Posts filed under ‘activism’
The week of June 24, 2013 was absolutely monumental in the LGBT community, following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. After watching Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ schooling of the Texas GOP on Tuesday night*, I went to bed conscious of the fact that the Supreme Court would announce its ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 on Wednesday morning at 7am PST. I woke up shortly after 7am and immediately checked my facebook and twitter feeds to find the brilliant news that DOMA had been struck down and Prop 8 invalidated. There was nothing but joy all over my newsfeeds as everyone seemed to be celebrating the glad tidings.
That night we had tickets to the Frameline Film Festival at the Castro Theater, the heart of the LGBT community in San Francisco. We arrived an hour before showtime and lucked out on parking not far from the theater, although the streets were closed off and full of ecstatic, celebratory throngs. At one point it took twenty minutes to navigate a half block down Market Street to pick up my tickets, so jam-packed was the crowd, but I didn’t mind the inconvenience. It was fun to be out and about on such a historic night and even the weather in San Francisco cooperated, as it was uncharacteristically balmy and warm until well after sundown.
After basking in the glow of the celebrating crowds in the Castro, it was great to settle in at the 37th annual Frameline Festival of LGBT Cinema. I only caught three out of the dozens of films at the fest this year, but they were interesting in the various ways they reflected current events.
On that historic Wednesday evening I saw Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Chen grew up in the Bay Area but now lives and works in Taiwan. WYSLMT is his second feature, following his well-received debut Au Revoir, Taipei (2010)
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is a charming and bittersweet tale of a man reconsidering his sexuality after nine years of marriage. Weichung (Richie Jen) has a young son on whom he dotes and a good job at an eyeglass store, and he and his wife Feng (Mavis Fan) seem content. But after Weichung’s boss abruptly leaves the steady-but-dull optician’s business to him (after happily declaring the end of his “relationship with glasses”), Weichung begins to question his satisfaction with life. Running into an old friend, the openly and happily gay wedding photographer Stephen, further catalyzes Weichung’s dissatisfaction. After a chance meeting with dreamy flight attendant Thomas, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Wong Ka Lok, Weichung has to make some hard choices about his life as a “former” gay man.
The movie is sexy in a subdued way, with unrequited lust rather than full-on passion supplying most of the erotic heat between Weichung and Thomas. In a role that’s a change of pace from the Johnnie To action films (Exiled; Breaking News; Punished) he’s known for in the West, Richie Jen is very good as the husband on the down-low. Wong Ka-Lok is beautiful and charming as Thomas, Weichung’s lovely temptation, and the rest of the cast is excellent, including glamourous Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan playing it straight as Feng, Weichung’s earnest wife, with her real-life full-sleeve tats airbrushed in postproduction. Also outstanding is a subplot involving Weichung’s high-maintenance sister who gets cold feet a few weeks before her planned wedding to the nerdy and devoted San San (played with forlorn mopiness by Taiwanese rock star Stone). Chen directs the movie with a deft touch, with likeable characters, believable situations, and a light touch of magical realism, including a spot-on spoof of a weepy Taiwanese drama. The movie is poignant, funny, and enjoyable, with sympathetic characterizations of its many characters.
South Korea’s White Night (2012) is slow, beautiful, and deliberate, a very different kind of movie than Chen’s brisk and buoyant film. Won-gyu (another sexy flight attendant, what?) returns to Seoul after a two-year self-imposed exile following a traumatic event. He hooks up via the interwebs with Tae Jun, a motorcycle courier, and despite their initial antagonism, the two court and spark throughout a long and eventful night on the streets of Seoul. Director Lee Song Hee-Il depicts Seoul at night as a brilliant, glittering, yet somewhat malevolent site, locating his actors on rain-slicked streets and in shadowy, cramped interiors. His actors do a good job maintaining their complex and often conflicted relationship, with Lee I-kyeong as the streetwise Tae Jun in particular showing a lot of swagga and charisma. White Night touches on relevant issues including internalized homophobia and gay bashing and possesses some great sexual heat from the two hunky leads. However, despite the effectiveness of its moody mise-en-scene, the film’s elliptical and somewhat opaque narrative leaves a few too many questions unanswered.
Like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Two Weddings and A Funeral (2012, South Korea) also looks at the plight of a married man living on the down-low. But in comparison to Arvin Chen’s delightful and subtle film, Two Weddings and A Funeral, though heartfelt, is a much less accomplished piece of filmmaking. The film follows a gay man who marries a lesbian co-worker in order to convince his nagging parents of his heterosexuality, with a predictable lack of success. The film includes queeny friends, gay-bashers, tearz, and contrived situations, and is fairly clumsy and overwrought, filled with overacting and unbelievable plot twists, but there are some funny and charming moments sprinkled throughout. The Frameline screening was also marred by digital artifacts in the projection, which were distracting and took the viewer out of the story. The best part of the screening, however, was Jo Gwang-soo Kim, the film’s very sweet director, announcing to cheers from the audience that he and his partner, the film’s producer, were soon to be married. The two left the stage happily holding hands, yet another reminder of the great historical moment that we were inhabiting.
*NOTE: As a prelude to the repeal of DOMA, Tuesday night brought another significant civil rights drama, played out mostly on the internet. I stayed up well past midnight to watch the awesome smackdown of the Texas GOP by State Senator Wendy Davis, as she filibustered in her neon pink running shoes for 11 hours in order to block draconian anti-abortion legislation. After watching the whole thing play out on ustream and twitter (with the cable and broadcast news channels completely ignoring this fine political theater) I went to bed satisfied, as the bill was not passed in the Texas legislature. Asshat Texas governer Rick Perry has since called a special session to try to ram through the rejected bill, but Texans are not letting him slide by so easy this time. Later that week, thousands demonstrated outside of the state capital building in 100 degree weather, keeping a watchful eye on the sneaky Republicans as they try to roll back women’s rights in Texas. More to come as it develops.
As I watched our President sworn in for his second term this week I was pleased to note that in his inauguration speech he gave a shout-out to the Stonewall riots and made encouraging noises about marriage equality. Though subtle and fleeting, it was a definite indicator of the mainstreaming of the LGBT movement.
This is especially evident after seeing David France’s stunning new documentary, How To Survive A Plague, which focuses on the early days of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. The contrast is stark between President Obama’s careful but inclusive mention of LGBT rights and the Reagan/Bush administration’s rampant homophobia and indifference to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. France’s film specifically looks at the efforts of ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in New York City as that grassroots organization sought to increase awareness of the epidemic and to pressure the government to develop treatments for the disease.
As one who lived through those times the film was very hard to watch in several spots, bringing back memories of the countless early deaths that devastated the gay community, here in San Francisco as well as in New York City and around the world. Though it’s very New York white middle-class male-centric (hello, Haiti?) it’s nonetheless a well-made and impressive piece of filmmaking. The documentary traces the stories of several young, mostly HIV-positive men who take up the struggle after the U.S. government fails to address the epidemic (then-President Ronald Reagan didn’t publicly utter the word “AIDS” until 1987, more than six years after the first case was diagnosed). The film follows several of these newly minted activists as they pressured the government, the medical establishment, and the pharmaceutical companies to search for effective treatments for AIDS.
The genesis of ACTUP coincided with the widespread use of the camcorder and the film is comprised primarily of historical camcorder footage interspersed with modern-day interviews. Although it took my digitally acclimated eye a little while to adjust to the unsharp VHS and Hi8 footage, the softer, fuzzier images are very evocative of the time and ultimately become a visual signifier for the era. Though not as crisp and clear as modern-day digital recordings, the footage is nonetheless powerful and moving as it documents seminal moments such as ACTUP’s infamous 1989 St. Patrick’s Cathedral “die-in,” the confrontation between ACTUP member Bob Rafsky and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton (who gives as good as he gets, by the way), and the capping of extreme homophobe and all-around dickwad Senator Jesse Helms’ house in a massive canvas jimmy hat. The handheld, lo-fi quality emphasizes the immediacy of the footage and one archival sequence in particular, where dozens of protestors fling the ashes of loved ones who have died of AIDS onto the White House lawn, becomes astoundingly powerful in its intimacy.
Director France skillfully weaves together historical footage of the often-contentious ACTUP meetings (one featuring fire-breathing playwright Larry Kramer lambasting the bickering factions), various demonstrations, interventions, and acts of civil disobedience, and more personal footage of several significant participants, following them to their eventual fates. Sadly, for many including performance artist Ray Navarro, this means death from AIDS-related illnesses. After witnessing Navarro gleefully skewer the religious right as he performs as Jesus in early ACTUP demonstrations, it’s painful and poignant to watch his last days captured on video as he succumbs to blindness and delirium. The film follows other individuals who meet similar fates and, after watching video footage of them playing with their children at birthday parties or speaking out eloquently against ignorance and homophobia, their deaths are deeply felt losses. The film effectively captures the horror of the era as seemingly healthy young men are articulate and strong one day and are frail and dying of opportunistic infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma the next.
Some may argue that the movie is just another rehash of the ACTUP/Larry Kramer/New York City mythology that’s way too focused on a small group of gay white men to the exclusion of the rest of those affected by AIDS. To be fair, there are a couple women activists included (but their stories aren’t followed to the extent of the men in the movie), Latino artist and DIVA-TV member Ray Navarro has a featured role, and some of the b-roll includes images of African American men. Would the film have been a more inclusive and representative picture of the AIDS epidemic if there had more Haitians or females or people of color included? Sure. Would that make it a better, more powerful film? Not necessarily, it would just make it a different film. As it stands, the emotional and visceral impact is there, the craft is there, and the storytelling chops are there. Despite its somewhat narrow worldview, the movie makes a strong case for grassroots organizing and for standing up to institutional indifference, hostility, and outright discrimination, and for that it’s a significant and important piece of work.
Just got back from a trip to Spain, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, which continues to be a hotbed of anti-capitalist activism. The Spanish economy is on the verge of collapse, due in large part to the same predatory banking practices that nearly wrecked the U.S. economy back in 2008, and pissed-off Spaniards have been marching and protesting for many months.
On our trip we drove through Torre del Mar, Nerja and other towns on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain that have been overdeveloped to within an inch of their lives by speculation that was clearly financed by funny money and faulty investment practices that primarily benefit the banking industry. In the meantime, unemployment in Spain is at 24% overall and an insane 51% for those under 25 years of age. More than 5 million people total are out of work in the country.
The Occupy movement has its origins in the Spain in the mass demonstrations of May 15, 2011 and “15-M” activists have continued to protested newly elected conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s rollbacks in workers’ rights such as raising the retirement age to 67 years of age and deregulating the labor market. Over a million people across Spain took to the streets last February, with more than half a millon demonstrators in Madrid alone.
Over 30,000 “indignados”, (“the outraged”) demonstrated on May 15 in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol just a couple weeks before we arrived, protesting against austerity measures. As one demonstrator noted on cnn.com,
“We are really tired of this situation,” said Madrid protester Paola Alvarado, a purchasing agent. “And the new government is the same. They steal our money and give it to the banks.”
We saw these sentiments reflected all over the streets of Granada. Grafitti on banks and cathedrals denounced capitalism, consumerism, and the banking system, and reflected growing anger at speculation gone wild.
Andalucia was a stronghold against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and famed Granada poet and outspoken leftist Federico Garcia Lorca was martyred by the Nationalists in the early days of the war, so it’s no wonder that grafitti artists in his hometown continue in this spirit of resistance.
It’s great to see that activism and protest is alive and well in Spain. In a country that’s been devastated by unregulated speculation and a disregard for its damaging effects on everyday people, dissenting voices are still speaking up loud and clear.
Nov. 2, 2011: Spent a good part of the afternoon at the general strike demonstrations in Oakland today. I’d fully meant to get in a good day’s work editing my new film but once I got on the twitter feed my good intentions went out the window. The revolution was happening just across the Bay Bridge and I realized that my creative process would probably benefit most from the knowledge that I could glean from what was going on in the streets, not from wrangling with the intricacies of Final Cut Pro.
So after sketching out a couple ideas I decided to skive off the rest of the day and head over to Oakland to show my support for Occupy Oakland. As noted in my last post, OO got worked over pretty good last week by the Oakland Police Department, with help from outside agencies including seventeen different regional police departments and a rumored assist from Homeland Security. After that mess the folks at Occupy Oakland’s general assembly voted for a general strike, which took place in spectacular fashion today.
When I emerged from BART into the warm autumn sunshine at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza this afternoon the area was full of excited but peaceful demonstrators. I met up with fellow Asian American Studies @ SFSU prof Eric Pido and we took a quick spin around the plaza, checking out the various speakers and performances both scheduled and impromptu, as well as the happy line of people waiting for free grindz dished up by the Food Bank and other kindly folks. The outdoor kitchen included an orderly cleanup station that included compost bins and recycling (!)
We circled back to the main intersection in time to hook up with a large march headed up Harrison Street toward Grand, passing by the Caltrans building where curious workers stood on the sidewalk watching the demonstration pass by. At one point I observed a couple office ladies confer with each other, then gleefully join the march as it continued up Grand Avenue. I headed back to San Francisco shortly thereafter and followed the rest of the protest on twitter as tens of thousands of people shut down the Port of Oakland and effectively prevented any activity there.
As I write this around 11pm there are still many hundreds, if not thousands, of people peacefully massing at Ogawa/Grant plaza. The police are keeping their distance, although I’m sure they’re chomping at the bit for any excuse to brutalize the demonstrators. Here’s hoping that things will stay calm, and that this amazing day will continue into the night.
NOTE: Oakland writer and artist Kenji Liu has produced an excellent diptych of posters, Memory Is Solidarity, that connects the dots between Frank Ogawa and Oscar Grant, whose names grace the downtown Oakland plaza that is the hub of Occupy Oakland. He eloquently explains why he thinks that we should remember both Ogawa and Grant, since both were victims of institutional racism–Ogawa was imprisoned at the Topaz internment camp during World War Two, and Grant of course was murdered by BART policeman Johannes Mehserle in 2009. Liu also notes the importance of other significant place-names including Wall Street, which was indeed originally a wall that separated European Americans from the indigenous Lenape people in lower Manhattan. It’s great that the Occupy movement is spawning so much thoughtful and interesting debate–a true sign of a successful campaign.
UPDATE: 11.53p: About 300 police have shown up at Ogawa-Grant plaza. Protestors chanting “Oscar Grant! Oscar Grant!” Teargas and rubber bullets fired–livestream here: http://www.livestream.com/globalrevolution
UPDATE 2: 12.14p. Alameda County sheriffs have just moved on the occupiers in Oakland. Teargas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades being used on protestors. All went down just after the television news crews packed up and went home. Luckily an intrepid cameraman has been livestreaming the entire event. Don’t let this unbridled show of police brutality go unwitnessed.
Here’s what I gleaned from the livefeed: Protestors were dancing in the streets just before midnight. Some had occupied a foreclosed building adjacent to the square. A couple hundred police in riot gear arrived and without warning or a dispersal order fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, which had dwindled quite a bit from earlier that day. Several of the police, who appeared to be from the Concord Police Department among other agencies, had masking tape covering their names and badge numbers. When challenged about this I heard one cop say, “Go home,” to a demonstrator, who then said, “I have a right to peacefully protest.” A hostile bystander then replied, “He has a right to kill you.” When I finally succumbed to fatigue around 1am the police and protesters were still in a standoff.
UPDATE 3: OakFoSho has corrected my belief that a cop said, “I have a right to kill you.” Apparently it was a heckler standing nearby who said it. Fixed.
On a similar tip, here’s a great video of a couple demonstrators who came across an Oakland policeman with his name-tag taped over.
UPDATE 4: Davey D. from Hard Knock Radio breaks it down in an excellent overview and analysis of the day.
UPDATE 5: Great discussion of the turn of events on Thursday here on dailykos.com.
UPDATE 6: The Occupy movement, and attendant police violence, has spread to the UC Berkeley campus. asiansart.org has a great on-the-ground description of the demo yesterday, including videos of UC police beating on peaceful student protestors.
Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of witnessing the phenomenal spoken word artist Bao Phi reading at my homebase, San Francisco State, and his singular blend of brilliant wordsmithing and sharp political commentary was completely awesome. Bao was the capstone presentation at the two-day long Re-SEAing Southeast Asian American Studies conference, hosted by the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU where I work, and he rocked the house with his funny, smart, sensitive, and deeply moving work.
Phi is the author of one of my favorite spoken word pieces, Reverse Racism, which I teach in all of my Asian American culture classes, but prior to last week I’d never heard him read in person so I was really looking forward to his presentation. He didn’t disappoint, reading mostly from his ongoing series, The Nguyens, in which he inhabits and articulates the experiences of various Vietnamese American characters surnamed Nguyen, from waitresses to artists to Prince impersonators.
But the showstopper of the afternoon was 8 (9), was his elegy to Fong Lee, a Hmong American teenager shot and killed by the police in Minneapolis under very suspicious circumstances. As the poem’s introduction notes:
In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American. Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police. During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.
8 (9) embeds significant parenthetic phrases (gang member for Lee; hero and peace officer for Anderson) to suggest the moral panic evoked by the police department in smearing Lee in court. The poem captures the irony of Hmong Americans who fled persecution in their home country only to find more violence as well as flagrant racism once in the U.S. It also links Lee’s experience with other egregious cases of police brutality, invoking among others Oakland’s Oscar Grant, whose killer, Johannes Mehserle, has already been released from prison after serving just 24 months.
Bao Phi has active in the fight to bring Lee’s killer to justice, using his poetry and spoken word pieces as well as numerous blogs posts and articles to illuminate this grave miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately the fight has thus far been a futile one, with the Supreme Court recently declining to review the case, but it has galvanized an outraged Minneapolis Asian American community. Phi has been at the forefront of the struggle, and by using poetry as a means of memorializing the injustices in Lee’s death, his work offers hope for preventing future cases of unchecked police brutality. It’s great to see an artist passionately engaged with important social issues–I’m counting the days to the release of his first book, Song I Sing, due out in the fall from Coffee House Press.
With many thanks to Bao Phi, here in its entirety is 8 (9).
In memory of Fong Lee
And for the Lee family, and the Justice for Fong Lee committee
In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American. Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police. During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.
Community members point out that accusations about Fong Lee’s history and character, specifically allegations that he was in a gang, were allowed in court and written about in the press. But Officer Andersen’s alleged dislike of Asians and history of derogatory remarks against Asians was neither allowed in court nor written about in the press.
One of the devil’s greatest powers
Is to force you to take a deal
That he himself would never take.
Fong Lee was 19 (gang member). I can imagine him (gang member) and his (gang member) family. They are eating (gang member) something that steams and it does not steam like food from this (gang member) country, the smell lingers (gang member) like home. It is Minnesota so (gang member) the lights inside no matter how dim somehow makes (gang member) all indoor rooms feel warm. Now its summer and he’s fishing with his (gang member) friends. They (gang member) get on bikes and their (gang member) legs drape low, (gang member), arms lazy crosses on the handlebars. Their heads lean as they debate the Minnesota Vikings (gang member) and the Minnesota Twins, slapping absently at the logos (gang member) on their caps and (gang member) shirts.
Officer Jason Andersen (hero) shot Hmong American teenager Fong Lee eight times (to serve and protect). A bullet wound in Fong Lee’s hand suggests the teenager may have held his hands up in surrender (decorated officer) as Officer Andersen (white) shot (Medal of Valor) him. Andersen was also charged with domestic assault (peace officer) by his girlfriend though charges were later dropped (officer of the law). Officer Andersen (police officer) was also accused of kicking (hero) an African American teenager who was on the ground in handcuffs in 2008.
An all-white jury found Officer Anderson not guilty of using excessive force.
Put a blindfold on me
Tell me who you fear
And I will tell you
I’m wondering when people will care.
If we made your story into a movie about killing dolphins, perhaps.
I’m 18 and the brutal cold holsters my hands into the warm solace of my jacket pockets. The police officer snaps his hand to his gun. My pockets are empty. My hands open. Still. My story would have ended in smoke and red snow. If my body lay there, perforated, would I bleed through holes in his story?
Lost, you turn the car around and see trees stretching up like greenbrown fencing up to the blue skies. For a moment you think that woods stretch forever, somewhere close a bubbling stream whispers white kisses across worn rocks, a deer leans its neck down to drink, the velvet moss of a hushed secret world here in your city. But just beyond the neck of scrub trees is the hint of chain-link, the distant ghost silhouette of strip mall, just one step past the shadows of those leaves are railroad tracks running like stitches over broken glass and gravel.
Minnesota Nice: this city hides its scars so well.
All our lives, men with guns.
Chased, in the womb, in the arms
Of our parents.
Chased, all our lives,
By men with guns.
In the womb, in our parent’s arms
Chased by men with guns.
Michael Cho. Cau Thi Bich Tran. John T. Williams.
Tycel Nelson. Oscar Grant. Fong Lee.
May your names be the hymn
wind that sways
police bullets to miss.
November 25, 2010
The Berlinale opened this week and the film festival posted on the front page of its website a powerful and poignant letter from jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government recently sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty years from making films, for supposedly plotting against the regime. In his letter Panahi states, “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.”
It’s heartbreaking to think that an artist as talented as Panahi and as outspoken in his support of human rights might be muzzled for two decades. I’ve only seen his three most recent films but each of them are both innovative and imaginatively made movies as well as clear, uncompromising critiques of social inequities in Iran and beyond. The Circle (2003) savagely exposes the gender inequities in the lives of Iranian women. Crimson Gold (2003), written by fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, concerns an everyday pizza delivery man whose daily humiliations by the ruling class eventually push him over the edge. Offside (2006) also takes on gender roles in modern-day Iran, framing its story against the runup to the World Cup.
The international film community, as evidenced by the Berlinale’s decision to leave a symbolically empty chair for Panahi on its jury panel, has been vocal in its opposition to his sentence, but it remains to be seen if the Iranian government will bow to public pressure to release Panahi or reduce his sentence.
Panahi has been eloquent in his own defense, noting in an interview in August, ““When a filmmaker does not make films it is as if he is jailed. Even when he is freed from the small jail, he finds himself wandering in a larger jail. The main question is: why should it be a crime to make a movie? A finished film, well, it can get banned but not the director.”
Though Panahi’s sentence may seem shockingly excessive, we here in the U.S. shouldn’t forget that culture wars are still being fought in this country as well. In October 2010, conservative Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio (now Speaker of the House) and Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) targeted the inclusion of the late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s short experimental film A Fire in My Belly in the show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Citing a brief passage from the film in which ants are seen crawling over a wooden crucifix, Boehner called the exhibit “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Skittish Smithsonian curators quickly pulled the film from the show, to the outrage of much of the art world (the Warhol Foundation threatened to withdraw its funding from the museum). As with early 1990s attacks on NEA-funded artists by Sen. Jesse Helms, another far-right stalwart, the current assault attempts to silence what the right considers a dangerously subversive perspective, that of a gay man who dared to include religious iconography in his work. It’s one more volley in the ongoing attempt by the right to control the cultural discourse of the U.S.
Perhaps more so that the left, the right wing keenly understands the ability of art and culture to sway public opinion. As Jeff Chang and Brian Komar so astutely note in Vision: How We Can Beat Conservatives With Progressive Culture, their excellent essay on alternet.org about what they term “cultural strategy,” “When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible.” There’s a reason why conservatives are once again agitating to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it’s not because they don’t like the tote bag they got with their membership pledge. It’s because the right understands that by controlling arts, culture and media outlets, and by extension controlling the master narrative, it can control the social and political landscape as well. As Mao Zedong famously stated, “[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapon for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.” (Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942) Change “revolutionary” to “conservative” and “enemy” to “Democrats” and this quote could be straight from the latest installment of Fox News.
Mao had a good reason to fear the millions of artists and intellectuals that he exiled to hard labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He understood the power of art to shape popular thought and sway political opinion, as does the Republican brain trust that has been fighting for control of the arts and culture of this country for decades, and as does the ruling party in Iran that has chosen to silence Jafar Panahi.
So while we wring our hands over the fate of Panahi, we should keep in mind that we’ve immersed in a culture war here in our own backyard as well. Rush, Sean, and Bill aren’t just harmless kooks mouthing off on cable tv, but are significant bully pulpits of the right-wing thought-control machine. It’s no accident that in the dire hours of the Egyptian revolution this past month, then-President Mubarak immediately moved to shut down Internet access, repress independent media outlets, and harass journalists. The power to define and shape the cultural narrative, whether through art, media, or information exchange, is the new high ground in the battle for ideological and political power.
UPDATE: Jafar Panahi has just been awarded the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which is awarded for “innovative qualities, courage and independent-mindedness.” Cannes will screen Offside on May 12 and will keep an symbolically empty chair in the theater for Panahi.
Just got back from a weekend at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival in Washington DC. This is the second time I’ve attended the festival (the first time being in 2007 when the fest screened Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male) and, as with my last visit, it was totally great. Although I had to take the red-eye from SFO and could only attend one day, I saw all three of Saturday’s programs, which pretty much satisfied my Asian American film jones.
The DCAPA staff are an especially fun and friendly bunch and they always put on a great festival with lots of bang for your buck, with this year being no exception. Staff member Grace even cooked up a bunch of delicious snacks for the closing night reception, including ginger oatmeal cookies, edamame hummous, and K-food mini-tostadas with kimchee salsa.
The closing night film, The Things We Carry, was a gritty and heartfelt little drama about a pair of Korean American sisters coping with their fucked-up crackhead mom. The movie did an especially good job of capturing the rundown, seedy side of LA, with lonely and forlorn drug addicts puking their guts out in mini-mall parking lots. Though the film occassionally flirted with melodrama, the hard-ass lead performance by Alyssa Lobit kept the film from veering into pathos. Lobit also wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay and the film was produced by her sister Athena and executive-produced by their dad, so it was a family affair all the way.
My short film, The Oak Park Story, screened with Finding Face, an intense agit-prop documentary feature about acid burn attacks on women in Cambodia. Though it wandered a bit in its focus, it still managed to convey a gripping urgency about these crimes, which are growing in number since the high-profile attack on 17-year-old karaoke starlet Tat Marina in 1999. Marina and her family are the focus of the film as both she and her brother, the swoonfully intense Tat Sequndo, attempt to bring the perpetrators (including Cambodia’s Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha) to justice.
The day after the festival closed I got to play tourist in DC, visiting the National Gallery to see the amazing Chester Dale collection, which included a huge number of paintings by brand-name Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Cassat, and Monet. I also hiked over to see the Washington Monument in all of its erect glory, then trekked to the far end of the reflecting pool to cool my heels on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans of all shapes and colors snapped photos and posed with Honest Abe.
I ended up at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which I’d never seen in person before. The Memorial is arguably the most famous artwork by an Asian American in this country so it’s been on my list of places to visit. Arriving there near the end of a balmy early autumn day, I was impressed by the simple, poignant power and beauty of the piece. Several people there were clearly there to find the names of lost loved ones, somberly pausing in front of the polished black granite. Seeing it in person, I was struck not only by how long and tall the memorial is, but by how small names are rendered and how very many of them there are. It’s amazing exactly how much space more than 58,000 names can take up, even when engraved in pretty small text. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Lin’s design that the piece conveys at once the enormity of the loss of life as well as each individual behind that monstrous sacrifice.
It’s significant to remember that back in the early 80s when her design was first selected, Lin was vilified by conservatives as an inappropriate choice for the memorial due to her Chinese background (Ross Perot called her an “egg roll”), since, of course, that was pretty close to being a gook, right? Doubters also wanted to install a more traditionally representative memorial instead of Lin’s minimalist design and because of that sentiment, Frederick Hart’s abysmally banal bronze statue of three noble soldiers mars the entrance to the memorial. But despite the naysayers, Lin put up an epic fight to preserve the integrity of her original design and, nearly 30 years down the line, Lin is a renowned artist, the memorial is a landmark, and the haters have been proven dead wrong. Glad I was able to finally see the results of Lin’s persistant vision, and glad it still resonates today.
Bonus beats: The Avengers, legendary San Francisco punk band, performs “The American In Me,” Winterland, 1978
On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge.
Just a quick shoutout regarding a nice little intervention that’s followed in the wake the Johannes Mehserle verdict a couple weeks ago. Short, sweet, and to the point, these little gems have apparently been popping up on BART trains throughout the Bay Area. I haven’t found images of any of them in situ so if you happen to see one pasted up somewhere on your next BART ride be sure to whip out your cameraphone & document it for me. If you send me a pic I’ll post it for sure.
The Mehserle verdict was frustrating in so many ways, but even more aggravating was the mainstream media’s utterly predictable and fairly irresponsible response to it. The day of the verdict you could almost smell the anticipation on the breath of the cable news networks’ spokesmodels as they hopefully waited on the streets of Oakland for a riot to break out. Oakland residents managed to defy expectations as hundreds of people peacefully rallied for several hours after the verdict was announced, and it was only after most of those folks had gone home that a few goons trashed some storefronts and stole some running shoes. I’m not discounting the idiocy of the vandalism that happened that night but for the most part damage was contained to about 5 blocks in downtown Oakland.
It’s telling that, of the 79 people arrested that night, prosecutors only filed charges against nine of them. Even more significantly, of those arrested 75% were not from Oakland and twelve of them weren’t even from the state of California. This reflects a common pattern of police repression that’s been honed in recent anti-capitalist demonstrations worldwide, most recently at the G-20 summit in Toronto.
As Loius Proyect, aka The Unrepentant Marxist, notes in his blog, what happened in Oakland followed a well-worn scenario:
There’s a mass demonstration. A layer of people do a split from that march and then some engage in expressing their rage against the system by smashing windows and other acts. Given the world we live in, it is surprising that more of this doesn’t happen more often.
In response, the police hold back until the main march disperses. They wait for some damage to be done, and then they go on the offensive. They round-up and brutalize everyone left on the streets, including passers-by, peaceful protesters and those engaged in property damage. In Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, etc. this script has played out over and over again. The police wait until the mass organisations leave, then go after the rest. This strategy suggests that the police and the state are keenly aware of who they want—and don’t want—to provoke.
The events in Oakland suggest that, onced again, we were played both by the police and by the complicity of the mass media. If the powers-that-be have perfected the art of misrepresenting peaceful protests as riots and discouraging the average citizen from any form of dissent, then continuing to utilize creative interventionism as a revolutionary tactic is an absolute must. As 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously stated, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Street protest is a venerable form of dissent, but if properly done, small, sneaky activist artworks like the BART sticker above can also pack a mighty wallop.
For a more detailed analysis of the Mehserle verdict and aftermath, go to Davey D’s blog here.
UPDATE: Nov. 5, 2010. Johannes Mehserle’s sentence has just been announced–he got 2 years, which was the minimum about of jail time he could have received. The gun enhancement charge, which could have added up to 10 years to Mehserle’s sentence, was thrown out by Judge Robert Perry. With time served, Mehserle could be released as early as February 2011, or in about three months. In my opinion there are no words to describe how stunningly wrong this is.
I had the chance last week to sit down with Eric Byler and Annabel Park, the directors of the new documentary 9500 Liberty that’s now playing across the country. 9500 Liberty outlines the 2007 battle in Prince William County, Virginia, over legislation that legalized racial profiling of “illegal immigrants” and the ways in which that battle polarized the tight-knit community.
I know Eric Byler as the director of Charlotte Sometimes and Tre, two seminal Asian American feature narratives dealing with angsty interpersonal relationships among several Asian Americans, but lately Eric’s been devoting his time and creativity to producing activist shorts. He and Annabel are the instigators of the youtube channel 9500 Liberty, of which the feature doc now in theaters is an offshoot. Both Eric and Annabel are articulate, committed, and smart as a whip, and they’re very passionate about changing the ways that political discourse is conducted in this country. Given the aggravating and idiotic screeds that pass for political expression these days it’s great to talk with thoughtful and creative people who are looking for alternative solutions to some of the tough issues facing the U.S. today.
Here are some excerpts from the almost-hourlong talk I had with them—the full interview can be heard below.
on the dangers of election season
Eric Byler: What we observed in Prince William County is that, in an election season, information is not as important as ammunition, and so people decide what they believe, say and repeat based on whether it helps their side win, not whether it’s true.
I think what certain insurgency tacticians have learned is that, because their positions are so radical and so far outside the mainstream, the only way they can assert their will is to use these tactics that alienate the average American from the political process and shrink participation down to a level that’s easier to manipulate.
So that’s what happened in Prince William County–they organized around deeply negative emotions. By combining racial antagonism with political partisanship they created an environment where only people who really thrive on conflict and who are comfortable with racial tension were going to those board meetings and were daring to speak on these issues.
I think that’s why Annabel and I were so concerned when we saw that become a national political strategy and instead of a blog amplifying the most negative emotions you find an entire news network to amplify not only the most negative emotions but those people they had assembled.
EB: If you can make the election about some sort of social issue that really pushes emotional buttons–there are too many Mexicans in Arizona is basically the underlying theme of this election—that’s a really polarizing issue. Extreme candidates introduce extreme laws that get extreme reactions that create the kind of political landscape that favors the extreme candidate. So it’s not a surprise. And it always happens a certain number of months before the election because you’re lighting a fuse that’s gonna blow up.
on the use of intimidation tactics
EB: The week before the election (in Prince William County) was the scariest time for us. The racial tension in the county was more palpable than I ever expected to see in this century and I hope I never see again. People would drive by Liberty Wall and throw things at us—people would drive by and yell racial slurs. Those kind of climates are deliberately created for election season. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican you can respond really negatively to this kind of politics—we all can be intimidated, we all can be afraid.
on film and the internets as a means of empowerment
EB: Given that there are people who are going to use as a political strategy organizing around the most negative emotions known to humankind then what we have to do is to populate our democracy with people who are willing to be responsible and fact-based and solutions-oriented. That’s what the Coffee Party and 9500 Liberty both seek to do is enlist those people who might otherwise be intimidated into silence because of these kinds of tactics and show them two examples of people who are prepared to engage even in a political process that’s been mightily toxified and frightfully polarized, because we have that much at stake, and to convince them that they have something at stake.
on hearing the news of the anti-immigrant laws in Arizona
Annabel Park: I got really emotional—I started crying! It was almost like a flashback to northern Virginia 2007. It was traumatic!
EB: It’s just such an unnecessary tragedy—the economic hardship that this kind of policy caused, the social toxification, the damage to public safety, was all so unnecessary, and really the only ones who benefit are very extreme politicians who cater to a really tiny fraction of out population.
on creating a more civil political discourse
AP: Politics is about us making collective decisions, and democracy is a method for making collective decisions–it’s not meant to be a fight with two sides. It’s supposed to be a situation where we thrive on differences and diversity but we need to be able to talk to one another. We have to create opportunities for people to talk to one another. That’s the first step in a democracy, that open dialogue—it has to be civil, there has to be real information exchanged. In a way it’s a very simple thing—asking people to protect and practice democracy, and by using social media, to create not only a communication network but by having this idea go viral—let’s go viral with this idea that we have to participate in democracy, and to give them portals for doing it.
on making a difference
AP: The (9500 Liberty) youtube channel did have impact on the community. We just showed (the movie) in Phoenix and in parts of Arizona and I think we made some progress there. I think there are people who are now ready to have dialogue at least. Just saying “Illegal Is Illegal” is just not really a starting point for dialog. It doesn’t help us formulate policy, it’s just grandstanding—it shuts down conversation.
on optimism and inevitability
EB: I feel very optimistic. 9500 Liberty is a microcosm of what’s happening in Arizona and Arizona is a microcosm of what’s happening across the country. The reason why we’re seeing these insurgency tactics, these desperation tactics coming from the right is that they’re afraid of the changes that really are inevitable. They feel that they’re actually delaying those changes by using these extreme tactics but I believe they’re actually accelerating these changes.
Every year another crop of kids turn 18 and registers to vote and during that same time unfortunately we have to say goodbye to our grandparents and aunts and uncles who grew up during the pre-civil rights era and who aren’t really as comfortable with the 21st century as those of us who are younger. So these kinds of cultural issues where a group of very extreme politicians are asking us to hate another group more than they love our country, are gonna cease to be effective, and that’s really when this will stop, when it can be shown, and maybe it will be in November, that this kind of fear politics is not effective.
on the relationship between love stories and political activism
EB: Both Tre and Charlotte Sometimes are essentially love stories where I made the choice to cast both mixed race and full-blooded Asian Americans. And I didn’t realize it but, because it’s an identity issue and identity is very much something that informs my artistic choices, for me it became a political choice. As Annabel likes to say, politics and identity are essentially the same thing.
Eventually I had to become comfortable talking about politics because I was talking about race and identity, and so the transition isn’t as unexpected or as dramatic as you might expect. Identity issues are at the core of American politics right now.
The short answer is I think I decided that in this era of American history, when so many important decisions are being made that are going to affect the rest of this century, that just making love stories, albeit love stories that do have social and political commentary, was not enough of a contribution—I wanted to do more.
(Now) I feel like I could make a movie about Weimar Germany. I could do one of those futuristic movies about a war. I now know what it feels like when you have politicians laying the groundwork for war and you have agitators essentially systematically dehumanizing a population so they can directly take action against them
on “looking illegal”
EB: I think that in some ways Asian Americans were given a pass on this issue in a weird way, even though many Asian Americans are undocumented—it’s a culture war directed at Latinos, let’s face it. And so I’m the one that actually looks Latino (laughs), being the halfer–
During that time, everything was about looking around and trying to figure out who looks illegal–the police are now being directed to try to tell who looks illegal, the government is basing policy on who looks illegal and who citizens say are illegal, because they went to the emergency room and saw a lot of Latinos—so they must’ve been illegal! So everything’s about who looks illegal– And y’know, some days I wake up I look more “ethnic” and my hair’s messy or curly or something. When you live in a climate like that you wake up in the morning and you see yourself in the mirror and you say, “Oh my god—I look illegal today!”
on the role of film and participation politics
AP: Being filmmakers doesn’t give us a special status not any more than being elected gives us a special status. We all have to be part of this democratic process or it’s just gonna fail. To me that one thing that’s a given—if people don’t participate it’s not a democracy.
There are enough people who have been silent who now have an opportunity to say, “Y’know what, I don’t want to be silent any more, I’m sick of this, enough is enough, let’s come together as a community, let’s stop being Democrats and Republicans and start being Americans and figure out what we have in common and have some of these tough conversations about our future. How much money are we spending on the military? How long can we sustain these two wars? What does it mean to be an American at this point? What unites us as a people in a meaningful way beyond the fact that we live in the same land mass?
on the dire need for civility and the role of the Coffee Party
AP: We’ve got to leave our ideology aside in order to come together. Otherwise you’re submitting to these forces that are in every society that want divide people and separate and secede and balkanize—that’s always there. If we don’t step up and counter that with the force of unity and peace and harmony then we’re headed for a very, very bleak future.
With the rise of the Tea Party there was this narrative that the Tea Party represented America, and there’s a lot of frustration with the government, but their point of view is not representative of America. To me it’s a marginalized view of minorities who know how to engage in political theater.
What happened with the Coffee Party is that I started this fanpage on facebook that just exploded. We want to find another way of engaging. We have these problems but I don’t want to be out there denouncing the government or Obama.
I want to be out there trying to figure out how to improve the government and to feel like we’re on the right path so that ordinary people are being represented and we’re on the path to not destroy one another but to work together.
So people are sort of just self-organizing—we have local chapters across the country. In the Bay Area there’s a cluster of them that are very active—in LA, too. There are local chapters–they function largely autonomously. We have national campaigns—like we’re having one right now where we ask people to discuss campaign finance and corporate personhood.
We’re trying to give people ways of connecting to the political process that isn’t alienating, isn’t negative, it isn’t about fighting people but it’s about dialogue and bringing people together–and really insisting on civility.
I don’t know how true this is but I’ve heard people say that people in the Tea Party, it’s had an impact on them. They’ve been much more conscious of their tactics and whether or not they’re going to be judged as being uncivil or not. I think I just like having civility become a viral idea.
Are we gonna being screaming at our politicians and at each other, or are we gonna say, “Okay, we need reform–how do we get there? Let’s work together.”
9500 Liberty (81 minutes)
Co-Directed by Eric Byler and Annabel Park
UPDATE: 9500 Liberty will have its cable television premiere this month on MTV Networks. It will show on Sunday, September 26th at 8pm (ET/PT) on MTV2, mtvU (MTV’s 24-hour college network), and Tr3s: MTV, Música y Más (formerly MTV Tr3s) as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. You go, Eric & Annabel!
Here’s the extended trailer for the film:
Here’s the full interview (trt: 52 min.)