SEARCHING FOR ASIAN AMERICA: A Conversation with Series Producer Donald Young
by Jean Cheng
NAATA has produced its first documentary series, SEARCHING FOR ASIAN AMERICA, which is slated for PBS broadcast in May 2004. This three-part series (THE GOVERNOR, OKLAHOMA HOME AND ANGRY LITTLE ASIAN GIRL) is hosted by Ann Curry from NBC's "Today" Show, and offers intimate profiles of individuals and communities from across the country.
Where did the inspiration for the series come from?
The original idea for the series came from Janice Sakamoto, back in 1998. She thought NAATA ought to produce a really ambitious series, bringing veteran producers of the Asian American community together to portray a wide range of Asian American experiences across the country. She wanted something big and comprehensive, along the lines of EYES ON THE PRIZE or CHICANO! .
Over time, our ideas became a lot more modest. We still wanted to do something that would translate to a wide audience, but instead of a comprehensive series, we wanted to complement what other producers were already doing. Instead of creating an issue-driven documentary, for example, we decided to focus on small, intimate portraits of individuals.
We also wanted to work with young producers and give them an opportunity to create work that could air nationally. And we wanted to make use of new technologies like the small digital video cameras and editing systems like Final Cut Pro. Part of the experiment was to produce a high-quality piece as efficiently and affordably as possible with up-and-coming producers.
Fortunately, David Hosley of KVIE/Sacramento was also interested in a lot of these issues and became a key advisor and collaborator. He brought KVIE on as a co-producer, they provided a lot of production support, played an important role in shaping and implementing the series launch, -and co-presented the series to PBS this year. We are also grateful for the funding that came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Diversity Fund.
How did the technology change your approach or affect your process?
Having a smaller camera and a small crew enabled us to spend more time with people and not be as obtrusive to their lives. Initially we wanted to use the technology to do things in a new and fresh way, but in the end, we used the cameras like anybody else would for the interview portions, mostly because we wanted to focus on the stories and not have the technology get in the way. But for the verité footage, we were able to get closer and spend time with people without necessarily disrupting them, so I hope we were able to get a better result with a more intimate feel.
Tell me how you found the stories.
We wanted at least one of the stories to be about someone on the national stage, who had that level of prominence. We considered lots of possibilities - authors, entertainers - but featuring Gov. Locke in one of our segments ("The Governor") was an obvious choice in many ways. It's rare to have a top Asian American politician, but Locke was elected to office by a white majority. At the time, the demographics of Washington State were very close to those of the country as a whole. We were really intrigued by that - how did he achieve that level of success? For us it was a key story that would resonate to a larger viewing audience. Also, his story was very fresh - most people might have heard about him but didn't know the details of his great success.
We found the doctors' story ("Oklahoma Home") in FILIPINAS magazine, which had reprinted a TULSA WORLD story. We were drawn to it because it was about strangers in a strange land. These immigrants were literally put in the middle of the country, so we thought the dynamics of that community would be very interesting. Also, the fact that they're doctors - they're serving the community and are very valuable to that community, yet they are outsiders who are different. What does that interplay look like, and how do the doctors themselves negotiate that dynamic?
We knew of Lela Lee's work as an actress and we had seen her Angry Little Asian Girl videos. Throughout the years, I was intrigued by how she'd become a phenomenon. Through our segment "Angry Little Asian Girl," we wanted to explore that - see what it was about her art that resonated with a lot of different kinds of people.