In the following America ReFramed UNFILTERED contribution, filmmaker Yu Gu discusses the cultural questions she wrestled with to disrupt the hero/villain framework.
When my co-director Scott Drucker contacted me about Arthur, all I knew about him was that he was winning on Jeopardy! using aggressive “badass” methods. His performance on the show struck a cultural nerve; he was polarizing to say the least. Then, I read one of his early articles, Your Princess is in Another Castle, and was struck by his personal approach to combating misogyny and rape culture. He wanted to liberate himself from the shackles of toxic masculinity and he did so by calling out fellow men like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian—men who justified their violence with misogyny.
From then on, we knew that the film we wanted to make was not going to be a typical hero’s journey.
As a culture, we have an obsession with the notion of the hero, most often a man. The hero is handsome, brave and resourceful; and, in America, the consummate “good guy” is also traditionally white. In folklorist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, he defines the hero as someone who ventures outside of the confines of society and through trials and tribulations, gains knowledge which helps his community. In real life, anyone who has fought darkness will end up bruised and broken. In real life, not everyone’s story conforms to such a limiting ethnocentric formula. From the day Arthur was born in America, society wanted to erase him – you have no right to speak, no right to exist; this formed a deep and insidious trauma. We all internalize this hatred to varying degrees, but only a few Asian Americans like Arthur fight back. This is why the notion of the “anithero” attracts me. Antiheroes embody both dark and light; they are real as you and I—not mythological figures.
I can think of a handful of documentaries that feature unconventional antihero characters – The Imposter, American Movie, Crumb. Though they’re all outsiders, they’re also all white. In our documentary, Arthur is an Asian American male nerd, an outcast among outcasts. Many communities of color in America don’t feel comfortable “airing their dirty laundry” to the majority. In a climate of what author Viet Thanh Nguyen calls narrative scarcity of minority stories, we want to look strong not more vulnerable. But why would we seek legitimacy based on the very hierarchy that oppresses us? By centering the narrative around Arthur’s hopes and dreams, his ideals and flaws, as well his relationships with his family and partner, we are breaking the model minority myth imposed by a white majority and willingly accepted by many Asian Americans.
Our mentor and executive producer Mark Harris’ favorite quote is by Akira Kurosawa, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” We were inspired by Arthur, but we also documented the human cost of his effort. As we worked with our editor Christopher Yogi, we were very conscious that we were walking a tightrope in fleshing out Arthur as an antihero. One misstep in either direction would take the film into a staid black/white paradigm. We asked ourselves, is it possible to celebrate someone without putting them on a pedestal? Is it possible to hold someone accountable for their actions without dismissing their entire being? Arthur’s attempt to influence the world online and offline, to engage in social justice discussions, to make his voice heard, meant that he had less time and energy to communicate with those closest to him. He was angry, hurt by his father who wanted him to obey the rules of a patriarchal lineage as the first-born son of an Asian immigrant family. Online trolls and haters saw this anger as his weakness and took full advantage.
In the edit room, rather than setting up a question and then answering it, we tried to lay out a widening gyre linking personal and societal enigmas. As a filmmaker who is an Asian American woman, like Arthur, I’ve said yes to constant “jeopardy.” In many ways, we share the mine-laden path of “being different and breaking rules.” Do I have the strength to keep fighting society’s prejudices based on my genetic makeup and my gender? Will this industry consume me? Or will I overcome? I knew the film came into its own when, as I watched the cut, I felt the dull ache of these unanswerable questions.
We as a community need stories that go beyond the framework of hero and villain. It’s not enough to slap an Asian face on the next action-hero or Cinderella ingénue. We need stories that are not afraid of depicting full human beings in all their complexity and moral ambiguity.
During the festival run of this documentary, we received a lot of positive feedback from disparate audiences. The ones who moved me the most were the young Asian American men and women who approached us and said, “This was like watching a movie of my life.” There is no happy ending and it’s not about the “good guys” winning in the end. I did see, however, an inarticulate thirst had been quenched inside them. And that look on their faces, a grateful yet knowing look, was enough to inspire me to keep saying yes to those jeopardies.
Who is Arthur Chu? has its national premiere: May 22, 2018 @ 8p ET (East) and 9p PT (West) on WORLD Channel’s America ReFramed. Streaming will begin the day after the broadcast (from May 23rd to June 21st) on worldchannel.org and all station-branded PBS platforms including PBS.org, and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.
Yu Gu is a filmmaker born in Chongqing, China and raised in Vancouver, Canada. She works in both narrative and documentary film, using a lyrical approach to explore themes of identity, migration and artistic freedom. Yu’s hyrbid documentary A Moth in Spring premiered at Hot Docs International Film Festival and was licensed and distributed by HBO. Her feature documentary films, Who is Arthur Chu? and A Woman’s Work are supported by the Center for Asian-American Media, Sundance Institute, ITVS, Tribeca Film Institute, Firelight Media and Film Independent’s Fast Track. In collaboration with artist Gu Xiong and Academy Award-winner Mark J. Harris, Yu is developing Interior Migrations, a multi-platform project documenting the memories of migrant workers in Canada. Yu received her MFA in film production from the University of Southern California. She also works as an editor, recently completing music videos for Jewel and The Walk, a short film for HBO.