Class Scholar Summer Reflection: Documentary Film

Exploring Assimilation, Acculturation, and Refugee Identity Through Documentary Film

DHi CLASS Project Reflection Summer ’15

Hoang Do - Class of 2017

Throughout the spring 2015 semester and this summer, I had been assisting Professor Omori in filming ESL classes at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees for the film Crossroads in Context. A part of Professor Omori’s film documents the refugees’ involvement in the classes, thereby narrating an aspect of their assimilation into the American society. For my CLASS project, I, with Professor Omori’s help engaged with the refugees on a deeper level.  We conducted interviews with the ESL students in the class, learning not only about the students’ lives in America but also their past. At first, Professor Omori and I decided to incorporate interviews with refugees, ESL teachers of the Shared Tradition program, and Hamilton students into the original Crossroads in Context film. Then, the film would take the form of a longer multi-layered narrative film that draws complex meta-connections between students’ experience writing the script--as well as performing as benshi--for Crossroads, the film itself, and the people being presented in it. However, after careful consideration of the Comparative Japanese Film Archive’s interface, we decide to keep the interviews as separate entities. Seeing hyperlinks as a tool that engenders new forms of storytelling, we intend to put the different videos concerning Crossroads (e.g. interviews) onto the archive. In the process of watching Crossroads in Context, viewers can see hyperlinks embedded in the description of the film that lead to other videos, which help to contextualize the experience of the refugees and the film itself. Stanford University’s “Freedom’s Ring” project, with its multimedia retelling of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, really inspired our decision to adapt Crossroads to its current form.

Participating in ILiADS together with Kristin Strohmeyer, Greg Lord, and Saeko Murata as a team was an extremely rewarding experience for me. We managed to get a lot of things done in just a week. In addition to the decision to incorporate hyperlinks into Crossroads, we also came up with a new interface/layout for the Comparative Japanese Film Archive. After researching other internet archive, we have decided that the main page of the website will now include visual representations of the ongoing projects.

Conducting interviews with refugees has provided me with a new perspective on the film project that I had in mind. This time, I would like to approach the subject on a more individual and personal level. I believe that the microcosm of a person’s journey can be telling of macro trends, as well as variety and complexity among different individuals. With that idea in mind, I intend to record the daily life of a single Burmese refugee (most likely of Karen ethnicity), who has appeared in Crossroads in Context. I wants to choose a Burmese refugee for my documentary project because of my interest in Asian-American history, Asian diaspora, transnational migration, and transnational cultural interaction. Karen people immigrating in the US marked the third wave of Burmese immigration to the US. From October 2006 to August 2007, 12,800 Karen refugees resettled in the United States [1]. As a result, Karen refugees represent a still-underrepresented part of Asian-American and American history. They also mark the US’s continued involvement in global geopolitics and in Asia. I hope that my project will contribute to the oral history of a very recent group of immigrants, who, nevertheless, have become an indelible page in this country’s history.

I will also be working closely with Professor Omori in this project, creating a documentary film that serves as both a complement/extension of Crossroads and a stand-alone piece. If Crossroads is an exercise in the art of benshi—Japanese silent film narration—and empathy, incorporating both the refugees’ experience and students’ direct interpretation of those experiences, then my project would be an observational documentary that aims for the least intervention, requiring more from the audience to interpret the events on screen by themselves. A narrative should emanate and emerge from the subjects on screen themselves. There will most likely be no voice-over. Furthermore, interview scenes and nondiegetic music will be kept to a minimum. I hope that the project, like Crossroads in Context, can motivate the audience, through their own interpretation, to empathize with the film’s subject, further examining the theme of telling stories or others, telling stories of their own.

In order to achieve my end goal, I wish to emulate the films—both documentary and fiction—of the Japanese director, Hirokazu Koreeda.  I will focus on the style of Koreea’s Still Walking (2008) in particular. In Still Walking, Koreeda depicts one day in life of the Yokoyamas, showing family life through simple gestures and domestic routine of instead of dramatic moments. It is exactly this way that I want to approach my project. Quotidian activities like cooking, eating, reading, and sleeping take up a significant part of a person’s day but are rarely considered significant themselves in contemporary documentary films. The acts of cooking and eating in particular are embedded with cultural specificities and can be revealing of a refugee’s displaced identity. In making the film, I will also explore Koreeda’s distinct use of long takes, long shots, static camera movement, and their contribution to the transmission of daily experience. According to David Macdougall, if a shot remains on the screen without further elaboration, the audiences may feel impatient and annoyed. However, if the shot continues to stay on screen, it might encourage the audiences to enter a mode of “digressive search,” in which they inspect otherwise-ignored elements (e.g. the background) within the presented images and supply them with new meanings [2]. Thus, besides capturing actions and movements, the combination of long take, long shot, and static camera movement can simultaneously convey the space in which the subjects reside and their relationship with it (this reasoning can also explain the deep focus of most of the scenes in Still Walking).


[1]Cheah, Joseph (2008). Huping Ling, ed. Emerging voices: experiences of underrepresented Asian Americans. Rutgers University Press. pp. 199–217.

[2]Henderson, Brian, and Ann Martin, editors. Film Quarterly: Forty Years - A Selection. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1999 1999.