UPAJ Documentary: Interview with Stephen Gong

By Poonam Narkar

Photo courtesy of CAAM

Executive Director at the Center for Asian American Media, Stephen Gong has also been a lecturer in the Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley.  Here, he developed and taught a course on the history of Asian American media. In addition to writing about film history, Gong has provided critical commentary on several DVD projects including the Treasures From American Archives, Vol 1 & 4, and Chan is Missing (dir. Wayne Wang), and is the featured historian in the recent documentary Hollywood Chinese (Dir. Arthur Dong).

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.

Stephen Gong graciously took the time to talk about the CAAM’s and his involvement in the documentary, Upaj, the importance of the documentary, and its impact on audiences.

The Center for Asian American Media has invested heavily in this film and has really been a partner in the film’s making. Can you tell us why you made this decision?

It actually all came together when Rina Mehta joined our team at CAAM in late 2006. I was new at CAAM, at the time, and Don Young had been around the longest. Don and I had talked about wanting to move CAAM to another level in a lot of ways – in the things we were producing and in having an impact in the community through our work. Rina was the first person I hired in a key position, as a Development Director, to work closely with me. And one of the advantages of having her on the staff was that she was an artist and a dancer and brought with her the cultural knowledge that we didn’t otherwise have on the staff at the time. When we hired her, she made clear that her dance and teaching was an important part of who she was and that we understood that about her.

So she had a talked to Don about India Jazz Suites and how the collaboration began between Chitresh Das and Jason. That really sparked the interest in Don and he brought it up to me. What it signaled, strategically speaking, was for us to take this on as our production. It was a big leap because we hadn’t done very much of that since 1980, as we are not set up as a traditional production entity.  When we started seriously talking about it, Rina and the company had identified Hoku Uchiyama as a talented young filmmaker who they had started to work with.

To me, what makes this a strategic move for CAAM, is that we wanted to be a part of making this unique production a reality, because we felt it really represented our mission of bringing stories of Asian-American experience to life – [stories] that you don’t normally see; and this particular project just seemed so perfect. As a part of the work CAAM does, we need to tell stories that don’t just appeal to a target audience belonging to one community, but a broader audience. And of course, anything related to African American culture and jazz (which is one of America’s greatest cultural gifts) seemed so fitting. Furthermore, to be able to make the connection between one of America’s signature art forms and Kathak, from the Indian culture, was fascinating. Don and I were immediately taken by the improvisational aspect of both of these art forms and thought this would be a great program for public television. It was a unique story, it resonated well with us, and the filmmaker was a young talented one to work with.  So we decided to go ahead!

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

Because it talks about sharing cultural traditions. It is a microcosm in its own way – it reinstates the fundamental value of the entire public media. There is real value in sharing our stories. It’s not just a matter of tolerating and respecting the unique contributions of our communities.  I like to think that [CAAM’s] work demonstrates that America’s diversity is in fact our defining characteristic and that we build something greater from the unique cultural traditions in this country.

Do you think that this collaboration was even possible because both artists are in the United States, and not anywhere else?

Absolutely, I suppose wonderful collaborations can happen in other places of the world as well, but it is hard to imagine one. I think this [documentary] project and the [India Jazz Suites] performance reinstate so many wonderful things.  Within the unique cultural expression and integrity of each art form, you get an experience that is universal; and a new meaning is created because both dancers are so deeply rooted in the lineage of their traditions. That is why the National Endowment for the Arts loved this project when I took it to them.  That is why Chitresh Das (on his own) was named as a fellow; that is like a national treasure and is a wonderful honor! The Arts endowment has also long been a champion of jazz and tap dance.

Many of our documentaries are about stories of a community’s struggle to gain recognition in this country and the story of immigrants; these [stories] need to be told, but at the same time it is quite wonderful to be able to celebrate a unique artistic tradition.  I think Chitresh Das is one of our most important Asian American Artists (among all disciplines), so this film is a treat!

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

You start with wanting to celebrate this wonderful art form and the master of Kathak.  I think [the film] does that, but that’s only the start if it. Beyond that, it reflects on all Asian-American communities, saying that “we are the heirs of these wonderful traditions that are [simultaneously] very deep, live, contemporary and vibrant.”

And particularly this collaboration with jazz says that [Kathak] is not separate from other diaspora communities, but is a part of an ongoing dialogue.  It’s not just about Black [or] Asian [culture]; it is a uniquely American story.

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

So many things – Appreciate and celebrate the arts, celebrate dance and celebrate telling your own story.

What was your experience when you saw India Jazz Progressions (IJP)?

I have seen jazz before, [so] that was a familiar ground for me, but Kathak was new.  I could sense that what Chitresh Das was doing, was very complicated- [using] poly-rhythms and time signatures (and that too with his bare feet!).  This was very remarkable. The two of them were communicating with each other and took it to another level- which was very fascinating. There was almost a competition between them.

Both men are very strong and they exude a strong male energy. You do wonder that there is an age difference, but Pandit Chitresh Das is not giving up anything to this young dancer.  We were really interested in the competition that existed between them.

We felt that Hoku’s natural ability was that he had an artist’s intuition about shooting a performance and getting a very wonderfully and kinetically live shot.

The documentary, Upaj, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival, on March 18th at 7:00 PMAfter 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, Stephen Gong, UPAJ