This is a different film than the one I originally set out to make. In 1999, I saw an article about a traditional Cambodian dance troupe
that had gotten a grant to work with Lowell Police Department and Big Brother/Big Sister to try to keep kids out of gangs using traditional culture. That intrigued me, so I called up the Angkor Dance Troupe and started getting to know them. At that time, I thought: I’m going to make a film about what it means to be a young person in this community, with everything that’s going on – drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy and STDs, and all the violence that’s really common in an urban setting like Lowell.
I work to capture an authentic voice in my films. I really wanted to portray what it feels like to be a teenager – not just a first-generation immigrant teenager, but any teenager. My idea was not to interview any adults – no teachers, no parents, no dance masters – just the kids. That’s why I also gave the three teens each a small video camera, so they could record their own lives. I integrated what they shot into the film, and I think it brings a different kind of intimacy to the story. My intention was to make a film about growing up in America and how tough it can be to make the right choices – and how this dance troupe was lending a hand.
I started out filming a lot with the dance troupe – rehearsals, performance tours, team-building workshops. Then, I started to focus on three older kids in the troupe – Linda, Sochenda and Sam – and got interested in the rest of their lives as well. I got drawn into the stories of their part-time jobs, their succession of boyfriends and girlfriends, gymnastics and dances and high school life, the cars that they bought, fixed up – and crashed – and everything else.
I filmed for nearly four years, and as time passed, my relationship with the kids changed. I became a parent myself, and I gradually became more interested in interviewing the kids’ parents. I’d known them over the years, but since I don’t speak Khmer, I had never talked with them in depth, in their own language. I got a translator and we sat down and started talking about the long hours they worked in the nearby electronics factories; about their struggles as parents of American teenagers; and finally, about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. That was, of course, a central moment in their lives – and the reason they had come to America. We talked about their lives as refugees, what they had hoped to find in America, and what they dreamed of for their children.
I was just blown away. These kids’ parents had survived genocide – suffered through torture and murder and starvation. They had lost most of their families and had run through the jungles, avoided landmines, and sat festering in refugee camps for years. Then finally the U.S. accepted them and they came to this place where they had nothing. They spoke no English when they came – most could barely read or write. They knew nobody, and understood very little about American society. Most of them had lived as rice farmers before they arrived.
America wasn’t where they wanted to be, but all the parents told me – every one of them – that they came because they hoped to give a better life to their children. I realized that this was what was at stake for Linda, Sam, and Sochenda. What made them different from teens growing up in middle-class America, or even from children of other immigrants, was what their parents had been through to give them this life.
Their parents had ended up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a lot of crime and gangs and other problems. They got low-paying factory jobs, and worked mind-numbing double shifts to provide opportunities for their children. So now their kids do have a lot of opportunities and choices – America is all about choice – but in a city like Lowell, many of those choices are dangerous ones. The older siblings of Linda, Sam, and Sochenda all went down paths that their parents aren’t really proud of. Linda’s sister murdered an abusive boyfriend and is serving an 18-year prison sentence. Sam’s two older brothers were kicked out of high school for their involvement with gangs and drugs. Sochenda’s unemployed brother was spending more time fixing up his car than looking for a job.
When I finally began editing all this material, I found myself asking: What are Linda, Sam, and Sochenda going to do with these opportunities for which their parents had sacrificed so much? Are they going to squander them the way their older siblings had, or are they going to be different? In the end, that’s the heart of the story in Monkey Dance: not just their lives as teens, right now, but what will become of their future and their parents’ hopes for them?
The film comes back around to the Angkor Dance Troupe, because I think it plays a key role in helping these kids make the right choices. It links them to their parents’ culture, even at time when many kids their age reject a lot of Cambodian tradition as irrelevant to their lives in America. The troupe connects them to the past, but it also gives them a way to become more successful Americans, through gaining confidence and recognition as performers.
This project got closer and closer to my heart as I got further along in the process. I shot most of the film myself as a one-person crew – riding along in speedy cars, waiting around in supermarket parking lots after hours, eating delicious homemade Cambodian food with the families. I think we related partly because of my own Asian background – though I’m such a mix myself that I’m not sure what they saw of that.
My father is Italian-American and my mother is Chinese-American. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Ohio, where my family ran a roadside tourist attraction – actually a Native American historical site. I guess that made me curious about displacement, about people who find themselves for some historical or political reason in another place. My mother’s family ended up in America because of the Communist-Nationalist civil war in China (the subject of my first film, Once Removed). I grew up feeling linked in some way to Chinese-American, Italian-American, and Native American culture. I lived for a time in Latin America, and now I’m married to a Dutchman and our daughter is growing up bilingual. So my life experiences have also drawn me to stories of cultural fusion and mixing.
In Linda, Sam, and Sochenda, I saw an amazing mix of traditional Cambodian culture, White mainstream culture, and Black hip-hop culture. Their spirited synchronization of these elements is part of what enabled these three to overcome difficult childhoods to become strong, successful adults. I would like to co-ordinate the national broadcast of Monkey Dance with activities among local teen support groups, violence prevention programs, cultural organizations, and youth-oriented arts and media programs. I hope that this story will inspire young people as they make difficult choices in their lives.
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