By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
No matter how we may long for it, healing does not happen, for a person, a group, or a nation, until the past is revisited and the present repaired. This is what Vietnamese writer, director, and fashionista, Sally Tran discovered while making “Centuries and Still,” a short film tracking the legacy of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States. Tran realized through working on the project that healing would elude her and others without education, action, and mutual support.
Last year, Tran had made “60 Years and Still,” about the history of racism against Black people in the United States, and thought she should do a similar project now that her own community was being hit so hard—again. Tran was moved, of course, when witnessing the unjust treatment of other people of color and creating her film in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet it did not quite hit home until she began to tackle a project about Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
“I guess I didn’t sleep for a month just watching so much traumatizing content, alone, on my own. That’s definitely a thing that I probably haven’t healed from yet.”
At first, Tran was too shaken by the recent onslaught of violence against Asians in the U.S. and in other countries to be able to channel her creativity at all.
“I couldn’t really think or do anything…I was working a few jobs and I felt really numb and I was really snippy…I was angry all the time. I realized, I’m really messed up by all this, everything that’s going on, so I took a beat and then I thought, ‘I need to make something, I need to do my part as a filmmaker.’”
Tran got a script together and then reached out to other creatives for help. She teamed up with over 10 people, almost all of whom are Asians based in the U.S., and many of whom are women. One of those was Nam Phuong Doan who, with Sally, realized the impact of solidarity.
“After the Atlanta shooting, I was also very shaken. I was talking to a friend and…she told me something along the lines of many of us experienced the same trauma and suffered in silence, not knowing we share many things in common…in this case, it feels really personal because it is our own community, so there’s no way that we’re not going to use our skills and our abilities to tell these stories because it is important and it is about us and future generations. We don’t want to continue this cycle of violence; we want to find a way to break it.” For Tran and Doan, making this film, and bringing awareness to the community and to outsiders, is one way to do that.
Learning about the injustices of the past is not easy—and it’s not what anyone might call enjoyable. For that reason, Tran devised the live action format of her film to make educational and difficult material more digestible while still being true to her craft.
“How do we try to get the young people to understand that this is what has happened and that they can start thinking earlier to make these changes?” One of Tran’s ingenious approaches in the film is to use whatever method of film was current to the period discussed.
“We’re shooting on the format of the time, so during the 1800s, we’re shooting on 16 millimeter; during the 1900s, we’re shooting on 8 millimeter; we have VHS for Vincent Chin’s killing; and then digital when we got to the 2000s.”
Another visual element of the film is a certain “shadowy” effect, which Tran also employed for “60 Years and Still.” This effect connects to one of the themes, as Doan explained.
“We wanted to relate the title to ‘hidden stories’ or ‘shadows’ because it represents the important parts of AAPI history that were concealed or erased from the public eye…the shadows are used to create the mood and time flow of the film to honor the victims of anti-Asian violence and those who came before us that set the foundation for Asian people in America. Parts of AAPI history were kept in the dark on purpose, so our job here, through this film, is to bring it to light.”
A film such as this is not likely to result in healing right away, yet it is a component of that eventual healing.
“All efforts should be embraced…until we can achieve more equality and racial justice. Even if you can contribute a small part, it’s so important.” Doan said. “I don’t want to make this project bigger than it is, but it is big emotionally and meaning-wise…We hope that it can open many doors to conversations, to actions, to solidarity.”
Tran hopes that through her film and the work of other AAPI creatives, there will be a “trickle down” effect around the world, where the current anti-Asian climate will begin to improve as awareness and visibility grows and AAPI stories are no longer in the shadows.
“This story is going to be a bit of a journey for a person to get to the healing…it will require people to look at some resources, dig deeper. During that process, there are…ways to move forward.” She also hopes that, as part of a series of films she intends to create, this work connects her further with other AAPI creatives and brings her opportunities to assist young filmmakers in the future.
To help build this path forward and encourage solidarity, Tran and her team have created a website where people can watch the film and find resources. Bios of the team members are provided so that networking can be stimulated amongst the community and to fortify that belief that no one is alone; and charitable organizations are listed in case someone wants to donate.
To view the website and the film “Centuries and Still,” go to centuriesandstill.webflow.io.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.