History of a New kind: Notes from Durham and Beyond

Hanul Bahm, left, with her roommate Anita at the "Beyond Borders: Diverse Voices of the American South" convening.
Filmmaker and multimedia producer Hanul Bahm reflects on attending first convening of Asian Americans makers from the South.

Editor’s Note: The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), along with the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) and UNC-TV (Public Media North Carolina), hosted “Beyond Borders: Diverse Voices of the American South” with generous support from JustFilms and the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on February 20, 2018.

Below, filmmaker and multimedia producer Hanul Bahm reflects on attending the convening.

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Students at Rutgers Senate hearing in support of an Asian Am Cultural Center, 1999.

On the morning of Feb 20, I boarded the shuttle from our hotel to UNC-TV in hope and disbelief that a “Beyond Borders: Diverse Voices of the American South” gathering was actually happening.  As in, “why would someone do that for us… what do they want from us?” I had a moment walking down the central corridor of UNC-TV.

Throughout the day, hearing familiar, forgotten references like Chan Is Missing and “ECAASU,” as well as new ones (A Village Called Versailles) shifted something. It reminded me of the good things I got exposed to being involved in pan-Asian organizing: Rock with Finesse, Vaisakhi Day, a screening of Spring in My Hometown, writing workshops with Regie Cabico, a wake given for a queer Asian American activist who took his life. And it reminded me of the power of meeting with communities with common purposes.

I didn’t get to connect with most people in the room, but I loved my table: Lana, Naomi, Sam, Leah, Clint, Andrew, Anita, and myself. I felt like we were in unity. I hope everyone else had a similar experience.

What happened in Durham was likely unprecedented. I know it must’ve meant a lot for the regional organizations to finally meet one another. And for the filmmakers to see that we’re not alone, that there’s a field we can potentially build with. The presence of Christine Chen (APIAVote), as well as North Carolina activists from NCAAT, AORTA and Southeast Asian Coalition was encouraging to see, as a unified political identity. This was truly a room full of people who likely would have never met otherwise—powerful in a region so prone to segregation and isolation.

It was abundantly clear that CAAM cared. They were burning the oil HARD orchestrating for a positive, unifying experience. So much props goes to everyone at CAAM. I hadn’t been to an event in support of Asian American anything since my student days at Rutgers, where we did all the organizing ourselves.

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My family has been based in the American South—Georgia and Miami—for 30 years. New York, New Jersey and California have also been home. I had a brief childhood in South Korea under a military dictatorship. I went to an elementary school across the street from cabbage fields and empty dirt plots. The class warfare was intense, even among kids. I remember kids being shamed for living in older apartments versus newer ones. And how the tonier kids let you know they were having a birthday party, months in advance.

I’ve also waded in Southern creeks. I’ve watched summer heat storms in awe. I’ve come to know daffodils stand for resurrection and spring. And that firefly forests are beautiful in Stone Mountain, but to exit before the laser show gets too patriotic. I’ve seen bloodied fights at school on days we should have been celebrating instead. As a young person, I knew what it was to be bullied in the most unimaginative of ways, to black out all my yearbook photos of myself, to never be asked out nor dream to. I’ve come to know how people of all races internalize shame. So I have a connection to this land as well.

In high school, I was one of those immigrant kids wishing they weren’t trapped behind their parents’ storefront. Ours was located near Buford Highway, a first-wave pan-Asian thoroughfare northwest of Atlanta. We repaired and sold refurbished CRT computer monitors and towers. And we traveled around the South selling them on weekends.

Atlanta is where I started my documentary practice, first as a street photographer, then a student journalist. I went on to get my BA in Photography and Journalism at Rutgers University. A decade later, I went for my MFA in Film/Video at CalArts. I had a stint in New York publishing and did community outreach, programs and live arts production in between.

Living in the South, I am not immune from social isolation. Since leaving film school, I’ve mostly landed work in the gig economy. That translates to working from home and cafes most days.

I also take turns caring for family: a brother and aging parents. They’ve endured a lot of hardship with finances, health, job discrimination. It’s made for a home life of marathoners, but it’s also deepened our spirituality. My brother and I go to a Tibetan Buddhist temple. My parents go to a Korean mega church, a year-round operation with cradle-to-grave services for thousands of congregants. I live hopeful, patient and hustling.

To curb isolation, I’ve networked, volunteered, organized get-togethers and coffee meetings. People like Anjanette Levert—producer, Spelman film professor, and proprietor of the Stonehouse Residency—are rare: creating space for diverse others while keeping prolific themselves.

After graduating from film school, it dawned on me I’m an underdog in my chosen field, not because of how I regard myself, but because how others factor me: Korean American, female, both over- and under-qualified, no longer young. On an industry level, doors had not really opened, despite massive, sustained efforts.

Tired of hitting pavement, I recently had the revelation that the answer lived in me. Last December, I launched Detonator, a POV Lab-supported online content discovery portal with fellow artists. Detonator was created to platform diverse, independent content creators working largely outside industry support. And with fellow freelancers, I am building out DECIDED, a visual content storytelling agency. DECIDED’s emphasis is on radically inclusive cultural representation and intersectionality. Recently, I started asking for meetings with video commissioners and media organizations. DECIDED is still a paper agency at this point; our website goes up this spring. I am hopeful our sweat equity will pay off in time. Among our filmmakers: Norbert Shieh, Walter Vargas, Hyesung Ii, Fabian Euresti and myself.

I continue to build with creative entrepreneurs and businesses in Atlanta and beyond. At the moment, I’m producing a multimedia video series on faith, healing and friendship among immigrant and POC communities. And I’m writing and developing Drift and Return, a feature.

If there is intersectional consciousness in the South, it’s in its infancy. Southerners remain largely disengaged from otherness. I’m often reminded, “as long as there is history and people’s feelings are involved, nothing is changing overnight.” There are warm, friendly Southerners, but I’m also faced with hostility and passive-aggression as a rule. It takes emotional reserves to fortify and brace myself daily.

Like many in the room, I came up dealing with racism, wishes for failure, non-acknowledgement of personhood. Seeing an event referencing “Asian Americans of the South” was triggering, not cause for joy. But had I not reckoned with being a raced person early on, I don’t think I would had gone the path of activist, journalist, producer, filmmaker. I owe the South my consciousness. Perhaps the South even holds the answer to the harsh polarization the country finds itself in.

Asian Americans in metro Atlanta are not invisible; we have presence. We have strip malls, hospitals, newspapers. Some of us have our own broadcasting networks. There’s a lot of everybody in metro Atlanta, including refugees, immigrants and historically rooted Black and White communities.

In terms of stories, we are also not invisible. So many of us hold down our lives here. Of course there are stories. It’s in my family’s fundamental orphanedness that I ever found the heart to speak. But there are days I feel like Southern Asian American mediamakers are sideliners and “the help” to Team Black and Team White, so emblematic of the racialization that happens here. Some of our elders and youth are fine with enclaving. But that’s never really been an option for me.

I’m sure if you asked everyone in that UNC-TV room, they would have amazing stories. The problem is not invisibility. It’s that our stories are rarely solicited; they’re not considered viable, in terms of importance or mass appeal. And we internalize daily the reminders that we don’t count.

Speaking for myself, my family has a tendency to overwork. It goes back generations, to memories of post-war poverty, colonialism, industrialization. You have to regard yourself in order to see a story there. That’s hard when you’re willing your body from one day to the next, when your self-worth is so tied to your output and value to others as a worker.

There are other factors working against us: cultural and historic erasure, for one. Some of us here are undocumented or enslaved, live in shadows and don’t have a voice at all.

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Attendees at the Diverse Voices of the American South convening in Durham, North Carolina.

I think what CAAM did, bringing a roomful of storytellers together, not just Asian Americans, was remarkable. It’s super hard bringing people together. It was heartening. Whether the attendees chose to build or go their respective ways, it was wonderful encountering them.

It’s too early to say if an Asian American identity consciousness will emerge in this generation of filmmakers, especially in the South, where we’re so disperse. It took a conference like this for us to even meet each other. I give props to A-DOC and NCAAT for trying to establish a network and of course, mega props to CAAM. But it’s up to the will of the people: their collective co-identification, passion and vision.

And much like the elephant in the room in the South is race, there’s a fierce class divide Asian Americans have harbored in their ranks, since like, forever. If we’re sincere about wanting Asian Americans to co-identify, this last point has to be broken wide open and brought to consciousness. Otherwise we remain locked in a state of conditionality and risk playing to type that all Asian Americans care about are prestige and attainment, but not much else. This isn’t an indictment so much as a recurring reality I’ve faced, including at this Convening.

Asian Americans are a community of diasporas, interwoven with multiple continents of humanity. This includes a spectrum of experience, including oppression, loss and sorrow as well as grit, aspiration and triumph. I am hopeful we can embrace that spectrum (and far beyond it) in ourselves and others we meet.

This convening taught me that there are organizational resources in the South for filmmakers, for me a revelation. To the degree that those organizations and storytellers can take genuine interest in one another, and Asian Americans can continue to be a support structure for various others, I’m hopeful for progress.

As for my own works, I remain optimistic. I’m working hard to situate my life so that I can give a subset of my time to creating works. But just living is good, too. That’s really the all and everything. I’m a documentarian of 24 years, a filmmaker for ten. I don’t get to create works each of those years. I’m at peace with that. I’m in a birth cycle now, but five years had to pass first.

Thanks to the Southern Producers Lab and the New Orleans Film Society, I will be visiting Anita in her swampland in April. And yes, thanks to this convening.

I’m thankful to everyone who conspired to bring us together, who thought this was a good idea. And to everyone who toiled super hard behind the scenes to pull this off. This was historic, but only if people run with the generated potential. I hope everyone in the room will see a day when they can say, looking back: this was an inflection point. The beginning of something big, beyond “same as it ever was.”

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Hanul Bahm is a filmmaker, content producer, and UX/UI designer based in Lawrenceville, GA. She have shot, directed, produced and crewed on numerous independent shorts, feature documentaries, transmedia storytelling and video projects for clients, community and self.