About Documemoir

These two articles by Loni Ding describe the "documemoir" approach she has evolved in several of her most recent films, including the ANCESTORS IN THE AMERICAS series. The first article focuses more on the visual approach. The second focuses on some of the conceptual considerations and implementing strategies, both for ANCESTORS and two of her earlier films.


By Loni Ding

Our visual method in the ANCESTORS IN THE AMERICA series - documemoir - tells stories from the viewpoint of the Asian American subjects themselves; it is a way of combining research history with fictive storytelling. Fundamentally, we are finding ways to create a first-person voice using historical and cultural materials in which the personal accounts and experiences of Asians in America are conspicuously absent.

Anglo-euro writers/historians have written some about Asian Americans of course, but from an observer's outsider viewpoint, and mostly in terms of what was "done to the Chinese" or other Asian groups (i.e., "victim" history) rather than what the Chinese themselves thought or tried to do for themselves in response to the opportunities and obstacles they encountered.

To recreate these stories, we searched for archeological sites; graves; rocks; pots, pans and dishes; Asian folklore; customs and sayings; as well as more conventional primary documents such as census records, legislative reports, and period newspaper clippings. And we frame these materials, remains of a once robust presence, with the critical analyses of on-camera specialists and scholars, knowledgeable and eloquent.

At an archaeological dig of an 1870s Chinatown we see a celebratory champagne bottle found alongside an opium pipe (a sign of an already hybridized lifestyle). In an Oregon valley, 60 acres of hand-stacked rocks—the tailings of 30 years of gold mining in the area—how the distinctive collective workstyle and Chinese cosmology of the men who once worked there.

In other places we note that the Chinese brought bamboo seeds from home to plant the grove at a California winery—the shade of their home village; that they brought massive figures of protective gods across the ocean, carrying them on shoulder poles up into the forest temple they built, where the statues remain still, more than a hundred years later; that they built stores from rammed earth and filled them with herbs, foodstuffs, household utensils, incense, clothing, children's toys, gambling games, and musical instruments—virtually everything they needed to live a full life in America.

The central storyteller, a fictional Asian time traveler/narrator, guides a subjective journey inside the larger history. Taking expressive liberties, he offers a first-person sense of time, place and voice of the immigrants who filled in the land we stand on, pioneered the field crops that are California's agricultural glory, and built the 100-year-old temple we peruse, still filled with silken banners and huge Chinese gods brought from China. All these cultural goods, continuously imported, were distributed efficiently throughout the dispersed Chinese settlements of the western states—and later across the rest of the country.

We see, then, that all our source materials, when woven together, give us the story of lives that were lived with a sense of making a home here, dependent on the life-giving power of reliable customs and networks of relations, in the midst of unwelcoming prejudice, discrimination and exclusion. And further, we see that their lives were hybridized, changed by their time in America, so that when they went to visit the family village, they brought with them concepts of "beauty, glory, and honor" that were distinctly American and Western.

Together, our shards of evidence and the voices constructed from them speak directly to us of the vitality, attitudes, feelings and meanings of early Asian Americans who might otherwise be left invisible and mute.

in producing Ancestors in the Americas

By Loni Ding

Ancestors in the Americas combines scholarship with a popular format to make an accessible program that can stimulate community and public dialogue and debate. The broadly conceived, interdisciplinary approach seeks to join visual storytelling with historiography, ethnic studies, archaeology, and folk beliefs to convey a coherent story with multiple entries.

Further, it is grounded in the contemporary intellectual discourse which acknowledges the limitations of a single interpretation, recognizes the fragmentary and constructed nature of evidence, and calls for diverse points of view. The pivotal use of on-screen scholars, whose arguments are interpreted and supported by the documentary's visual material and narrative structure, is designed to model and invite a dialogue with the audience.

Typically in conventional historical documentaries, visuals are used mostly to illustrate, verify, give witness, or provide evidence for the narrative. In documemoir we are trying to represent subjectivity, memory and the layers of multiple and shifting meanings of a historical event taken as a human experience.

We do not work in straight narrative (e.g. docudrama), but rather try to achieve a kind of evocation by contact with the relevant specific historical persons and immersion in actual sites, hands-on contact with authentic artifacts, and original documents, etc. On one hand we are committed to exacting research, faithful representation of the historical record, and the analyses of academic scholarship; and on the other hand, in the face of unyielding silence, we take expressive liberties to Òconjure" first-person voices, and propose interpretations, more intuition and insight- based than fact-based in order to materialize otherwise elusive intangibles.

In earlier works, we have used this approach to create an interpretive presentation of historical sites, to use images as metaphor, and in creating tableaux.

In The Color Of Honor, for example, concerning the W.W.II relocation experiences of Japanese Americans, we see a U.S. Federal Court of Appeals rendered in a surreal manner, with a 3rd generation Japanese American couple (actor/actress) in slow motion entering and sitting in an empty courtroom to listen to the echoes of the actual accusations officially leveled at the loyalty of WWII Japanese Americans. The two are in the exact historical courtroom, have walked down the same echoing marbled corridors their second generation( Nisei) parents walked 40 years earlier to hear these same words.

At the film's end, still another Sansei (3rd generation) couple walk down the same corridor, entering once again the same courtroom. They are two lawyers who were members of the special legal team in pursuit of justice a generation later. They have come to hear the Federal judge of this courtroom pronounce that their legal team, in the 1980s, has successfully vacated the conviction of their client, Fred Korematsu, a brave Nisei man who went to jail to challenge the constitutionality of Japanese American wartime forced removal.

Also in The Color Of Honor, a montage of torn pictures taken from family albums and historical archives falls into place as the hidden stories of their wartime history unfold one by one By the film's end, an overall mosaic of fragments has been constructed, symbolizing the collective portrayal of a generation, retrieved and re-assembled from their scattered places of invisibility and silence.

"Documemoir" is a method still in development experimenting with interweaving and constructing subjectivities, while drawing from institutional and documentary materials, physical sites and material culture.


Some Implementing Strategies for Working in the Documemoir Style

What is it that we do when we do documemoir?
What are some of the implementing activities?

In location canvassing it means we are searching for sacred sites and places which "belonged to them" - work sites, living and communal sites - where activities and rituals took place that could reconstitute a reassuring sense of the "familiar", of "home", and a site for their "guardian spirits" in the face of newness, strangeness, indifference, or persecution.

We are looking to identify the signs of a group's boundaries and borders - physical, mental and symbolic - that map out/ mark off the spaces and sites where we find the cohesion of a group or community. We look also for examples of crossings of the border or "living at the border".

With regard to culture and community we are interested in studying and rendering filmic the visible cultural distinctiveness of a group - their characterizing behavior, speech, dress, gestures and customs - their valued cultural signature.

With regard to class and power we interrogate and seek to represent the facts of hierarchy - racial, cultural and gender - situations of competition, tension, conflict and violence, and how people individually or collectively recognize and cope with inequalities or powerlessness. We are looking for selected historical events and defining moments: when people became aware of highlighted inequality, when they glimpse the possibility of some control over their situation and condition, or, especially where people express organized resistance and struggle against domination.

In showing how strategies for survival and social change develop we focus on those defining moments when members of a group join in mutuality, cooperation or alliances finding the basis for shared goals /unity of purpose among themselves and with others.

With regard to men and women, we observe and show the distinctive character of gender defining experiences in a particular time and place, and seek to understand their relationships within the changing contexts of family, community and the larger society.

Finally, with regard to personal identity we want to portray the many ways an individual is named and comes to name himself. We look for those historical moments/events that act to define an individual's sense of her/his individual distinctiveness apart from all "others", and also those events that relate to the individual's sense of his/her own "agency", and integrity as the generative wellspring of personal consciousness, choices, and actions.

We also search out social art forms: artistically created metaphorical expressions of collective history and identity found in stories, visual art works, performances and rituals, mementos, markers set at sacred sites, etc. - all of which can be the insightful and evocative representations that cross -link to other realms, beyond "straightforward facts".

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