FQ contributing editor Brian Hu interviews Grace Lee about her distinctive brand of first-person nonfiction filmmaking, suggesting that her insider-outsider perspective has made her a unique yet exemplary voice in Asian American cinema. At the same time, Lee’s career challenges an auteurist framework to instead emphasize the institutional practices that shape film production and reception. What makes Grace Lee a pivotal author in Asian American documentary isn’t just her significant body of films, but also her vision in seeing documentary production as a form of institution building
For a brief moment, Grace Lee was heading down a familiar movie-making path. Her UCLA master’s thesis film, Barrier Device (2002), made a splash on the festival circuit and scored wins at the Student Academy Awards and from the Directors Guild of America. The short contraception comedy starred up-and-coming actors Sandra Oh and Suzy Nakamura and augured a promising trajectory for its young director. Korean studios exploring possible US-Korean coproductions started development a proposed feature of Lee’s, to be titled Smells Like Butter, starring Oh and Youn Yuh-Jung. “It was a film-school dream,” Lee recalls.
The feature, though, never materialized. Instead, Lee made a postgraduation quickie, turning what she calls “a weird idea” into what became her actual breakthrough. That film was The Grace Lee Project (2005), a feature documentary about her name and how so many Asian Americans shared it. Modestly funded through public media and made with friends from her days at UCLA film school, Lee took to the road with the curiosity of a journalist and the broad view of an essayist who realized that these diverse characters weren’t bound just by a coincidence, but by the divergent paths taken by Asian American women across the United States. With the documentary, Lee was choosing a different path of her own, but not the one prescribed by Hollywood; instead, she followed in the footsteps of Renee Tajima-Peña’s personal road trip, documented in My America … Or Honk If You Love Buddha (Renee Tajima-Peña, 1997). The Grace Lee Project steered Lee into an independent route favored by many of the Asian American women filmmakers who served as her mentors.
As an aspiring filmmaker, Lee had originally sworn off formal film school in favor of the community-driven, guerrilla pedagogy and production at New York’s Third World Newsreel, where she cut her chops. Through Newsreel, Lee got internships on Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill (1994) and Pat Saunders and Rea Tajiri’s Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice (1993).1 When Tajiri went to Chicago to make her first narrative feature, Strawberry Fields (1997), she brought Lee along as an assistant coordinator. When legendary documentarian Loni Ding visited New York’s Chinatown for a new project, she hired Lee as a PA, which led her to move to San Francisco as an associate producer on Ding’s two documentary film series collectively titled Ancestors in the Americas.2
Her midwestern childhood expanded by this bicoastal young adulthood, Lee developed a traveler’s view of Asian America. Her insider-outsider perspective—invested in Asian America while peering from its margins—has made Lee’s brand of first-person nonfiction a unique yet exemplary voice in Asian American cinema. Lee herself is the inciting character of The Grace Lee Project, the student seeking political wisdom in the biographical American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013), and the fearless, fed-up investigator-host of the Viewers Like Us podcast (2021–), which uses interviews and analysis to challenge the structural whiteness of American public television. She’s also a committed chronicler of national turning points, with a broad arsenal of documentary modalities through which to explore them: her interactive web documentary K-Town ’92 (2017) is a mosaic of oral histories and archival footage depicting the Korean American experience of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising; the mockumentary Janeane from Des Moines (2012) drops a fictitious Iowan housewife in the middle of the actual 2012 Republican primaries, Borat style; and her And She Could Be Next (2020, codirected with Marjan Safinia) takes a conventional observational approach to following six women of color running for public office. Together with her more encyclopedic work for PBS, like Off the Menu: Asian America (2015) and Asian Americans (2020), these films form one of the most geographically expansive, modestly authoritative, and utterly teachable corpuses of Asian American documentary since the era of Loni Ding.
At the same time, Lee’s career challenges the auteurist framework of the film corpus. As Jun Okada and Denise Khor argue, Asian American documentary shouldn’t be defined merely by a set of key films and filmmakers, but rather as a history of institutional practices that shape production and reception.3 What makes Grace Lee a pivotal author in Asian American documentary isn’t just her significant body of films, but also her vision in seeing documentary production as a form of institution building. Perhaps influenced by the integrated production-distribution-education-activism of Third World Newsreel, which Cynthia A. Young has described as an “institutional praxis,” Lee’s work and politically minded documentaries are inseparable from their use in classrooms and community organizing.4 Similarly, her work on the documentary series Asian Americans may formally appear to be “quintessentially PBS,” but it demands to be read alongside Lee’s scathing critiques of PBS, gutsily published in tandem with the release of Asian Americans on PBS itself.5 Like Loni Ding (who cofounded the National Asian American Telecommunications Association and the Independent Television Service) and the filmmaker-founders of Visual Communications, Lee cofounded a media institution—one for the twenty-first century.6 That creation, A-Doc, is an Asian American documentary collective that exists largely as an app-based collaboration platform. Through A-Doc, Lee convenes a national congregation of filmmakers for whom Lee is a mentor, just as Loni Ding and so many others once were for her.
You’ve mentioned that each project is a learning process for you, and I think no film better exemplifies this than American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. In it, you’re on-screen and the audience follows along as you engage with scholar-activist Grace Lee Boggs’s ideas. Do you still approach your films that way? As a filmmaker, do you ever feel like an outsider learning about the Asian American movement?
It’s funny. I am Asian American, and I’ve worked on a lot of Asian American projects, but I don’t feel limited to Asian American subject matter. Janeane from Des Moines [about a white woman in Iowa] is as personal to me as American Revolutionary, because these are the kinds of people I grew up around. I always say that I have been shaped by growing up in the Midwest. I would never make a film about being a California Asian American. That’s not my formative experience, even if I have now lived in California longer than I lived in the Midwest.
You didn’t grow up around Asian American communities or Asian American studies. Does it feel strange to have your work being used in Asian American studies classes? You’re part of the curriculum now.
It is very weird. I definitely felt that if I didn’t tell these stories, then nobody would. I never had an opportunity to take Asian American history classes. Making American Revolutionary, I wondered what I would have been like if I had learned about Grace Lee Boggs in college and knew that there was this other path for a Grace Lee as an Asian American in the Midwest: getting a PhD and ending up an activist. Now everybody knows who she is, but back then it was shocking to me that nobody had made a film about this person. Even for the two episodes of the PBS series Asian Americans that I produced, there were so many stories that made me wonder why nobody knew about them. I’d go to people’s houses and see their treasure troves of photographs and think: “No one is ever going to know this.”
Your documentary Off the Menu, about Asian American food traditions and workers across the country, is similarly an ambitious macro view of Asian America. How did you approach the challenge of surveying such a broad population?
With Off the Menu, I recall talking to Don Young at CAAM [the Center for Asian American Media]. Public television has always struggled with how to tell these bigger stories of Asian America. Around 2009 or 2010, CAAM asked if I could do something similar to The Grace Lee Project, looking at the bigger view of Asian America through a specific lens. I thought we should do something with food. It’s so accessible! Even if you don’t know any Chinese people, you know what Chinese food is. We knew we couldn’t cover everything, but how to find diverse stories that covered a lot of ground geographically and ethnically in only fifty-two minutes?
A project of yours that is deserving of more attention, and which I think is one of the most important works of Asian American documentary, is K-Town ’92.7 I wonder if it didn’t get more attention because it’s not a documentary in the traditional film sense and didn’t play film festivals.
Once again, this is my method: I find something that I want to make and I find a way to make it. K-Town ’92 was a reaction to the moment. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the L.A. Uprising, I was so sick of seeing the same narratives over and over again.8 Nobody was asking about the Korean American perspective. I had a friend who was actually editing one of those other [anniversary] films and wanted to know the “Korean perspective,” as if there were only one. Many projects about that topic were so tokenizing. The opportunity came up to pitch a project. [Producer] Eurie Chung and I wanted to make something, with very few resources, that would be an intervention into the genre of films about 1992 and how that story is told formally. At the same time we could dig a bit deeper into the complexity of K-Town, which is itself a multiracial neighborhood, like Los Angeles more broadly.
You say it’s a small project to make, but it feels momentous to me. As a web experience, you feel the sheer volume of it—all the different voices shown on the horizontal layout of the webpage. You don’t have to wait for other speakers to come on, as in a linear documentary: here, you can see them all at the same time. Can you talk about the outcome you were aiming for?
It was the result of wanting to make that intervention—but also a result of living in Los Angeles for over twenty years and meeting people who experienced those events who weren’t journalists or reporters but who were activists or middle school students or storekeepers back then. For instance, Tyree Boyd-Pates curated a whole exhibition on 1992 for the California African American Museum; he grew up in Koreatown. There were so many [geographic] intersections that people don’t think about, with African Americans living in Korean neighborhoods or Middle Eastern security guards working in K-Town.
I remember that my producer Eurie and I would tell each other, “If anyone ever Googles ‘Koreatown 1992,’ this website will always be there,” at least until the Internet breaks down. One of the people I met and included in the project talked about being a student at UCLA and learning about the L.A. Riots in her Asian American studies class almost twenty years later. When she went to the library to do research, she discovered her parents’ and grandparents’ stores in the FEMA records. She had never heard about this family connection before. So I want that person who has never heard of the L.A. Riots to be able to come to this website and for it to spark their interest in learning more.
It sounds as if the project is intervening also as an archive that is accessible, one that can stand as distinct from the mainstream record. If Hollywood and the media are going to produce one narrative, you want to create an easily findable and comprehensive alternative.
Exactly. And it was possible because it utilizes the Visual Communications Archive, which you would never have seen unless you happened to come across it on archive.org. Here was an opportunity to bring out the work of a media-arts organization that’s been so important to my career.9
I haven’t heard people talk about K-Town ’92 as an experimental documentary, but I think it is: you’re experimenting with how users navigate all this history, filtered through nonlinear layers of oral histories and archival footage. Can you talk about the experimental and experiential nature of the project?
This project was all about creating a format in which you can’t depend on a narrator to tell you what happened: you have to experience it yourself. Every time the site is loaded onto the screen, its program feeds you different perspectives and stories. You experience it differently every time you log on, modeling the way one hears stories about a historical event. You hear one account, but that perspective might be affected by someone else’s that you hear right afterward. I wanted to harness that narrative process to make you not only confront different stories but also think about how you experienced them as they unfolded.
When pulling up the clips, each user has to select which speaker to listen to, choosing from a horizontal layout of options. Choosing the audio can be an ethical choice about whose story you want to listen to. How were you able to get a project like this funded?
It was made for very little money, sourced from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms and California Humanities, plus some money from CAAM. I also made a short film called K-Town’92: Reporters  as a companion piece that was funded by Black Public Media and Latino Public Broadcasting. But it was a small budget, and nearly all the funds we raised went into the production and programming of the site.
With K-Town ’92, you were hoping for the project to intervene in its specific moment. I notice that the releases of Janeane from Des Moines and And She Could Be Next seemed to be very purposeful: they both came out in the lead-up to major November presidential elections. Janeane was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was released in October. And She Could Be Next did the summer festivals. I assume that was intentional?
It was intentional. I am very interested in politics, and I’m scared about what’s happening in this country. How do we creatively talk about these things? With Janeane from Des Moines, Jane Wilson, who plays Janeane, is very much a community organizer as well as an excellent improviser, and it felt natural to bring our forces together to create something.
I had been thinking about And She Could Be Next since 2016. My codirector, Marjan Safinia, and I realized we had to film it in 2018 and it wouldn’t come out until 2020, after we’d raised the money, and it could reflect upon what those midterm elections [of 2018] could mean two years later. I was looking at the trends—starting from 2016, when we all saw Hillary lose, to all of the emphasis being placed on women of color in 2018.
How involved are you with the question of impact when you release a film?
Making And She Could Be Next was the first time I really understood how impact campaigns for documentaries work. It’s been something that people in the documentary field have been working on for a while. Our producer, Jyoti Sarda, was really involved in that sector. It’s not something that we are thinking about when planning who’s in the film or in terms of anything creative, but we do think about it when faced with scenes that aren’t going to end up in the film but could be clips that organizations can use later for civic engagement. We made And She Could Be Next because we wanted people to understand that there is an organizer in everybody. We wanted people to understand the power of women of color and communities of color.
The education market is another way of making an impact. Did knowing that Asian Americans was going to be taught in classes in any way change your approach to making it?
I was just thinking about how to keep it engaging for students. There was a format we had to adhere to—one hour per episode, a lot of different stories—but we made sure that the stories would relate to the present. For instance, in the World War II episode, we tell a story about Buddy Uno through his granddaughter who lives in California. And in the same episode, we show Japanese American elders protesting outside a camp in Texas, to make connections to the detention of migrant children now.
Did the format come to you from public television itself, or did you and the other series producers come to a consensus about it?
This is always the tricky thing about making series with multiple directors with different styles and sensibilities. Renee [Tajima-Peña] was the glue that connected all of the episodes together.10 For instance, for S. Leo Chiang’s first episode, there was nobody still alive from the earliest history. I lucked out: there are descendants for the 1960s episode, which was therefore a lot easier to make than the episode on the 1850s.
How would you define your own style as different from that of the other directors? As a viewer, I couldn’t tell the differences.
We all use interviews, featuring personal stories, and all our material was shot in the same style by the same cinematographer. There was a single blueprint because Renee had written the treatments for all these episodes. But once we got them, we realized we could enhance them or add characters that came to our attention through the research process. In my episode that looked at the Vietnam War, I suggested bringing in author Viet Than Nguyen and director Ham Tran to connect the birth of the Asian American movement to their development as artists of a newer generation. As Viet says in the end: “I don’t know what the next generation is going to do and I might not even like it, but you have to acknowledge that things are constantly evolving.” That’s a very Grace Lee Boggs attitude, too.
Asian Americans wasn’t your first collaboration with filmmaker S. Leo Chiang. You and Leo cofounded the Asian American Documentary Network [A-Doc]. What was in the air in 2016 that made you think A-Doc was necessary and could be vital?
Leo is somebody I have known since we were both in film school: he was at USC and I was at UCLA. But we really met in 2015 at a dinner at the Sundance Film Festival. That was the first time we realized we were of a similar age, working in documentary, and were supported by the same organizations. We were at the age when we were both mentoring a lot of people. We were the generation that didn’t get a lot of mentoring and had to figure things out by ourselves. So that started a series of conversations with Jean Tsien, Chi-hui Yang, Don Young, Renee Tajima-Peña, and others.11 It was also around the time of #OscarsSoWhite, and questions were swirling over who gets to tell whose story. Renee published an amazing piece, #DocsSoWhite.12 A few of us started talking and realized we should convene and get to know each other, because there are so many of us now. And that’s how it started.
Also in the air: I had made the Grace Lee Boggs film and was thinking about organizing and how it applies to me. I’m not a community activist in her way, but the community that I could organize was the Asian American doc community.
The community you created with Leo was unlike the communities of the past, in that it exists virtually on Slack, the collaboration app. Was gathering virtually your intention from the beginning, or was that a happy accident?
It was because we were so spread out nationally that it was the only way to do it. It was out of necessity to keep in touch.
In the past, there were collectives in the Bay Area or New York, like Filmmakers Collaborative SF or Third World Newsreel, but now A-Doc is national and even international. You’re connecting filmmakers outside of the major production capitals.
Right. Though we do have different [regional] channels. Slack is just a forum for us. It’s better to meet in person. Before the pandemic, we were sponsoring lots of opportunities for people to gather in person, giving them money to pay for snacks just to get people to connect to each other. But A-Doc is so big now.
I don’t think the Center for Asian American Media [CAAM], the leader in promoting and funding Asian American documentary, saw A-Doc as competition, because in many ways they’re complementary. But A-Doc was fulfilling something that CAAM wasn’t doing at the time.
A-Doc brought in this other kind of energy, because we were filmmaker-led and we were volunteers. None of us were doing it to get paid. Being filmmaker-led made us more nimble and led us to focus on what things we care about. We don’t have to do this for public television. The ethos of A-Doc has always been: if you’re interested in something, you can organize it, and see who else will support it. That’s the nature of a Slack collective. I do think it was something CAAM could have been doing in the first place—but they had so many other responsibilities tied to their public-television mission.
Throughout your career you’ve shown an interest in multiracial stories, very much like the early Asian American documentarians of the seventies who were so committed to Third World liberation. At the same time, you’ve been a part of and have benefited from Asian American institutions like CAAM and A-Doc. Do you feel that the institutionalization of Asian American documentary has made it harder or easier for filmmakers like yourself to do cross-racial work? Or do these institutions encourage filmmakers to tell stories in Asian American silos?
That’s interesting. The Asian American stories I care about are all intersectional and very complex. And I’ve been funded by CAAM. I’m grateful that CAAM was an early funder of And She Could Be Next, which isn’t explicitly Asian American. Even though there are a few Asian American characters, the documentary looks at larger issues, including the new American majority and democracy.
You’ve been involved nationally in topics that are not specific to Asian American documentary. Most obvious is your Ken Burns letter.13 It addressed a national issue and led to your podcast Viewers Like Us. It actually reminds me of The Grace Lee Project in that you were once again going around the country seeking answers to a specific question. Did you ever conceive of Viewers Like Us as a video documentary? Why a podcast?
Well, we’re in a pandemic. And I really enjoyed not having to go out with a crew, camera, and lights. I was able to do it from my office. It felt possible. Also, I didn’t want to make a film about Ken Burns and public television per se. I wanted to learn to make a podcast.
The next phase of Viewers Like Us will be a world-building session—that is, a way to ask what the ideal world might be. In an era when institutions are crumbling, what is a truly “public” television system? What happens when you bring together many constituencies—people who work in public television, the public sector, education, public transportation, unions—to try to figure it out?14
The goal of Viewers Like Us is to get public television to change—to be a thorn in the side of PBS, to put it bluntly. It’s a site for people to come together and envision a future, then work forward from that vision. It would be so much more fun and interactive than a “give me the data” approach.
What I find remarkable about Viewers Like Us is that you had to invent a podcasting platform as a way to imagine an alternative public. Are there other places that you see this happening in the documentary world, given how reliant documentarians are on PBS and its affiliates?
That’s a question that we raised. So many people don’t even watch public television. PBS has given a lot of opportunities to emerging filmmakers and BIPOC makers. I’m proud of the work of mine that’s been shown on POV and elsewhere on public television. I don’t know what the alternative space is, but it still seems something worth fighting for. If you can’t get public television—which is beholden to the public—to respond, then how will you get corporate streamers to listen to anything other than their bottom line?
The documentary world is very good at critiquing its institutions, but are there any areas of hope? Are there specific institutions or individuals that are shaping documentary into a space that can imagine a better world?
I definitely find hope in initiatives like Color Congress, which was started by Sonya Childress and Sahar Driver to help build an ecosystem of organizations led by people of color committed to stories told by, for, and about people of color.
The IDA [International Documentary Association] has been around for forty years and has gone through many changes. Until I came to the IDA’s “Getting Real” conference in 2016, which is where A-Doc got its start, I never saw myself as part of it. And now, in this short time, I’m on its board. We have to take this space and make it happen. That’s what’s motivated all of my projects. My success has been self-generated and community supported.
For more on Tajiri and Cheang’s New York City film circle, see Vince Schleitwiler, Abby Sun, and Rea Tajiri, “Messy, Energetic, Intense: A Roundtable Conversation among New York’s Asian American Experimental Filmmakers of the Eighties with Roddy Bogawa, Daryl Chin, Shu Lea Cheang, and Rea Tajiri,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 3 (Spring 2020): 66–78.
The two series were Ancestors in the Americas: Coolies, Sailors, Settlers (1996) and Ancestors in the Americas, Part II (1998).
Jun Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Denise Khor, “Reframing Asian American Documentary Media,” Oxford Handbook of American Documentary, ed. Patricia Aufderheide and Joshua Glick (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
Cynthia A. Young, Soul Power: Cultural, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 108.
Grace Lee, “To Truly Reflect Diversity, PBS Must End Its Overreliance on Ken Burns as ‘America’s Storyteller,’” Current, October 22, 2020, https://current.org/2020/10/to-truly-reflect-diversity-pbs-must-end-its-overreliance-on-ken-burns-as-americas-storyteller/.
Since 1980, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), now the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), has been a leader in funding, distributing, and exhibiting Asian American documentary. Founded in 1970 by Robert Nakamura, Duane Kubo, Alan Ohashi, and Eddie Wong, Visual Communications similarly supports Asian American filmmakers through its training programs, its film and photographic archive, and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
K-Town ’92 can be accessed via ktown92.com.
Contemporaneous and subsequent media coverage of the Los Angeles Uprising—the so-called. L.A. Riots—have described the violence in black vs. Korean terms, a narrative that scholars and activists claim elides the structural inequities of policing in Los Angeles at the heart of the uprising, pitting communities of color against each other and leaving white supremacy undiminished. See Elaine H. Kim, “Home Is Where the Han Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals,” Social Justice 20, nos. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 1993): 1–21; and John Lie and Nancy Abelmann, “The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the ‘Black-Korean Conflict,’” in Koreans in the Hood: Conflict with African Americans, ed. Kwang Chung Kim (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 75–87.
Visual Communications has published a small portion of their vast audiovisual archives on the website archive.org, accessible at archive.org/details/visualcommunications.
On Renee Tajima-Peña’s experiences executive-producing Asian Americans, see Denise Khor, “History before and behind the Camera: An Interview with Renee Tajima-Peña,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 21–29.
Jean Tsien is the editor of such Academy Award–nominated and Peabody-winning documentaries as Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2001) and Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) and has executive-produced documentaries for Asian American filmmakers S. Leo Chiang and Hao Wu, among others. Chi-hui Yang is the senior program officer for the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms program, and also a seasoned curator of Asian American and nonfiction film. Donald Young is the director of programs for the Center for Asian American media.
Renee Tajima-Peña, “#DocsSoWhite: A Personal Reflection,” Documentary, August 30, 2016, www.documentary.org/feature/docssowhite-personal-reflection.
A version of the letter is posted on the website of Beyond Inclusion: https://www.bipocmakers.com/.
Lee adds that she was first able to participate in world-building sessions through a residency at the Sundance Institute in 2017.