This week, Toronto plays host anew to the Reel World Film Festival, a unique showcase of the work and voices of artists and filmmakers of racially diverse backgrounds.
Now in its 15th year, the festival — which runs at the Scotiabank Theatre —
offers features, documentaries, shorts, animation, industry panels, videos and other events.
The Origami’s MEI LING CHEN spoke with Jeanette Kong, of Ms. Chin Productions, about her latest directorial effort, Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China, which was chosen to screen at the festival’s opening gala and will be showing again this Sunday.
Born in Jamaica to Hakka Chinese parents, Kong often draws on her background to explore the untold stories of Chinese communities in the Caribbean. Her first film, The Chiney Shop, is a short about the history of Chinese shopkeepers in Jamaica and the contributions of their rise in Jamaican society. Her second film, Half, tells the story about one man’s search for identity as a biracial Chinese-Jamaican.
Finding Samuel Lowe follows the journey of American journalist and television executive Paula Williams Madison and her quest to fulfill her mother’s wish of finding her grandfather, and how she found herself in the process.
Q. How did you first meet Paula and what made you decide to tell her story?
Actually, Paula Madison found me. I had directed and produced a short documentary called The Chiney Shop about how the Chinese-owned grocery stores shaped and influenced Jamaican society. In May 2012, her cousin John Hall, who lives in Toronto, attended a screening at the Chinese Cultural Centre. It was being shown for Asian Heritage Month by the Toronto Public Library. He bought a copy of the DVD and sent it to her in LA. She watched it and then got in touch. At the time, I was actually shooting my second documentary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was preparing that documentary for the Toronto Hakka Conference. Paula and I agreed to meet there. This meeting started the train.
In terms of what made me decide to do it, after meeting and speaking with Paula, Elrick, and Howard, I was struck by the love and regard they had for their mother. It was also a compelling story, this search for their Chinese grandfather. Their family had the same background as mine, Hakka Chinese-Jamaican. By nature, I am a very cautious person and although, I didn’t know where it would lead, I knew it was an opportunity.
Q. What did you set out to achieve when you started making this film?
Well, as a documentary, I didn’t know exactly how it would unfold and what the narrative arc would be, but director of photography and associate producer Martin Proctor and I tried to cover as many elements as we could during the shooting.
Martin did an amazing job with setting up all shots and shooting on location. I made certain decisions that I wanted to highlight in the film; for example, the interviews with Paula’s Uncle Lowe Chow Woo and Cousin Luo Minjun, although they’re fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, I asked them to speak Hakka, which is the family’s mother tongue. When we went into post-production, that’s when editor Jane MacRae and I started to shape it. I had written a detailed, chronological treatment. We strayed from it almost completely, but at least we knew what the important elements were. Jane was instrumental in setting the style and pace. She had a lot of experience editing feature documentaries. I knew that for the narrative structure, I wanted it to unfold like a mystery and also a love story.
Q. What was it like for you to go on this journey with Paula and her family and how did it relate to your own identity as a Chinese-Jamaican?
It was a privilege to experience and bear witness to Paula and her family’s journey. It’s been extraordinary. I use the word extraordinary because of the openness and receptivity with which they’ve embraced each other. Many families would not respond to each other in the way that her family has. I think they understand profoundly how rare and fortunate they are to be reunited with each other.
Going on this journey hasn’t affected how I relate to my identity as a Chinese-Jamaican. What it did do was bring me closer to China. My notion of being Chinese was completely tied to my parents. My parents were my direct link to China. I had always thought that after my parents died, my ties to China would disappear. Paula and her family have embraced me as well and because of this project and our friendship, I’ve returned to China a few times. It’s made me closer to my father’s side of the family in Dongguan, China. I have a much more expanded view of my sense of being Chinese.
Q. What were the challenges of making this film?
Going along, I was concerned about getting all the shots and clips we needed to tell the story, but in the end, it was fine.
When she hired me to do the research, I wasn’t sure of what I would find. It helped immensely that I had some connections in the Chinese-Jamaican community and I spoke and understood some Hakka.
Q. I enjoyed how Paula brought people from all over the world together in her journey, but I was especially interested in the role Toronto played. Would you be able to expand a bit more on that?
Toronto has a pretty close-knit Jamaican-Chinese community due largely in part to community and cultural organizations like the Tsung Tsin Association of Ontario, the Caribbean Chinese Association, Fui Toong On Society, and many Jamaican alumni associations. We’re also fortunate to have in Toronto, many people like Patrick Lee, Carol Wong, and Keith Lowe (who is Paula’s cousin) who do an immense amount of work connecting people, organizing lectures, and events to keep the culture and community vibrant.
When Paula, Elrick, and Howard visited Toronto, they were at the conference with their cousin John Hall. They were welcomed with open arms and many people tried to help them and answer questions. I think it was the first time they were exposed to so many Chinese-Jamaicans and Hakka Chinese gathered in one place.
Q. Would you be able to provide an update on Paula and her family?
I’m happy to report that Paula and her family are in constant contact. She just did two screenings in Hong Kong which many of her family attended including her Uncle Chow Woo and Aunt Anita. I’ve been told that another reunion is already in the works.
Q. The film provided some history of Chinese people in Jamaica and I know your previous films have touched on that as well. Do you plan to make any future films on this subject?
Yes. My father Keith Kong was born in Jamaica. In 1930, my grandfather brought the family back to China. My Dad grew up there and then was able to leave in 1949 just before the Communists declared victory. On his journey back to Jamaica, he kept a journal. He visited Yokohama, Hawaii, San Francisco, and then took a train across the US to Miami, then flew to Kingston. I would like to a documentary based on his observations on this journey.
Q. What’s next for this film?
Next screening: ReelWorld Film Festival in Markham on Sunday, Mar. 8 at 3:30 pm at Cineplex Odeon First Markham Place. Paula has a book, also called Finding Samuel Lowe, coming out on April 14, 2015, published by Harper Collins.