Ninth Floor – Campus Racism Protests in 1969
NINTH FLOOR is a look back at the 1969 Sir George Williams Affair in Montreal, Canada. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement and racial turmoil in the U.S. and Canada, students at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) accused a professor of anti-Black racism. The protests, primarily by Black students of West Indies origin, culminated in a takeover of the computer science labs on the ninth floor of the Henry Hall building, and ended in a mysterious fire of unknown origin, police brutality, and trauma for the survivors. NINTH FLOOR is a very timely documentary in this time of racial unrest, and is directed by veteran helmer Mina Shum (DOUBLE HAPPINESS, SFIAAFF 1995; LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS AND PROSPERITY, SFIAAFF 2003). She was gracious enough to answer a few questions by email.
I was really moved by your film – which is such a departure from your previous narrative feature work. 2014 was the 45th anniversary of the Sir George Williams Affair. How did you get involved in this documentary? How was the Affair prominent in your knowledge prior to making the film?
About three years ago, producer Selwyn Jacob and I had a meeting and he told me the nuts and bolts of the event. I had no knowledge of the event prior to this meeting and that really bothered me. I was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a baby, I grew up with mandated multiculturalism: why didn’t I know about this? After my meeting with Selwyn, I was hooked by two key elements: that these outsiders had the courage to actually declare racism. So raw; so bold. That seemed very brave to me. Plus, they were under surveillance because of the color of their skin. What better visual metaphor is there for racism then surveillance, for me it speaks to the idea of “how we see and why we judge.”
Mandated multiculturalism! Another reason to move to Canada. How did the subject matter resonate for you as an Asian Canadian woman? Did you see any links with the themes of your other films?
I’m being judged all the time. I’m a short, Asian Canadian woman, I can’t possibly be the writer/director, can I? The other day, I was standing next a male colleague and when we were greeted by the male receptionist for a meeting, the receptionist didn’t even look at me, but spoke to my male colleague the entire time. I must credit Aziz Ansari’s Master of None for making me acutely aware of this very common occurrence. So, yeah, does the subject of being judged, watched, excluded, resonate with me – hell yes.
I think all my films question the norms in our society, how we take on the encoding prescribed to us and how that prevents us from being true to ourselves. I hope my work inspires audiences to question those norms and break free from them.
And by breaking free of other’s ideas of who we should be, we might actually change the way society is. Clearly, I’m not a politician, I’m a storyteller.
But I’ve personally seen how the slightest personal shift can creates waves of positive change in the bigger picture.
Yes, Rodney John says in your film, “As a minority we’re constantly struggling with the majority’s opinion of who we are.” Marginalization and devaluation are really pervasive experiences for Asian Americans too. I always think of CAAMFest as an opportunity to create a home for each other, to give ourselves and our stories emotional space and respect.
Yes, Asian Americans are devalued in our own unique and challenging ways (see the OSCARS and the absence of our faces in the buzzy Hollywood “diversity” headlines) but I also see that we all, everyone, even that European man, has felt marginalization and devaluing from his own perspective. If we see that we can all be vulnerable, I think that’s a good start. I think CAAMFEST invites that kind of conversation.
All suffering is a crisis in connection and belonging, indeed. One can only hope our individual and communal sufferings can make us more empathic to the suffering of others. (And not just “Make America Hate Again”, to borrow and turn a phrase.) I wrote about the recent anti-Asian Oscar controversy here. I always notice, during CAAMFest, an opening to the experiences of others, the lives of others. Particularly when the viewer’s experience is mediated by a compassionate and thoughtful director such as yourself. Interestingly, both films that caught my eye early on this year were directed by Asian Canadian women (the other was EVERYTHING WILL BE by Julia Kwan, whom I interviewed in my last post.)
I really liked your cinematographic techniques that hinted at the police surveillance in the Affair, and your exploration of the way the Canadian Mounties infiltrated and tried to destroy racial movements, very similar to Cointelpro in the U.S. Have there been any apologies or reparations for these insidious government actions in Canada? Or is it buried history?
There have been no apologies as such, but the fact that this film was made by our government film agency, the National Film Board and involves a Senator [note: Protestor Anne Cools later became Canada’s first Black senator] and that we were able to film quite openly on the campus where the events occurred, that gives me hope that we are all facing our fears. I just got a call that the film is screening for the Senate, that’s a big deal, that says maybe this film is reaching those in power. The film premiered Fall of 2015, so it’s still early days for this movie’s reach.
As you know, there have been widespread protests about racism across the U.S. this last year. I half-joke that I minored in protest myself in college – my peers and I had a very turbulent freshman year at Brown in 1984-5, primarily regarding racism and diversity issues as well. A lot of students have been and are both mobilized and traumatized by these issues of identity, representation and belonging, even without the extensive violence that occurred in 1969. Do you have a history of protests and political activism yourself?
I was saved by the Punk Rock movement of the early 80’s, when the Clash sang “Stay Free”, I listened. I learned to question everything as a teenager (my poor parents!). And I still do. But I’m not on the front lines. I’ve participated in a few protests but mostly my activism is activism of the heart. As a storyteller, I see personal liberation as a microcosm for larger issues. So it starts with personal shifts; I hope my stories activate us personally. My hopes for this Senate screening are that some of those in power are so emotionally affected by the film that they take inclusion up as their personal cause. I’m not expecting that there’s going to be political change immediately. I believe change happens with individuals impassioned. My job is to invite individuals to their own liberation and maybe they will seek that for others.
This is a somewhat unusual selection for CAAMFest. I can’t recall another film primarily about anti-Black racism and protests at the Fest before. I think it’s so important for CAAM’s mission of inclusion. Also, there has been both solidarity in the U.S. between Blacks and Asians in the Black Lives Matter movement, and also tension, for example in the Peter Liang-Akai Gurley shooting. What were the challenges and perspectives of being an Asian Canadian woman telling this particular story? Did you feel any particular tension or demand for your attention? I found myself wondering if this might be a prelude for a documentary or narrative about Black-Asian relations, which I think is sorely needed. Would you consider that?
Anytime I make a film, there is always tension. I’m dealing with tender issues of representation and disparity. And Ninth Floor could have been particularly tricky because I’m not Black. This is not my community if you take me at face value. But the participants in the film really supported the approach which was a spiritual, humanitarian one. I do believe WE ARE ALL and that belief permeates the film.
No, I don’t know what it’s like to be exactly them or you or anyone else, but that is why I make films, to air out the unconscious, the unknown. I knew my intentions for making the film were genuine: to ask audiences to question how we see each other and to vow to do better. Having a very solid intention made the path very clear for me and the audience.
The question about a film on Asian/Black relations is complex. I don’t think you can make a film about “a people” my films are not films about immigrant Chinese or Black Students, the films are about emotional struggles. I’m not into cultural flag waving; I’m into exploring emotions.
For me, Ninth Floor is a love story at its heart. When a country invites you and says “we love you” and then it rejects and betrays you, how does one get over that? It’s not a film about Black relations, that for me is too simplistic.
But would I like to see Asian/Black actors in a compelling heist film or love story, yes. And maybe within the heist or love story, we air out the unconscious codes of their relationship dynamics – that would be amazing!
NINTH FLOOR has won major awards (for Artistic Merit from Women in Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival) and was selected as one of the ten best features of 2015. How has it impacted discussions of race relations in Canada?
There’s been a lot of dialogue and a lot of people personally moved, so I see impact on a consciousness level but that male receptionist who wouldn’t look at me clearly didn’t see the film.
Well, it’s no secret that I and many other people fell in love with Sandra Oh in your wonderful debut feature, DOUBLE HAPPINESS. It’s been so great to see her rise since that auspicious beginning, and it’s so good to see your work continue to inspire. What are you working on now?
Thanks so much for that. My next film will star Sandra Oh again (our third film together!!!). It’s a fiction feature called MEDITATION PARK, that will also star Cheng Pei Pei, who is a legend in Asian cinema. She was one of the first actors to work on the Shaw Brothers films. She did a film called Come Drink With Me, that rocketed her to stardom in the late sixties and she became known as Queen of Swords. We’ve seen her lately in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she was the Jade Fox, and last year she was in the BAFTA nominated indie, Lilting. And I get to work with Tzi Ma (from Quiet American, The Ladykillers and 24) who I think is one of the finest actors working today. I hope we get to come to CAAMFest when we’re done.
Hooray to your reunion with Sandra Oh! And wow to all those actors being in the same picture! I’ll have my fingers crossed for your coming to CAAMFest with MEDITATION PARK! I’m curious about the title – does it have a spiritual/meditative angle?
Yes, Meditation Park is both the geographical and spiritual place.
This sounds right up my alley too! I look forward to that. Thank you for your time!
+ + +
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.
preceded by RACIAL FACIAL dir. Jeff Adachi
March 12, 2016 2:40 pm