By Neelanjana Banerjee
This is an edited version of an interview that appeared on the Center for Asian American Media’s website.
Filmmaker Grace Lee's documentary and narrative films investigate how one's identity and ideas influence 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.
Lee’s Peabody Award-winning documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” is available to watch on XFINITY On Demand’s International page throughout the month of March as a part of the annual celebration of CAAMFest.
How did you get into filmmaking? Did you always know you wanted to make films?
Grace Lee: 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?
GL: 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 nonfiction 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.
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?
GL: 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?
GL: 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?
GL: 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.
Neelanjana Banerjee is a contributing writer to the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) website, a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
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