American media classes, so I kind of had to go at it by myself. But I was able to take an Asian American history class with Professor Reed Ueda from Hawai'i, and that really made me interested in how Asians were represented in mainstream American media and how certain policies and treatment of Asians also coincided with the media. So the media not only perpetuated certain myths and stereotypes, but they were also responding to the kinds of prejudices that were happening. Not only was it racist in terms of things like anti-miscegenation laws, but there were a lot of prejudices around economic competition, labor.
So as an undergrad, I was much more interested in the media representations of Asian Americans, and I didn't think that I would ever be a filmmaker. And it wasn't until Christine Choy came from New York to our college to show her new movie Who Killed Vincent Chin?… and I just remember, I had to go pick her up from the airport. And my friend and I, we're so excited, you know? So she's like, really petite and small and wiry and high strung and she was a chain smoker. Then we go into the theater, and she's smoking in the theater. And one of the professors says, “you can't smoke in the theater,” but she's totally unruly and doesn't care, and is this awesome filmmaker. And I just thought, like, man, there's this Asian American woman making movies? So, yeah, growing up as an Asian American woman really affected my filmmaking journey. Growing up in a patriarchal family, you're devalued in your family, right? And then you go outside, you go to school, and then you realize that you're invisible. Either you're invisible, or you're hyper visible. You're invisible because you're just not important and devalued, and then you’re hyper visible because you're exoticized and objectified. So I thought, I can complain about what the media says about Asian or Asian American women, but I’m also going to make stuff.
CL: Is that when you first discovered your passion for filmmaking?
AC: Yeah, Christine Choy. I never saw an Asian American woman making movies at that time. So, in the 80s, that was really amazing. Like, it blew my mind.
CL: When did you make your first film?
AC: What I feel comfortable calling my first film is a work I did at City College—a short super 8 film called Spofford Alley. And this guy in San Francisco, who gave me a really low rent to sublet his place and take care of it, when he came back, he gave me a present. He said, “Anita, thank you so much for taking care of my place. I have this gift for you because I found it at the antique shop.” Actually I have it right here!
And I just thought, wow. This doll, and the fact that he gave it to me is so loaded with meaning. Part of making movies is that there’s something that jumpstarts you. Because the doll hit upon a lot of things I was learning about San Francisco, Chinatown, and its history. And so I just decided to make a movie that would showcase a kind of haunting, haunting in a way that’s not just about the actual deaths that occurred in these ethnic enclaves, but more about a kind of social death. Marginalization, stereotyping, racism, all these things. So I had my friend take out air from his tires, and I was like, okay, so we’re going to do a smooth dolly down the center of Chinatown, I’m going to hold my camera as he let out air slowly of his tires. And I intercut these images, with this doll as a dangling figure.
CL: So you touched on your filmmaking process, but do you have anything else to say about what you consider to be the most important component of your works?
AC: I think the most important component would be the relationships that I build and cultivate with the people that are in my films. And my collaborators. And then also how those relationships, like my mother and I, change as a result of a movie. That’s in terms of making, but I love editing; that’s one of my favorite parts. For me, it's putting the script together that’s the longest, and then usually it takes me two weeks to edit. Once you have a really good script, and you know where all your material is, you have everything down to the seconds.
Production still from Joyful Life (l to r: Elise Chen, Wen-Jiang Huang, Shin-Fei Wu)
CL: So how is it teaching film versus making film?
AC: I feel like they both enrich each other. My filmmaking experience really enriches my teaching. And then my teaching really inspires my filmmaking, and I'm always inspired by my students. As an experimental filmmaker, I can encourage them to do something different, to get out of their comfort zone, to try something new: to engage with something they might not agree with. And another thing I really enjoy doing is getting my students involved in the movies that I'm working on, so they get real world experience, on the ground experience. The two feature films, I made, Joyful Life, about the leprosy (Hansen’s disease) colony in Taiwan, and then Tongues of Heaven, which is a movie about endangered languages in Hawai'i and Taiwan…those movies were collaborations with my students. They’re students in production classes, going through their own process, trying to find their own creative voice. That's why I like working it through with them and then vicariously enjoying their revelations.
CL: So the only question I have left is an easy one. What’s a movie you’ve watched recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
AC: I saw that question and I immediately was like, Parasite.
CL: I had a feeling you were going to say that! Cause that’s my answer too!
AC: Yeah, I told my students to go and see it and they would all come back to me and be like, “it’s amazing!” Yes, I just loved it.
Okay I’ll give you one anecdote to end the interview, which I just found out recently. So you know my film 62 Years and 6500 Miles Between, right? It showed in San Francisco at the Kabuki Theater in 2005. And it was sold out and standing room only. And my parents were there. And my friends were waiting in line. And they saw their friends in line. And their friends are like, “why are you coming to this movie?” And they’re like, “because Anita is our friend. What are you doing here?” And they’re like, “because my daughter dragged us here.” And it was Ali Wong. And she was in her early 20s or so. And she was like, “yeah there are few Asian female filmmakers, we have to go and support her and I really like her!” And that was back in 2005, 15 years ago. Like I had Christine Choy, my role model. And that's the thing we want people to realize, like, you know, Asian American experiences are so complex and so multi-dimensional. And that the more producers there are, the more we can be able to showcase these multi-dimensional aspects of our lives.