Q&A with Grace Lee

Editor’s Update (June 26, 2014): American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs premieres on national TV Monday, June 30 on PBS.

Grace Lee may be a common name, but Grace Lee the filmmaker—and the work that she’s produced over the years—is anything but common. This year’s CAAMFest Filmmaker Spotlight is on Lee. From witty indie features like American Zombie to mockumentaries like Janeane from Des Moines, to the deeply expansive documentary American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Lee has made her mark. We sat down for an interview at CAAMFest 2014, shortly before the Centerpiece screening of her latest documentary on the 98 year-old activist.

Kar Yin Tham

When did you meet Grace Lee Boggs?
I first met Grace Lee Boggs 14 years ago. I can’t say I was making this film for 14 years, but the idea was there from when I first met her.

You met her because of the Grace Lee Project?
Yes. And I thought, yes, she could answer all these questions about being Grace Lee but there’s a whole other side of the story there that I need to dig into. It was compelling and I was taken by her, taken by Detroit, taken by the people I met there. And I was shocked that no one was doing it.

Grace Lee Boggs_Leanne Koh
Grace Lee Boggs (foreground) with director Grace Lee on Sunday, March 16th, 2014 at the Castro Theatre. Photo by Leanne Koh.

Do you feel like you’ve changed since making this film, or through interacting with Grace?
Yes, definitely. We got to experience evolution making the film. When I first met her, I was still in film school. Since then, I made several films, I got married, I had a child. I also got to experience Grace getting older and to see people in the film evolve. Julia Putnam, who was the first volunteer of Detroit Summer at age 16, grew the Boggs school from an idea when we first filmed to actually opening the school last fall was amazing just to see how that happened.

You really need time to do that. So on the one hand, you cursed time because you really wanted to get the film done—it was something hanging over us. But to actually see all this stuff happen makes it a richer film.

Being married and having a child, how has that affected your filmmaking?
It’s challenging. I’m an independent filmmaker and when I had my son, I envied the women who could go back to a job after maternity leave. I didn’t have that because it was too open ended. Financially, it just made more sense for me to take care of my son full time before he went to pre-school. And just trying to balance all that and the demands it takes to be creative was hard. But I’m lucky that I have a very flexible and supportive husband, and a community around me that helps.

Does having a son inspire you in a different way?
It actually inspired the Grace Lee Boggs film because he was one year-old and I was full-time caretaking, not doing any kind of film work. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to get into next because I was so desperate to make something. But I wanted to sink my teeth into something meaningful because these films take so much time and I don’t have time. So, I only want to work on stuff that I love with people that I love. There’s too much wasted time otherwise. I decided to work on the Grace Lee Boggs film not just because I knew it would be a challenge but also because I wanted my son to know who she is. I would have loved to know who Grace Lee Boggs was when I was younger.

Where do you think you’ll go from here?
I’m not sure. All the projects I’ve generated myself have been from being very curious about one topic, or a person, or a question. I don’t know what that next question is.  But it has to really grab me because documentaries take so long and is so labor intensive, I need to make sure that it’s the right one.

Do you think you’ll go back to narratives?
I’m really feeling the itch to do it. There’s something really exciting about documentaries because you don’t really know what it is (before it’s finished). But then it’s also really frustrating because you can’t really control it. That’s why I try to go back and forth between narratives and documentaries. I get really fed up about the inability to control what people are saying and then I just really want to write a script. It’s like exercising different parts of your brain. I need both.

What are you most excited about moving forward?
Having made a few films, I feel more comfortable about just tackling stuff. I don’t really know what I’m going to do next, but I’m okay with that. Maybe I’m just more comfortable with not knowing what it is, but knowing that once I decide, it’ll be fine because it’s been fine in the past. Maybe it’s just part of being older, I don’t really care what people think. Time is limited to make these kinds things so I just want to do stuff that I really care about. It’s not worth it otherwise, it’s too stressful. I used to worry a lot more about what my next project was. Doing this Grace Lee Boggs film and seeing how she looks at time made me less anxious about time. She talks about how the older she gets, the more she sees time in terms of centuries instead of decades. She really is like Yoda in that way.

Are identity questions still present for you?
I think so because identity questions are still present for so many people in America right now and I don’t exist outside of my environment. Yes, The Grace Lee Project was about an identity issue. I don’t always have to make a film about identity issues but I’m always drawn to it because they’re internal struggles that people have. I’m always interested in identity because it’s always changing and there’s such a diversity of ways to think about it. The Grace Lee Project is still an evergreen film because it’s still happening like the model minority, even though it was made over 10 years ago.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A version of this interview appears at Comcast XFinity Asia.