Spotlight on Arthur Dong: 40 years of Social Issues Filmmaking

Oscar®-nominated and triple Sundance award-winning filmmaker, Arthur Dong. Photo by Zand Gee.
"We can appreciate and celebrate our accomplishments, but we can't just sit on our laurels and be satisfied, because it's just not over yet."

UPDATE: The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor airs on World Channel’s new documentary series, Doc World, on September 18, 2016. Check local listings.

Arthur Dong’s filmmaking career began he was only 17 and some 40 odd years later, he’s remained one of the most accomplished and respected American documentarians out there. His works have spanned the spectrum from the intimate, family portrait of his Oscar-nominated short film Sewing Woman (1982) to exploring the travails of the LGBT community in uniform in Coming Out Under Fire (1994) to Hollywood’s hidden Asian American talents with Hollywood Chinese (2007).

His latest film, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor revisits the life’s work of the slain Cambodian American activist and Academy Award-winning actor. It premieres at this year’s CAAMFest on March 15, 2015 at the Castro Theater. Arthur Dong is CAAMFest 2015’s spotlight honoree and will be in attendance at the Centerpiece Reception just after the premiere of The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor. A digitally remastered version of Forbidden City, U.S.A. will screen on March 14 at Chinatown’s Great Star Theater. In addition, you can join Dong in conversation with noted film critic B. Ruby Rich on March 20 in Japantown.

I sat down with Dong to discuss the contours of his rich career.

Oliver Wang

At what point did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I finished watching The Birds, at the Embassy Theatre in San Francisco when I was about nine years old. At the end of the film, the protagonist walks out of their house, bruised, hurt, damaged, and the birds all calm and still, and they’re walking through the birds, not knowing whether they will be attacked or not anymore, and that’s how the film ends. I’m getting chills right now just thinking about that scene, because what happened is I was left to make up my own story of how this film ends. You know, the sequel is in my head, and I thought that was just incredible that the filmmaker was able to do that.

That’s what I strive to do in my films, is to create this world within this very finite, temporal amount of time, and once that ends, that’s not all of it. I want the audience to participate while they are watching the film, and also after they leave the theater.

You made your first film in 1970 when you were still in high school, a short called Public. You wouldn’t make another film until the Oscar-nominated Sewing Woman in 1982. What happened in those dozen years in between?
What happened with Public…it was a bit of notoriety. It won the first prize at the California High School Film Festival. And during the time, people making films on their own, that was a pretty revolutionary idea. For a high school kid to do that, and then have it win awards and get attention, that was even crazier. One of the jurors at the film festival was Jim Goldner, an instructor at San Francisco State University, and he invited me to enroll at the film school there. I was taking courses while I was in high school, I mean real theoretically heavy courses in film history and film theory, and I realized that what they were talking about was important, but way over my head. I didn’t really have any life experiences to really, fully appreciate what they were trying to teach you with, and I decided to take some time off to experience what I thought I needed to experience. I did that for a decade.

I went to China in 1978, when it first opened up to tourists, and I brought a camera, and I started filming again. I remember this distinctly on the airplane ride home: I started editing the footage in my head, just subconsciously, of all the stuff I filmed, and I said, “Oh! I remember this feeling! This ‘making a film’ feeling!” And I said, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to go back,” and I went back to Tim Goldner, and I said, “Hey! I’m ready to come back!” Jumped right in, and haven’t stopped since.

Looking across your filmography from the early ‘80s until now, what do you see as the key threads—if any—that have linked your projects, especially to your latest, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor?
We came through this production very much tied to many things that I’m passionate about: social bigotry, racial issues, violence, governance, public policy, those are things that I have covered in all my films in one way or another. I was driving home one day after a session, this was very recent, and I was thinking about what [the new film] meant to me in my body of work, and I started kind of making a checklist. “Okay, violence, public policy, governance, prejudice, racial relations, media. You know? This is a very good checklist!” The only thing that was missing, and I haven’t really written down this list, this is in my head, is “sexual orientation and gender roles.” Those are the only two areas that aren’t touched on in this last film.

Dr. Haing S. Ngor, right, accompanied by his niece Sophia Ngor, arrives at the 57th Annual Academy Awards® in Los Angeles, Calif., March 25, 1985. Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his portrayal of a Cambodian refugee in the film "The Killing Fields." (AP Photo by Mark Elias).
Dr. Haing S. Ngor, right, accompanied by his niece Sophia Ngor, arrives at the 57th Annual Academy Awards® in Los Angeles, Calif., March 25, 1985. Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his portrayal of a Cambodian refugee in the film “The Killing Fields.” (AP Photo by Mark Elias).

I’ve heard you say that making The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor reminded you, in some ways, of making Sewing Woman?
The first day in the editing room, putting it together, and the feeling was the same feeling I had when I was making Sewing Woman. I knew that I was telling a story from a single-person’s point of view. You have a voiceover narration as a driving narrative…it’s one person’s voice, and we’re hearing this story told by this one person. The challenge to me was how to visually tell the story with this narration as a foundation. And it’s very much the same process I went through with Sewing Woman in that what I needed to do on the many parallel paths was to have the story in one hand, but also to find and resource visual materials that would be able to complement the story and vice versa. Different from Sewing Woman, in Haing S. Ngor, I allowed myself to use animation as a component, because there were a few things that I felt were just critical in the telling of Ngor’s story that had to be visualized, versus just told.

If I can go back to talking about the threads that link all your different films, I’m struck at how so many of your films look at social justice through a lens of progress, either how much has been achieved or how much is left to go. As a filmmaker, which side of that spectrum is most important for you to be able to focus on?
It’s usually “How far we still have to go?” in the end. In the process of telling the stories in my films, it’s acknowledging how far we’ve come, it’s always that, because I look at progress. I mean, that’s where things are going. But there’s always going to be the question of, “If it was done, what can be done next?” We can appreciate and celebrate our accomplishments, but we can’t just sit on our laurels and be satisfied, because it’s just not over yet. Some battles we’ve won, but the war isn’t over.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This post is made possible by Xfinity.

This interview was originally published on March 13, 2015.

Forbidden City, U.S.A.

The Great Star

March 14, 2015 4:00 pm

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The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor

Castro Theatre

March 15, 2015 4:10 pm

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Expected Guests in Attendance:

Arthur Dong (Director)

Jack Ong (Subject)

Sophia Ngor Demetri (Subject)

Wayne Ngor (Subject)


On Stage Conversation: Arthur Dong & B. Ruby Rich

New People Cinema

March 20, 2015 7:10 pm

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Throwback Thursday: 1982 to 2015


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