Filmmakers Kelly Ng and Hui Tong sat down with GOOD DOCS intern Madalyn Harris to discuss exploring Asian American identity, working with children, and the importance of the arts in education in their documentary CURTAIN UP!
Can you guys tell me about Curtain Up!?
Kelly: Curtain Up! is a feature-length documentary, featuring a group of Asian American children in Chinatown, Manhattan. We followed them as they were trying to stage Frozen, the Disney musical, through their time on stage rehearsing as well as their time with their families and interacting with one another. We've tried to incorporate some of the issues that they as Asian American children confront, such as questions of identity, stereotypes, and family relationships. And that is all compressed in a 60-ish minute film!
What made you both interested in the PS124 Theater Group?
Hui: We started researching and reporting for our project in the summer of 2018. That was a time when the big film Crazy Rich Asians just came out and there was all this discussion about Asian representation in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. I was a theater enthusiast myself in college. So I just started focusing on Asian American or Asian communities in Theater in New York City, doing a lot of research and reporting where I encountered this National Asian Artists Project by Berkeley, who's the founder of the project. I found this cute video of these kids on the website. The theater group was founded by the National Asian Artists Project as a corporation. Bayard introduced me to the principal of PS124 and I visited the principal the next day. I watched the rehearsals of the kids, who were doing Aladdin at that time. And I was super attracted by all the energy and the power of these kids. So I started filming the next day, brought my camera and release forms. I was super surprised because I've been living in New York state for more than five years, but I haven't encountered a school like that, it's like over 95% Asian. Seeing a group of Asian kids doing Disney shows was such a surprise for me. There was some natural tension there, of Asian kids doing iconic mainstream Disney shows. So, I thought it was a good idea for a documentary.
Some of the biggest focuses of the film are the four main children who are William, Jack, Charlotte, and Alvin. What drew you to these kids and made you decide to focus on them?
Hui: Sure! I'll talk about William and Alvin first. William was because the first time I visited school myself, William was Aladdin. At that time, the kids were doing Aladdin. So he was just naturally the star and the leader of the kids. He was super welcoming and outgoing. And I decided that whether or not we're filming Aladdin, William was going to be our star. William’s mom was there the second time I visited, and she's an immigrant and immigrated to the United States in her mid-20s and is such a typical Chinese parent in a way, which I thought would be a good door for our film.
Alvin was a little philosopher kid. We regret that we couldn't have more of his footage in our final film. Alvin had a lot of very interesting thoughts throughout the filming. He's also the only fourth grader - the other three are fifth-graders graduating to Middle School. So Alvin naturally became the one left picking the leading role or one of the leading roles in the next show.
Kelly: For Charlotte, I have an interesting story. It took a while for us to warm up to each other and for her to warm up to us. It's quite funny that at the start of our filming process, we got closer to the boys quicker, but we wanted diversity in the cast. We saw how Charlotte grew out of this girl who was in her brother's shadow to go on to stand on her own. And, of course, she landed the lead character in Frozen. And I think Charlotte's personality also puts a very interesting contrast with William’s. While we were filming, William was a lot more confident and extroverted, whereas Charlotte was a bit more reserved. We wanted to inject some diversity in the different children we were featuring to show that they're all in the theater club for different personal reasons – and their family backgrounds are all very unique.
For Jack, he's also different from the other three kids. I think, for William and Charlotte, they were dreaming about theater stars. But then for Jack, he spoke about how being in the theater club opens up his personality and things like that. It goes back to wanting to feature a tapestry of different characters – and also not ‘typecasting’ the Asian American child's experience. And I think you can see in the film that Jack's family is also quite different, they are English speaking. I also think the upbringing is quite different for each of these four children. That’s something that we intentionally wanted to showcase in the film.
What were some of the best parts of the filmmaking process for you both?
Hui: I’d say the Junior Theatre Festival trip that we had with the kids, although this was also the hardest part for our editing process because we had tons of footage of that festival. The festival was when the kids brought Aladdin to an audience of over 6000, but it was not Frozen, so we, unfortunately, couldn't include more of that. The other thing was they were the only Asian team there at the Junior Theatre Festival. They were super special and very, obviously, different from the other teams so they drew a lot of attention from the other kids. There was a dinner table scene when the kids were talking about being Asian. That happened the first night in Atlanta when they saw themselves so different from the other teams. People talk about their identities when they see how different they are from each other in terms of comparison. So for us, it was also a very eye-opening experience following a group of Asian kids into a new world for them, especially as filmmakers seeing how they react and adapt to this new environment.
Kelly: Getting to know the kids and their parents was a very interesting process that was quite new to me because I've never really done films prior to this. I was trained in a very traditional journalism background where we don't take much time to foster relationships with our subjects. It was a very different experience to actually get to know them as friends – and as friends that we would want to spend time and hang out with.
The editing process was also quite a good learning experience for me. We changed our storyboard several times, which is probably the usual process for filmmaking. In hindsight, it was really interesting to go through the process of why we had to take out certain scenes and put them back in. That whole process, just having to work together and show our film to other people for their feedback, was very helpful.
This film deals with children, as we have discussed. Did you face any challenges documenting young children during filming? And would you say it was easier, harder, or simply just different from filming adults?
Hui: When we answer this question, we have two parts. I'll start with the first part. It was easier at the beginning; the kids were naturally very open to us. Some other media and TV crews were coming to the school filming the kids, so they were quite familiar with TV crews staying for an afternoon or two days maximum. When we were first there the kids saw us as just another TV crew and because they were performing and rehearsing, they knew what to show to us. However, one or two months into filming the kids didn’t really understand what a documentary was. Many of their parents didn't understand what a documentary was either.
Then the challenging part came. The Junior Theatre Festival happened around that time and we were able to build some relationships with the kids and parents. We were able to communicate what we were doing because we were following them all the time during the festival. But still, there was a crisis that came later.
Kelly: Here comes the crisis! Just as Hui was saying, the kids weren't unfamiliar with media. This theater club is well known and had been filmed before so I think they expected that we were just another TV crew and just going to be hanging around for a few days. But after a few months, we got to know them a lot better – including certain things that were pretty personal to them. And we were around. I think they started to get a bit uncomfortable with that. Like, “Who are these two people who are always creeping up on us and filming everything that we say and do?” Then there was a point where they started to call us stalkers. It's funny in hindsight, but I think during the process, we were like “Oh no!” After all of those months of building our relationship, we were concerned and worried that we've lost their trust. We were worried that they might hate us now and not be able to film anymore!
I remember we met William and Jenny for dinner and just talked it out and explained to them what we were trying to do. That we're actually going to be there for the long haul, but also that we will respect them and give them their private time. We weren't there to infringe on things that they don't want to be shown on the big screen. After this crisis, our relationships with the kids and their parents got even stronger, at least with this our four main characters. It was like a blessing in disguise.
What can the viewers learn from the children in this film?
Kelly: Personally what I learned and was pleasantly surprised by – and what I hope viewers can learn too – is that a lot of the issues like race, identity, and racial stereotypes were very forefront on the kids’ minds. I wouldn't say that this is the case for all Asian American children. But this group of kids, at least, are quite exposed to issues like that. I read recently that some state is now requiring Asian American history to be included in the curriculum. I think a film that speaks from the children's perspectives in a climate like this would be thought-provoking for viewers – whether they're kids or adults. A lot of these issues have been discussed at the very top-down level, from advocacy groups and such. But I think hearing this coming from kids is something refreshing for our audience.
Hui: I've been doing a few screenings in China, and I've been meeting some kids of similar age in China. People were talking and asking about why we chose such age groups for the film? It's quite interesting because, for the children in China, it was similar that this was an age of balancing between societal influences and familial influence. It was just this the special age and the same forces from two different directions. They have to deal with a lot from the mainstream and this idea of being American. And the other side – the expectation of them to maintain their Chinese-ness in a way and that applies to not only Asian American kids but also a lot of third culture kids. When I was traveling the US I talked about this film, and there was a mother from Colombia whose children were of the same age, and they were facing the same tension between society and family. Even for children in China, there is not this tension between different cultures, but they have expectations from society in terms of competition and what you're going to do in the future. So, it's a very interesting period of growth for all kids. We hope that people can see themselves in those children, but also for parents when their children are at similar ages, we want them to have some resignation from the experience of these kids.
I understand that this is both of your guys’ first feature-length documentary, so big congratulations on that! Do either you have future plans to make more documentaries and or work with Asian American children and families?
Hui: Actually, I just finished a book written in Chinese talking about identities. One chapter was about Asian Americans, Asian American identities, and children's growth. It’s kind of based on the process of making this documentary, but it was more about history and cultural analysis. I hope to introduce this perspective of Asian Americans to the Chinese audience!
I am doing a couple of documentary projects, but not necessarily related to Asian Americans. I'm based in Beijing, China – so more localized topics. After the pandemic, who knows, maybe I'll be back in the US not only for this film but for some other projects. Before the pandemic broke out last year, I was talking to a few people about new projects, I want to do a project about Asian masculinity, topics like that. If I'm back in the US someday, I will definitely be doing some projects related to that.
Kelly: Right now I'm based in Singapore. I am working on some film projects on the side, but not necessarily to do with Asian Americans. In Singapore, the culture is quite different. It's interesting because I've had several conversations with friends recently about race. Several issues brought up this topic. As ethnically Chinese, I'm part of the majority of the race where I am. So we've been talking about how for us who have experienced being part of the minority group somewhere else, how then do we, as the majority, bring some of the things and experiences that we've had to relate to our peers in other ethnic groups with more sensitivity and more understanding. There are some ideas that we've been talking about that may or may not be related to the film. I think issues with identity and race are present in many societies, but in different forms, was what I was trying to see.
Do either of you have anything else you would like to add about the film or any calls to action for viewers of Curtain Up!?
Kelly: Keep an open mind and be open to different pathways of dreams and passions. I think it is important to encourage ourselves and our children to pursue different interests because you never know what one thing might lead to!
Hui: Especially for educators, if you have a couple of Asian kids in your classroom, you can talk more about how they feel and what they're thinking about, about themselves. It’s always good to hear different perspectives. Sometimes they may not be that courageous to talk about their true feelings. If our film could be some chance for them to express themselves in a way they haven't done before, that would be great! We also definitely want this not only to be an Asian American perspective because Kelly and I are not technically Asian Americans. Seeing a group of Asian American kids doing theater, it’s about theater, it’s about how they grew up, about how they express themselves. It's about children. And as the previous question was about, it's about seeing children dealing with different forces in their lives and about how to be a better parent. We hope this film could bring more insights and inspiration for all different groups of people – and please enjoy the film!