From a GOOD DOCS Intern: The Impact of Documentaries

From a GOOD DOCS Intern: The Impact of Documentaries

Written by GOOD DOCS intern Amanda La

While I’ve changed a lot from elementary school to college, one thing that has never changed throughout my academic years is getting excited to watch movies in class — well, kind of. The enthusiasm was always present when we got to watch “fun” films like A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Nightmare Before Christmas, but less so when we had to watch biopics and documentaries. My classmates and I had spent most of the time whispering to one another or doodling on our own while we were supposed to be focusing on whichever documentary was being shown to us. But, as I got older and it was required for me to actually take notes and pay attention to these films if I wanted to pass the class, I found myself being interested in the topics of the film even beyond the classroom —- I would often go back home (or pull out my phone) and spend hours on Wikipedia and other sources reading up on every readily available material I could find on the subject matter. The impressions that these documentaries have made on me are impactful— I can remember so many various interesting documentaries I watched in elementary and middle school despite it being more than a decade ago.

Moreover, some of my favorite films, ever, have been introduced to me in a classroom setting — a recent example is actually Nan Goldin’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a film that shed light on the AIDS epidemic, Opioid epidemic, and the Arts scene through Goldin’s experiences. I know it’s been said that teachers will show films as a lazy day so that they don’t have to actually teach, but I believe that not only is that statement false, but would argue that students must watch films in class. Whether it be as an assignment or part of the lecture, documentaries are beneficial to the student's development as they introduce new topics and/or perspectives, and are a means for students to make informed opinions on certain subjects based on facts and objectivity.

Moreover, documentaries provide the opportunity for students to reflect on historical or cultural events. Despite living in Los Angeles my entire life, I was unaware of the occurrence of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots until I went to college. And even then as I was reading about it in my classes, the event seemed so distant to me despite it having happened in recent modern history and in my own hometown. However, two documentaries shown in an Asian American film class I was enrolled in led me to start realizing how important this event is to not only the City but also to its inhabitants. 

The first film that opened my eyes was Grace Lee’s short documentary K-TOWN ’92: Reporters and the larger interactive project that the film was a part of, K-TOWN ‘92, an online project that provides an experience to users. The website offers access to interviews with a diverse range of people whose lives were impacted by the riots, giving the audience a chance to explore different perspectives of the same event as a result of their lived experience. Moreover, the  K-TOWN ‘92 press kit states “K-TOWN ‘92 allows users to both disrupt mainstream images of communities of color while uplifting new perspectives.” K-TOWN '92: Reporters is a 15-minute companion piece about three Los Angeles Times journalists of color who covered the riots. The documentary put the racial tensions from both the streets and the newsroom on open display. It explored how the newsrooms were working with the police to control public perception by looking into which reporters were selected to report these stories, which stories would be approved to tell the public, and how that cherry-picking alters the public perspective. Watching this documentary made me realize the importance of hearing all sides of a story, not just believing the first information you receive, even if it comes from a credible source. But more importantly, the different interviews, whether it was footage from 1992 or a reflection that happened in 2017, showed that the untold narratives are integral to getting the full understanding of everything that had transpired.

The second film that left an impact on me was LIQUOR STORE DREAMS, directed by So Yun Um. The film follows two Korean American children of immigrant, liquid store owners. The parts of the story that follow So Yun Um and her father Henry were key to seeing how the 1992 Riots have affected people and the lingering effects of the events that still exist even today — 30 years after it occurred (at the time it was filmed). Henry’s feelings about the Black Lives Matter protests that started after George Floyd’s death are deeply ingrained in his trauma that stemmed from his experience being a store owner in Koreatown during the riots. The arguments filmed about the reasons behind property damage at Black Lives Matter protests and anti-Black racism in the Asian American community lay out the thought processes from both So and Henry that the audience can follow.

Through this documentary, So is giving a platform to those who are often underrepresented and largely absent from media representation, she explains that “In the 80’s, 75% of all liquor stores in South LA were Korean-owned and yet there has NEVER been a story told from our own perspective so I felt it was my duty to tell my story because I knew my story wasn’t just my own but an entire generation of kids who endure and come from the same lineage of the Korean American struggle.” Even so, the film is shaped by conversations between children and parents as they grapple towards a better understanding about how they view and experience history and culture. These conversations displayed on screen also serve to encourage the audience to also have the tough, yet necessary conversations with their own parents in order to better understand the events that have shaped them and their communities. 

Had these two films not been a part of the class curriculum, I, and many of my classmates may have never been able to learn about the different factors that led to the Riot’s unfolding, how the narratives were purposely crafted to shift blame onto different minority groups, and the lasting impact that these decisions continue to have on the perception of these groups. It cannot be denied that documentaries amplify the voices of those whose stories have gone unheard for so long and allow them to share their perspectives with the world. And if these stories were not shared, people would remain ignorant to events around the world that happen outside of their vicinity. Documentary films have the potential to be life altering as they offer audiences an opportunity to expand their knowledge about the subjects being documented.

Bring the films LIQUOR STORE DREAMS and K-TOWN '92, and filmmakers So Yun Um and Grace Lee to your campus and community.