UPAJ Documentary: Interview with Donald Young

By Poonam Narkar

Photo courtesy of CAAM

Donald Young is the Center for Asian American Media’s (CAAM) Director of Programs. He oversees CAAM’s national productions and PBS work, and he works closely with CAAM’s program areas. In public television, Donald has supervised the national broadcasts of over 150 award-winning projects. As a producer, has worked both in documentaries and independent feature films. Donald’s most recent production is “Fruit Fly” by H.P. Mendoza, and he also produced “The Princess of Nebraska” by Wayne Wang and “Searching for Asian America.” Presently, he is producing documentaries on ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, former Louisiana Congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao, and Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth. Donald has also taught film at the University of California, Davis and the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

The 2009 tour of India Jazz Suites (IJS) instigated the production of the documentary, Upaj, by The Center for Asian American Media in association with Hindipendent Films.

Donald Young graciously took the time to talk about his involvement in the documentary, Upaj, the inspiration behind the film, and the greater impact of the documentary.

How did Upaj come about?

When the idea for Upaj came about, Rina Mehta was our Development Director; and we at that time were starting, as an organization, to initiate films – to develop our own productions. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but Rina obviously thought that the dance company (CDDC) would be a great way to explore that strategy. In that sense, so much has been driven by Rina, but hand in hand with CAAM we have been able to help make this film happen.

For us, the cross-cultural collaboration has always been appealing and in addition to that, we rarely see works on dance in the Asian American community. CAAM has always supported a number of pieces from the South Asian Community, but we always welcome diversity and multi-generational stories. So in a lot of ways this subject had a very strong appeal for us.

The Center for Asian American Media has invested heavily in this film and has really been a partner in the film’s making. Did you have to convince other people at CAAM to gather support?

I did not have to convince the folks at CAAM any more than normal. Certainly in speaking with our Executive Director, Media Fund team and Development team, again because Rina was our Development Director, the conversation went fairly smooth. We saw that what Chitresh Das and Jason have done for a number of years, to some extent felt like the future of CAAM. We have often seen films that focus on stories about particular communities, but certainly crossing communities, generations and art forms seemed so fresh and again, seemed like the future to us. In general the people at CAAM absolutely acknowledged the merits of moving forward with this film.

Why do you think this is an important documentary for the canon of Asian American documentary and films?

It is important for many reasons. First of all these, two artists regardless of their communities they belong to, are exceptional nationally and internationally recognized artists. So on that basic level, the craft and talent they have, should always merit the film. But for us, this combination of being able to tell an international story from a uniquely American perspective, was very fascinating and again it really invoked the future – all the elements from the communities, to the generations, to the art form and what they are trying to do through their art.

For us, it seemed a very natural partnership from the very beginning – from working with the dance troupe, the performers, to the filmmaker – everything just felt right on, it felt very compelling and fresh.

How do you think this story is important and relevant to the conversation in this country around race, identity and Asian American community?

It’s a very rare example of communities coming together. So much media coverage is about tension and so little about people learning from each other. And in this case it wasn’t just learning from each other but actually two people coming together. And it almost seems like they came closer because they were from such different place. It really forced them to find more what was more common.

Within the film we find out that they both have lived very tough lives; they lost people who were very close to them at very young ages – those are universal stories that everybody can relate too, but in addition coming from such different art forms and communities and cultures and finding those really deep personal connections, I assume they will have a lifelong connection because of what they do, why they do and how they choose to do it. It’s really rare for people to look at communities from this perspective.

Do you think that this collaboration was even possible because both artists are in the United States, where there is such a diversity of cultures, races and a higher level of tolerance and acceptance; do you think that was an important factor in why this collaboration even happened here and that it couldn’t happen anywhere else?

I am not the most qualified to answer this, but I think clearly that is the case because we rarely see these kind of stories at least in the film form. Or there may have been similar stories that we may not be aware of, but certainly not with this kind of talent and caliber of artists. For me, what is striking above everything else, and more so as I saw the recent cuts of the film, is that these two artists are not only exceptional but they are also preserving art forms and traditions that are really fading, which again is so rare.

Can you tell us why you think this documentary is important for public television audiences?

For the reason that we just discussed above – the film, I hope and believe, represents the best of what America is about – not in an ultra patriotic way, but because on one hand the film is about two highly celebrated artists, but on the other hand it is about two people in America that found this connection and it is the art through which they found the connection. I think it’s a telling piece about America and in a very wonderfully personal and creative way, that is communicated through everything about them – through watching them, through seeing them perform, through telling their stories, at every level with these two it really resonates.

What would you like people to take away as they come out after watching the documentary.

It’s a combination of things – firstly, you see that these are two hard charging guys. So the power of art and what its value is in somebody’s life is clearly illustrated through the film. But for me, in a simplest way, it is a beautiful story of two people connecting from very different places. What is great about them is that the experience they create through their art is what we are able to experience. The coming together of two cultures and the experience that comes out of that is priceless. It is fascinating to watch them play off of each other, learn from each other artistically – it is something so irreplaceable.

After this first screening at the festival, what are your hopes and expectations/aspirations for this film?

The version that will be screening at the festival will not be quite finished, so certainly we will be looking forward to finishing of the film. And then taking it to a number of other prestigious documentary film festivals. Ultimately we would like to have the film screened on national PBS broadcast either as a series or as a stand-alone. And also have the film go out and impact people through educational distribution through community screenings. My understanding is that dance troupes and art groups have started to embrace the film, so it’s a really great way to teach people about the world.

On the occasion of the premier of this documentary, are there any final thoughts you would like to viewers?

This has been a long time coming. Having seen the recent cuts, I am personally very excited about it. I am also excited to be able to see the artists perform live. It is not easy to make films and it is amazingly hard to make a film about artists which they have done very well. So I really congratulate Rina, Antara, Hoku and the entire team.

I always knew that the screening would be a great event, but I really want the two artists in particular to look back at the premiere as a special moment for them. And that is why I want them to be able to perform and to talk about this, as opposed to any standard screening and Q&A. I am really curious to see how watching the film would impact how the two artists perform that night. And how they talk about each other after working together for a number of years.

Author’s thoughts:

The premiere in relation to what is going on currently in the world – is so appropriate and well-timed; because ultimately this film is beyond just a story of two celebrated artists, but it is about human values and human relationships. About how communities can build cultural bridges to create beautiful relationships and harmony, can nurture creativity and invoke positive energy or communities can be at war and completely take peace away. And the fact that this country has been able to nurture these relationships through tolerance is noteworthy.

The documentary, Upaj, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival, on March 18th at 7:00 PM. After the screening, the audience will have a chance to engage in a conversation with the producers, filmmakers, and artists.

Click here to purchase tickets to the documentary screening and performance

Posted in: CAAM, Donald Young, UPAJ