Q&A with Writer/Producer Curtis Chin
Why did you decide to make this film?
I grew up with this case. Vincent was a bit older than me, but our families were friends. It was a very tight-knit Chinese community in Detroit, so I saw firsthand the impact his death had on Asian Americans. It really instilled in me the need to always stand up for your own civil rights.
As the 25th anniversary of Vincent’s death came around, I wanted to make sure that this milestone event in Asian American history was properly commemorated. So, through Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP), a non-profit on which I serve on the board, we organized fourteen townhalls around the country to discuss the case and its current relevance. We wanted to see how far our community had come and how far we needed to go.
You’ve assembled a great list of participants in the film. How did that come about?
Ninety percent of the people in the film I had worked with before or had a personal relationship with. When I first contacted them and told them what I was working on, they were all eager to sign on. For the younger activists, people like Sejal Patel and Yun-Sook Kim Navarre, the other producers and I sent out casting notices to various community list serves and our own personal networks. From there, I conducted prescreening interviews and selected the individuals who would eventually be interviewed by myself and the director. Obviously there were many more people we wanted to interview, but due to the crew’s limited time, we were not able to interview every one we wanted.
You interviewed Helen Zia. What was that like?
Helen was great. When I told her about the project, she was about to take off for China for several months. She said if we came to her home in Oakland she would be happy to talk to us for the film. Since she was the linchpin person in the case and its aftermath, we knew it was a top priority to get up there. Unfortunately, I was the only member of our film crew who could make it up there, so I borrowed the video camera, drove up to Oakland and filmed her myself. Her interview is actually my debut as a cinematographer! The effort was definitely worth it. Helen was a total pro and very generous with her time and wisdom. After our interview, I introduced her to my mom, who is living up in the Bay Area, and the two had a nice talk about the old days in Detroit. It was definitely the highlight in filming for me. I couldn’t imagine a film on Vincent Chin that did not include Helen Zia.
The Academy-Award nominated film “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” also looked at the historic case. What were your thoughts in making this new film?
If you haven’t seen “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”, you should definitely go out and do so. It really captures the case and what Detroit was like back then. Our film tries to contemporize the case and examine its relevance today. I knew there was no point in just re-editing their film and calling it a new documentary. That’s why there was the emphasis on finding other source material and archival footage. Otherwise, Vince Who? wouldn’t have added anything new to the discussion.
Is that how you got the footage of Vincent’s fiancée, Vicki?
Yes. The footage of Vicki was also another highlight for me. When Helen Zia saw it, she asked how we even found it. I did some research and found the video as part of the Vanderbilt University archives. Without that footage and the others that APAP purchased through that news service, we really would not have been able to retell the story in our own way. It was also great to see old footage of my family’s restaurant and people like Ben Wong. It brought back a lot of childhood memories.
What was it like going back to Detroit?
I’m from there, so it’s always a trip filled with mixed emotions. I have fond memories of my childhood there, but I am also sad that the city has fallen on even harder times. In terms of our filming, it was great to spend time with both Roland and Jim. They shared a lot of anecdotes about the case and about the organizing back then. I really learned a lot from them. I’m so glad that we’ve remained friends and have had the chance to see them back in Detroit every time I go back.
Unfortunately, due to the crew’s limited time, we were only able to film for less than a day. If I had to do things over again, I would have insisted that we spend more time there and that we had gone back to Detroit earlier in the filming rather than at the very end. I think we did a huge disservice by not spending more time there and interviewing everyone available. I guess that’s the challenge of independent filmmaking.
How did you find the composer?
Stephen Pranoto is a longtime friend and he did a fabulous job. Once we heard his music, that was the first sign that we actually had a potential movie. Up until that time, the film’s content was limited to the footage from the townhalls rmixed with the crew’s recycled footage that didn’t really speak to the Vincent Chin case. The music really inspired us to work harder, to go get new material and to really flesh out the story.
Can you explain your distribution plan?
Originally, the film was scheduled to air on Imaginasian TV. Their VP of Programming, David Chiu, loved the idea when we pitched it to him. They even co-sponsored the New York and Los Angeles townhalls. However, by the time we had a version that was good enough to air, the network had scaled back their original programming. We briefly pursued the film festival route, but by the time we had a cut that was in good enough shape, our focus shifted to the education market. The Organizations for Chinese Americans which had helped fund the film, screened an excerpt at their conference in DC in 2008. From there, more than a dozen schools booked the film for the following school year. From there, it just snowballed. Plus, I used my university contacts, and developed many new ones, to further promote Vincent Who? I would definitely say that the film has had a strong word-of-mouth and has especially resonated with young people. While it took a little while to get the film in good enough shape, eventually, we did and the audience came following.
Any updates on the Vincent Chin case and the unpaid settlement?
Many of the original team, including Helen Zia and lawyers Roland Hwang and Jim Shimoura, are still working on the case and they definitely need the community’s support. Through their organization in Detroit, American Citizens for Justice, which grew out of the Vincent Chin case, they continue to pursue the unpaid judgment to the Chin estate. We have donated an unlimited number of copies of the film to them to help support their cause. If you purchase copies of the film through us at blacklava (www.blacklava.net), a portion of the proceeds goes toward their work. There is still work to be done and they definitely need the help of the community.
Any advice for other first-time documentary filmmakers?
My biggest advice is to work your butt of and turn over every stone possible. You need to be a bigger expert on the film’s subject than anyone else. That means digging up archival footage when you didn’t even know it existed. That means interviewing twice as many people as you originally planned. You never know what someone might say or how they might lead you to do anything person to interview. That means speaking to everyone you can about this subject and it means going out there and promoting the heck out of your film project. And once you can say that, then you have the perspective and the materials to make that film.