Interview with Filmmaker Penny Lee (THROUGH CHINATOWNS’S EYES: APRIL 1968)

THROUGH CHINATOWNS’S EYES: APRIL 1968 played to rave reviews and was the winner of BEST MUSIC at the October 2018 FEEDBACK Film Festival in Toronto.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Penny Lee: I wanted to tell the story about a minority group that was impacted by a national tragedy during a turbulent time of civil rights history. There
have been many books, films and reports written about the Black and White experience but nothing about the Chinese American experience of that time. I felt it was necessary to produce a film to give the Chinese American voice to this subject.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you
to make this short?

It took about nine months from idea to finished product.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words?

Identity Impact

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

The biggest obstacle that I faced in completing this film was finding free time to work on it. I am a full-time freelance film/TV editor and I could only work on the documentary in the evenings, weekends and in between projects. Although our film was funded by the 1882 Foundation and a small grant from the DC Arts & Humanities, the budget was still an obstacle. A lot of the work that was performed on this film such as the writing, shooting and editing was done on a pro bona basis. The archival and stock footage was expensive and the majority of the funds went to pay for that. Needless to say, this was a passion project and I didn’t make any money.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking
about your film in the feedback video?

I was very impressed by the audience participation and knowledge. I can see from watching their feedback that they were paying close attention to the details especially when they were able to recollect some of the dialogue in the film. I thought that was awesome!

Watch the Audience Feedback Video of the Short Film:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

I wanted to create an oral history documentary film that would preserve the history of Washington DC’s Chinatown. The area has been decimated with progress and the once thriving Chinese community has dwindled to a few restaurants and even fewer residents. I was searching for funding when the 1882 Foundation
approached me to help them produce a film.

So in addition to funds provided by The 1882 Foundation, we received a grant from the DC Arts & Humanities for us to produce this film but one of the requirements stated that the film had to include race relations as a theme. After brainstorming with the President of the 1882 foundation, we decided to produce a film that would focus on how the Chinatown community faced race relations in the 1960s and what impact the civil disturbance had on these people following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

I have seen the Sound of Music the most followed by Avatar, however I do enjoy many other films such as The Joy Luck Club, The Notebook, Wonder Woman and Crazy Rich Asians. In addition, I enjoy watching Games of Thrones on HBO.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

I enjoyed using FilmFreeway as a submission platform very much. It was easy to use and I like the many choices and selections available for filmmakers to pick and choose to submit our film. This platform made it easy for filmmakers to visit festival sites and learn more about each festival before making a selection.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

I would say I listen to Top 40 Pop songs the most followed by oldies as my second choice in music. I enjoy Contemporary hit radio songs to keep up with the times. Other times I listen to oldies where I can actually sing along because I know the words (ex. Beatles, The Temptations, and Motown too).

10. What is next for you? A new film?

I am currently working on a feature documentary film “A Tale of Three Chinatowns” that explores the survival and role of Chinatowns across the USA by examining how they’ve adapted to social, economic and political changes. This film will look at three Chinatowns in varying stages of contraction and expansion and the forces influencing their current states. It will also cover the history of these Chinatowns and their unique characteristics each local community has developed over time.

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