Interview with Filmmaker Kathy Huang
Veverka Bros. caught up with documentary producer/director Kathy Huang in Beijing, and
Jesse Veverka asked the filmmaker about her background and her work.
I’m a big fan of your work because you have a knack for finding topics that are off people’s radar and exploring them from a very humanistic angle. How did you first get into filmmaking?
I wasn’t one of those people who knew they were destined for filmmaking right out of college. I joined Teach For America after graduating and I went down to southern Texas, right along the US-Mexico border to teach high school students world geography. During my third year of teaching, I started to make a documentary called Scribble’s Creations about one of my students who had dropped out of school and was about to have a baby with his girlfriend. It was that experience that really drove me to want to do documentary filmmaking. I was really excited by the process-perhaps even more so than the final product.
Can you expand on that?
It was the ability to embed myself in a new community, to learn about an entirely different way of life and also to see the changes it brought in my student’s life; it started to make me think about the power of filmmaking in general.
You got an M.A. in Documentary Film at Stanford and then you went to work in the film industry. How did you find that experience?
I spent five years working in L.A. on various projects: everything from other indie docs to reality TV series or TV docu-series. Working in the reality world really demoralized me, and I started to question why I left teaching. I remember saying to one of my friends, “I think I’ll just go back and be a high school teacher again,” and he said, “Are you crazy? You just paid all that money for grad school!”
I thought long and hard about it; what had originally drawn me to filmmaking was the process and I had lost that. Once you start working in the biz, it becomes less about that sense of adventure, of the unknown, of learning about and collaborating with different communities. It becomes more about showmanship, egos, and forced storylines. I started to lose interest. It wasn’t where my heart was and I decided that if I didn’t want to drop out of the field all together I had to continue doing what had driven me to film in the first place.
So that’s what spawned your first feature film, Tales of the Waria (2011). It’s an amazing look into the world of transgender women in Indonesia, known as warias. What drew you to the topic?
I think we all know about the kathoeys or “ladyboys” of Thailand, but very few people know about what goes on in Indonesia, a Muslim society. I think filmmakers are always on the lookout for stories that embody some sort of inherent conflict and for me this was a wonderful story to tell because A) I didn’t know anything about it and B) I really felt it was something that could enlighten people, especially Americans, who, at that time, were really mired in this idea of Islam being very repressive.
This is such a rich topic that can’t be steered to a simple conclusion. How did that affect the film’s reception?
If you look at the top-ranked documentary films on Netflix or Hulu there are all these social issue films about food, about energy, about marijuana and so on. Americans in general don’t tune into docs to watch them as art-they tune in to learn something, to get a point of view. I think that’s why Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are so popular; that kind of didactic documentary is easier for people to digest because at the end they walk away knowing what to think.
When you create documentaries like the ones you or I are trying to do, which are a little bit more ambiguous and maybe document a phenomenon or a portrait of a community, people don’t always know what to take from them. I think there have been people who have watched my film and are disappointed because they assume that they are going to come in and watch these transgender women harangued and abused by the Muslim community around them. Instead, you see something a little bit more complicated: a society where warias are both accepted and marginalized. People don’t always know how to interpret that; it’s so multi-layered, it’s not as simple as just, “Islam is bad” or “Islam is good.”
In total you spent about three years with the warias. How did making the film affect your relationship with your subjects?
I accompanied my subjects through the ups and downs of their lives. They also saw me go through my own share of hardships. I don’t keep my subjects at an arm’s length-I spend time with them outside of filming. I know this can be a big no-no among filmmakers, but I involve my subjects in all stages of the filmmaking, from the shooting to the editing. I think the final result is a more intimate and honest film.
Are there any filmmakers whose work you particularly admire?
I love watching the work of James Longley, Kim Longinotto, and Leonard Retel Helmrich. I feel like they’ve each found that perfect middle ground between respecting documentary film as an art form and also using it to convey experiences that will enlighten audiences.
You mostly work alone, what do you find that experience like?
A lot of people’s eyes widen when they hear that I shoot by myself. They say, “That’s so much work,” particularly in America, where film sets have so many people bouncing around. I think going into a community that you aren’t a part of by yourself is really invaluable; you don’t come in as this big intrusive crew causing a scene wherever you go. I’m always striving for intimacy and authenticity, and I feel like going in by myself helps me get closer to those things.
There aren’t many women in film and there certainly are not many like you, who do their own camera work. Why?
I know. That’s very strange to me. It seems like a lot of women whom I’ve encountered have gone by default into the producer’s or the editor’s position. Who knows what theories are behind that. It could be that it’s less physical-some women have told me that they don’t want to lug a camera around. But I also think it’s because external forces don’t encourage, and even actively discourage, them to try their hand at shooting. There’s a lot of bravado among directors of photography that can be off-putting to women (or at least to me!). And also expectations play a lot into it: if no one in the industry expects you to shoot, you can find yourself questioning your own abilities.
So here you are in Beijing. What brings you to China?
Well, part of the reason is that I want to work on projects in China, and I am particularly interested in all the activity that is happening among African traders in Guangzhou. Several other filmmakers have already started tackling the complicated issues surrounding that community and I think there is more work that can be done. I was lucky enough to be able to get some preproduction funding, so it’s this amazing opportunity to go down there and do what I love the most, which, in this case, will be to live among the African traders and to see if there is any interest on their part to work on something together.
That sounds fascinating; we’ll certainly be looking forward to it!