What was it that first attracted you to the story of Cambodian teens, the children of refugees, in Lowell, MA?
I’m half Asian myself – and though I’m Chinese rather than Cambodian, my background did inspire me to learn about new Asian communities in the greater Boston area. When I discovered that there was a huge Cambodian community in Lowell – the 3rd largest Cambodian city in the world, after Phnom Penh and Long Beach, CA – I wanted to know more. My first film, Once Removed, told the story of my trip to China to meet my mother’s family, and learn about their role in China’s complicated political history. That film examines how people remember, forget, and recover from traumatic events like the Cultural Revolution. So it was a natural extension for me to explore how Cambodian refugees in America recover from the Khmer Rouge period. I was especially interested in teens, the next generation, because they are still in formation and have so many important choices to make.
How did you find these three particular students?
I began by following the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, which uses traditional Cambodian culture to help its young members become successful Americans. At first I thought my film was about primarily about the dance troupe – but over time, I got drawn into the lives of three of the older, more charismatic dancers: Linda, Sochenda, and Samnang. All three had older brothers and sisters who had fallen into some of the pitfalls of urban adolescence – drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, gang involvement – but these three teens were determined to do better than their siblings had. They all have a certain spark which told me they would be amazing on film.
There is much discussion in the film of the generational clash between the parents, who are refugees, and their children, who have lived most of their lives in America. Did this present any particular problems for filming?
I have had parents and young people from all kinds of backgrounds – Ghanian, Puerto Rican, Filipino – come up to me after screenings and tell me that the intergenerational issues in Monkey Dance resonated with their own families’ experience. When I started making the film, I related more to the teens in the story. But over the years of filming, I became a parent myself, and got more and more interested in the parents’ perspective. I finally got a translator and interviewed them on camera (they had been pretty reticent before, partly due to language issues), and was blown away by how articulate and poetic they were about the cultural struggles they had with their children. I now feel that this conflict is the heart of the film’s story – especially with everything the parents have been through to escape terror and genocide, and make it to America to deliver this opportunity to their children.
You allowed Sam, Linda and Sochenda to videotape some of their own experiences. Why was it important to you that they be so candid?
Capturing and communicating an authentic voice is the most important thing to me in my films. That’s why I do all the shooting myself, with a crew of one, and even give my subjects videocameras to film their own lives. Sometimes I sacrifice “production values” a bit in order to be close to that reality – to give the audiences an experience of what it really feels like to be a first-generation American teen growing up in the city. I really like what the teens’ footage contributes to Monkey Dance – and it shows how they do behave differently when I’m not around – and only wish it could’ve been a larger part of the film.
How did the project, and you relationship with the kids and their families, evolve over the almost four years you spent shooting footage?
I began shooting Monkey Dance with the idea of making it from a solely teen perspective – I planned to have no adult interviews, just to leave the teachers, parents, and bosses far off in the distance as I remember experiencing adolescence myself. But over the years of filming, I came to realize that what was at stake for these kids was what their parents had been through to escape terror and genocide, and make it to America to deliver this opportunity to their children – an opportunity that was also fraught with risks and dangers. I also became a parent myself during the process, and decided to interview the parents in the film and put the intergenerational conflict at the center of the story. Ultimately, MONKEY DANCE is about three teens trying to make good on their parents’ dreams for them.
You spend a considerable amount of time on the idea of dance, both traditional and modern. Why is dance so important to these three students?
Linda, Sochenda, and Samnang are exceptional teens. They manage to avoid the pitfalls that many Cambodian-American young people, including their older siblings, fall into: drugs, gang membership, teen pregnancy, domestic violence. I feel that one of the biggest factors in their success is their involvement with the Angkor Dance Troupe. This amazing organization preserves one of the cornerstones of Cambodian culture that was nearly obliterated during the Cambodian genocide, while also helping kids in America stay off the street and find a path to success. The three teens in MONKEY DANCE manage to combine hip-hop with traditional Cambodian dance to forge their own, very individual performance identity. Dance gives them self-confidence, a sense of the beauty of their own culture, a drive to contribute something to society. It helps them navigate the minefields of urban adolescence. Besides, the costumes and moves are gorgeous to watch and it was a pleasure to film!
One of the highlights of Monkey Dance is when Linda and her family go to Cambodia. What was filming this particular event in Linda’s life like for you, and how did it influence the final project?
Filming Linda’s family’s trip to Cambodia was definitely one of the highlights of making Monkey Dance. I speak four languages, but none of them are Khmer, so it was my first experience travelling to a country where I could not communicate verbally at all. Fortunately, Linda and her father were my guides (along with a translator) – and the friends and family we met their were incredibly warm and hospitable despite very difficult, often impoverished lives. It was amazing to me to watch the transformation of Linda from a “spoiled American girl” who didn’t realize what she had back home, to a more mature young woman with a much broader perspective. She comes to understand not only what she has but what her life lacks that she sees in Cambodia. At one point in the film she makes the realization that if it hadn’t been for the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot period, her parents’ lives would have been more peaceful and happy staying in Cambodia. This is a very sophisticated epiphany, and one which reveals itself through the events in her life during Monkey Dance.
What do you want viewers to take away from Monkey Dance?
I hope that young viewers find Monkey Dance inspiring – that even when all the cards seem stacked against them, they can find their own path to success. I hope it helps teens think twice about the impact of the choices, large and small, they make every day in their lives. I hope the film helps each of us value our unique cultures, and the ways we can combine those cultures to contribute to the diverse society that is the United States. And lastly, I hope Monkey Dance touches viewers as a moving story about human resilience in the face of horrific events like genocide and civil war.
Interview conducted in February 2006 by Donna Hardwick of American Public Television.