CAAMFest 2021 officially kicks off on Friday, May 13 with two screenings of Debbie Lum’s powerful documentary Try Harder! as part of CAAM’s Opening Weekend Drive-In Program at Fort Mason FLIX.
In Try Harder!, San Francisco filmmaker and CAAMFest alum Debbie Lum shines a light on Lowell High School, an elite public high school with a majority Asian American student body. Following the lives of several high school students during the emotional roller coaster that is their senior year, Lum provides audiences with an honest, nuanced look at the immense pressures and obstacles students face while applying to college.
Ahead of CAAMFest 2021, we sat down with Lum to discuss the origins of the documentary and her filmmaking process. The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CAAM: You originally started out wanting to explore the idea of tiger mothers. Why were you interested in that topic and when did you make the decision to focus on Lowell High School?
Debbie Lum: I’m really interested in stories that drill down into these big narratives in our community. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua had come out recently and it was a national bestseller. There was this whole stereotype of the tiger mother and I was really interested in looking into that and seeing what it was all about. Originally it was going to be a much more intimate story focusing on just a mother and a daughter but then it morphed because I couldn’t find anyone. Everyone I talked to kept saying, “Oh, she’s a tiger mother. You should really interview that person.” But then I would get there and they’re like, “Oh you should interview this person. She’s a real tiger mom.” Nobody wanted to admit they were a tiger mom.
So I filmed a lot and met with principals and school counselors and everything. I live in San Francisco and at one point, my film partner, Lou Nakasako (producer and cinematographer of Try Harder!), and I started talking about Lowell High School. He found a way into Lowell and we were just captivated by the students. We realized we could focus on these kids and that this was really interesting.
Being at a school where it’s a majority Asian American population, I really wanted to show the diversity in Asian American students.
CAAM: Try Harder! follows several students throughout the ups and downs of their senior year. How did you choose your subjects and how did you weave their stories together to create a narrative?
Lum: We talked to so many students but the ones that we really tracked more deeply were going for this narrow band of schools. Every single one of those kids in the film really all applied to Stanford and that was probably their first choice school.
But the students were also different. Being at a school where it’s a majority Asian American population, I really wanted to show the diversity in Asian American students. For example, Ian is multiple generations removed, and Alvan is the product of a Taiwanese immigrant and a mainland Chinese immigrant. When you see those kids, they’re their own unique kids whereas when the college admissions officers look at them, they just see this monolithic block of good students.
CAAM: What was the process like of talking to the subjects and getting permission to document their experiences?
Lum: They were amazingly supportive looking back on it. I felt a palpable sense that these students wanted their stories to be told which I was really surprised by because Asian Americans generally make very difficult documentary subjects because of the way we’ve been brought up. But when I spoke to the students, they were so down with the idea of talking about this. Now with hindsight, some of them have said it was kind of a great stress reliever to be able to pause and just reflect since they had no time to do that.
CAAM: What has the reaction been like amongst others who have seen the documentary?
Lum: We have felt the love, it’s really been a wonderful thing. I’ve talked to so many people from different countries and in different age groups. Many people have gone through this at other schools, it’s just the way that young people have to grow up nowadays which makes me feel a little sad. I’ve also spoken to a lot of people who have kids going through it so they can relate to it that way. But high school is high school; it’s a really formative, defining and often traumatizing moment in your life and so many people have just talked about that.
As Asian Americans, educational achievement is like the lifeblood coursing through our community’s veins. It’s kind of crazy that we don’t have that story told. The Asian American student isn’t a character we all have grown up with.
CAAM: What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Lum: I hope they get a lot from it. I like to tell stories that have multiple layers to them. But one of the big things is that it’s a journey and that you start in one place and you get to the other side. When you can look back on it, you get a lot of perspective. Alvan (one of the main subjects) saw the film and said, “Oh man, I wish I could’ve given that young guy a big hug and just say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’” Because you know, getting into college should not be a life or death situation.
Visit the Try Harder Impact Campaign to learn more about college admissions process and teen mental health and to find additional resources.
Try Harder! Is the CAAMFest 2021 Opening Night Drive-In presentation on Friday, May 13, with screenings at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. An encore virtual screening will take place Sunday, May 23 at 3:00 p.m. For more details and to buy tickets, visit CAAMFest.com.