by Richard Fung
The existing body of work by Asian Canadians in film and video is small and uneven. There is only a handful of producers who are working and producing a substantial body of work. For the most part, a small number of artists have made one or two films or tapes each.
There are even fewer people writing criticism from an Asian Canadian perspective. This is the situation in the academic world, in art magazines and in the popular press. Indeed, since the demise of the Asianadian magazine in the mid-80's, there has not been a national forum for discussing cultural or political issues for a panAsian audience.
The effect of this sporadic production and scholarship - sporadic in a spatial as well as a temporal sense - is a lack of momentum. We are unable to develop coherent strategies to learn from the past and from each other. The lack of a community-generated critical context, coupled with the relatively monocultural, monochromatic nature of the group of established critics and scholars, means that those producers attempting to recreate the media in our own terms, to center the margins, often appear to be starting from scratch, or else piggy-backing on stylistic or theoretical developments from Third Cinema movements outside of Canada, particularly the United States arid Britain.
I have found inspiration in the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha and in the work of Black British film and video workshops. I have been moved by their dramatic challenge to audiences to confront difficult issues, to foreground questions of gender and sexuality within the agenda of race. Their rejection of the simplistic formula of "positive images" as the sole response to negative stereotyping has offered sophisticated alternatives. I have been particularly encouraged by their determination to push beyond the simple appropriation of conventional codes to a scrutiny and a reconstruction of the language of images itself.
It is easy to wax romantic on the apparent greenness of other people's gardens. In the haze of distance, problems fade, contradictions smooth over. In Britain, for instance, the five year support contracts from Channel 4 and the British Film Institute that allowed for the emergence of the collectives is ending and causing panic. In the privatized landscape of Thatcherite Britain there is little room for culture challenging the status quo. In the US, my colleagues complain of shortages in funding and access, the same things we talk about here. But more importantly, the question of race in Canada is profoundly different from the situation in the United States and Britain. We can never wholeheartedly adopt either their political or their aesthetic strategies.
In Britain, there exists a Black film and video culture, producing what I consider some of the most exciting work done today. Facilitated by funding from Channel Four and the British Film Institute, much of it is aired on television. The BFI also has at least one full time officer in charge of Black film. In Britain, "Black" has been used as a declaration of political solidarity, rather than a description of specific racial heritage. The word refers equally to South Asians and African peoples. However, East and Southeast Asians are not included in this designation. These groups have not been targets of organized racist violence in the same way and have not played a major role in the political process of countering racism. They have also not significantly benefited from the initiatives that have changed the ethnic face of British culture, in part since many concessions have been a response to direct political action.
One of the repeated themes in Black Arts Cinema, is a confrontation with the notion of Englishness as a racial, as well as a cultural, national identity. I could be born in England, carry a British passport, but I could never be English.
In the assimilatory framework of America's supposed melting pot, one of the major historical levers that the Black civil rights movement has had in its favour was the undeniable Americanness of African Americans, who had lived there for hundreds of years. The Asian American movement, one of the many social movements inspired by the civil rights struggle, has similarly adopted a strategy based on a reclamation of historical space and many American films and videotapes center on putting Asians into Americana. Indeed, many productions draw on a disturbingly uncritical endorsement of American ideology in claiming their slice of the pie.
In contrast, Canada is notoriously non-nationalistic (except in Quebec where nationalism, as in Britain, tends to be racially exclusive) and the anti-racist discourse has been phrased differently here. Further, due to Canada's historically racist immigration policies, most "nonwhites" are relatively recent immigrants, with the exception of the Native peoples and comparatively small established communities of Japanese, Black and Chinese Canadians. In pointing this out I am not promoting the popular theory that newer waves of immigrants are always at the bottom of the pecking order, but as time and generations pass, their position shifts up the scale. First generation Western European Canadians don't seem to have problems accessing power, yet Native Canadians, although they were here first, remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. For the most part, however, access to power because of the establishment of a community has not provided successful political leverage in Canada.
As people of colour, our claim to share in this country's wealth comes not through an historical discourse, but since 1971, through a notion of Canada as the sum of its inhabitants - the famous mosaic theory. While Trudeau's multiculturalism retains a special privilege for the language of "the two founding races" (First Nations people are not counted among these) in theory it contains a recognition of the various cultures that comprise the country. Whatever reality might exist on the street, on the job, in the police station, in the classroom, at the immigration office or on the apartment hunt, the state has so far successfully managed to inhibit much of the alienation seen in Britain and the US. Multiculturalism has produced a whole caste of "community leaders" who have facilitated in the management of race politics. The relative peace in Canada has depended on other concessions that can't be guaranteed, such as the present government's destruction of social programs and the unwillingness of authorities to address such questions as police racism.
Multiculturalism shifts the focus away from the political and social questions of race such as housing, employment, education, access to power, into a political marketing of personal identity. It champions a notion of cultural difference in which people are encouraged to preserve cultural forms of song and dance they didn't practice before they came to Canada. Multiculturalism's function has been to co-opt and eclipse the potential threat in anti-racist organizing.
For this discussion, multiculturalism has most importantly shaped policies in the area of cultural funding in Canada, rendering the two meanings of the word mutually exclusive. That is, culture as 1. an interest in arts, letters, scholarly pursuits, etc. and 2. as the sum total in ways of living of a group of humans transmitted from one generation to another. On one hand, we have the arts councils supporting an ahistorical, transcontextual "excellence" in a capitalized art. On the other, the ministries and departments of multiculturalism promoting "the ethnics", with all the baggage and assumptions around non-Western, non-white work as naive, static and so on. It also goes along with the assumption and the enforcement around the kind of work, the kind of subject matter and the forms that people of colour should work with. Ballet is art, Chinese classical dance is multiculturalism.
Unlike art forms like painting and poetry, film and video-making require substantial sums of capital investment. Even with accessibility to relatively inexpensive consumer products, the demarcations around "professional" production have remained remarkably unchallenged, illustrating that a revolution in technology or marketing, without infrastructural changes, means nothing in terms of democratization in the sharing of information.
Education, funding, and access are part of what allows certain images to come to the screen and others not. Systemic racism is just finally being recognized as the major factor in keeping the art world predominantly white. Unspoken cultural biases are finally being recognized by those in power, and loaded words like "quality" are less likely to be used to evaluate work. There is an increasing effort to change the demography of the decision makers. Hopefully, increased visibility of more Asian producers, teachers and programmers will inspire younger people to consider media arts as an option, though history shows this is by no means automatic.
Asian American cultural politics are dominated by the American born, who, whatever their specific ancestries, share a first language which is English and a common experience of growing up "oriental" in a whitedefined society. Due to the factors I noted above, it isn't surprising that the majority of Asian Canadian film and video makers are also locally born or have at least grown up here. In the United States, there are large numbers of third or fourth generation Filipino, Japanese and Chinese Americans. In Canada, with the exception of the Japanese community, the distance between our art practice and our communities presents some difficulties.
First of all, in a situation in which most people come from different countries with distinct languages and sometimes even historical conflicts, it is difficult to assume an "Asian" consciousness. This only begins to eclipse national loyalties when Asians are jointly defined as "other" in a white society. In media, the large percentage of immigrants is reflected in the thriving market for national commercial cinemas (made even more accessible with home video) and the virtual ignoring of the work of Asian Canadians, mostly produced in English.
Unlike the Black communities, Asian communities in Canada have not developed an infrastructure or a culture showing non-commercial, alternative media. The support for The Displaced View by local organizations of Japanese Canadians across the country is quite unusual. In presenting work collectively as Asian, Yellow Peril offers one of the first opportunities in Canada to develop the critical discourse which these films and tapes need. Then again, if until now, the communities have not embraced independent media, it is also worth noting that Canada has not developed an activist Asian cinema. Among people of colour, only Native Canadians have produced a body of work that can labelled as such. For the most part, the films and tapes do not relate to what are seen as perhaps the most immediate issues within our communities. Not that "issues" should be interpreted narrowly either, or that Asian Canadian producers are any less successful at reaching mass audiences than their white counterparts. It is simply that Asian Canadian film and video makers tend to deal with questions of identity that arise from their experience of growing up in a white society, issues that are not the primary concerns of new immigrants with a strong national consciousness, struggling against a different constellation of problems.
Because so few films and videotapes come out of an Asian Canadian experience, there is enormous scope for projects. There is room for innovation in every form and on any subject matter. By the same token, there are tremendous expectations from audiences that these works tell essential stories. In fact, it is somewhat surprising that there is so little work documenting the history of Asians in Canada. Yet film and video-makers should not only be expected to entertain, placate or affirm. We must also question and challenge.
While many independent projects center around countering the hegemony of the dominant media, we must ensure that our agenda is not determined by a simple reaction to the stereotypes others have of us. Whatever formal strategies Asian film or video makers choose, we need to situate and question ourselves as subjects. Not how we are seen but how we see. We must center our work on our own problems, desires and foibles.