By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kelly Huang, American and of Laotian heritage, recently finished her short film “A Refugee Story: Khamsay Huang,” a portrait of her elderly uncle, Khamsay, and his story of leaving Laos during wartime and coming to America. The film went online recently courtesy of the SEARAC (Southeast Resource Action Center) blog. Ms. Huang took some questions over email.
NWAW: Where did you grow up and how did you become aware of Laotian heritage as you grew up?
Huang: I grew up in the Twin Cities area. I was always aware of my Laotian heritage because it was always around me. I went to the temple periodically and my mother was always a vendor at the Buddhist temple whenever they would have big celebrations. By default, I helped her out. I guess when I really learned to appreciate my heritage was when I joined the Lao Student Association at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
That’s where I realized how much the culture influences me. I learned to love to wear the traditional clothes and speak the language instead of be embarrassed of it.
NWAW: How did you become interested in filmmaking?
Huang: I was always interested in film since I was young. I would always anticipate DVD releases on a lot of films because I didn’t really get to go to movie theaters. I would specifically ask for the 2-disc special edition because I loved watching the special features and the behind the scenes. I love watching the “making of” of films.
I took a 2-year course on the Art of Film in High School and I think that’s when I realized I wanted to do this for my career. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else either.
NWAW: What are your favorite filmmakers and what have you learned from them?
Huang: I don’t particularly have a favorite filmmaker but I have favorite films and some of those are “Sicko,” “Blackfish,” “Spirited Away,” and “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” “Sicko” and “Blackfish” are both documentaries and what I liked about those films was that they were very persuasive and manipulative. I’m not necessarily trying to have those traits be a part of my films, but applaud that they accomplished what they were trying to tell their audiences. They gave you the truth and it hurt and made you mad.
That’s what I want for my audiences as well. I want to tell the truth and I want them to react and feel something (maybe not hurt them or make them mad but you get what I’m saying).
Every film I make I want my audience to be able to relate. “Spirited Away” and “Hector” are films I look up to because their stories are deep with many layers and symbolisms. I want to be able to tell my own stories in a similar fashion.
NWAW: How have you studied filmmaking?
Huang: I went to The Art Institutes International Minnesota for Digital Film and Video Production. A lot of the time it’s all self-taught. I’ve noticed through school that a lot of it can’t really be taught through lecture but actually picking up the camera and filming and then taking that footage and editing it. Constantly practicing and getting better, because with more practice, the better the storytelling.
NWAW: What lead you to make a film about your uncle?
Huang: I actually created this for my History Piece in my Electronic Field Production class. I thought my uncle would be perfect because he knows so much information about the family and the journey about getting to America. I also knew he would be more open to speak about his experience whereas my other uncles wouldn’t be so inclined.
NWAW: What were the most challenging aspects of making the film, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Huang: The most challenging was actually making my uncle open up. I actually filmed the interview 6 months before and he wasn’t really structuring his sentences well, so I went back to audio record him answering the same question because I knew he would be more open once there was no camera there. And he was much more open that time. “Camera-shy” is a real thing
NWAW: What were the biggest surprises for you, making the film?
Huang: I don’t find a lot of things very surprising, maybe because I been desensitized by the media but the one thing I found surprising was that I had already asked my dad the same questions, and when I finally went to speak with my uncle some of the stories didn’t match up. My uncle is older than my dad, so I trust his memory a little more because he was older at the time. He had a better grasp of what was occurring.
NWAW: How did you arrange for your film to be seen on the web?
Huang: I upload all of the work I’m proud of to my Youtube. My friend, Alex Phasy, actually told me about the SEARAC 40 & Forward Blog. He told me that I should submit my film to it because it’s perfect for their blog. So I submitted it and they posted it! And then Andrew saw it, and that’s where I am now.
NWAW: What’s in the future for you? Any new projects lined up?
Huang: As of right now, I’m just working on graduating. I’m 6 months away from graduation. I’m in the post-production on my senior film, which is also a documentary. It’s a documentary about my parents and their relationship and experiences. My film will touch on the effects of the Vietnam and Laos Civil war, the communist take-over, and how that influences my parents’ relationship and how that influences me.
I’m really excited about this film because it’s personal and I’m telling a great story that many people should hear. It’s a story that is sort of swept under the rug, and I’m really happy to shed light on it. The film will premiere at my portfolio showing in October, which is when I graduate. (Yay!) Other small projects I’m working on are just small sketches with my friends, where I get to act. (end)
To view “A Refugee Story: Kamsay Huang,” visit http://www.40andforward.org/blog/2015/4/3/a-refugees-story-khamsay-huang.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.