In March 2021, eight people were killed in three spas in Atlanta, Georgia; six of whom were Asian women. Taking place one year into the COVID-19 pandemic—and the wave of multiple hate crimes against the Asian American community—this attack marked a turning point. While the shootings in Atlanta weren’t surprising to executive producer Gina Kim, they were both a historic and an unprecedented moment. “Not to say that violence against Asian Americans hasn’t always existed,” she acknowledged. “It has for decades, for centuries. But this was, in my lifetime, something that I had never experienced. So Titi and I knew that we had to document this moment for future generations, and that’s how we approached PBS, and they thought it was equally important.”
The result is the new one-hour documentary, Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March, produced by Kim and directed by Titi Yu, which will air on PBS on Monday October 17 and stream on PBS.org after that. The film explores the rise in anti-Asian hate, and how the aftermath of these attacks has become the fuel to ignite a movement, in demand for change.
Because of the unprecedented scale of the Atlanta shootings, Yu chose to start the story there, as opposed to the beginning of the pandemic and the rising wave of hate crimes.
Although the documentary is largely centered on the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shootings, it also touches on other hate crimes as well. In January 2021, Vicha Ratanapakdee was out for a walk in the Anza Vista neighborhood in San Francisco when he was pushed to the ground and knocked unconscious. He later died from his injuries.
On Saturday, October 1, a street renaming ceremony was held in that same neighborhood he called home; Sonora Lane was officially renamed Vicha Ratanapakdee Way.
His daughter, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, spoke at both the event, as well as at a Q&A later in the day, following a screening of Rising Against Asian Hate at the Roxie Theater. With her father’s killing being one of the first anti-Asian hate crimes to be widely reported, she described him at the latter event as “a grandpa for everyone. He’s a grandpa for Asian Americans.”
Monthanus was also one of many people featured in the documentary. Others include Georgia State Senate member Michelle Au, as well as those directly impacted by the Atlanta shootings like Robert Peterson—the son of victim, Yong Au Yue.
“Whenever this kind of violence happens, we hear about the families and the victims,” Yu explained, “but we don’t really know that behind the story of how the community can actually come together to really help the victims and the families, and particularly with immigrant communities that’s also close knit. I just got a sense that a tragedy like this can really hit at the heart of the community members. So that’s why we wanted to reach out to those people.”
While hate crimes have been prominent the past few years, Yu believes that 2022 is a critical moment for Asian Americans realizing political power and how to use it. She explained how by drawing a line between the hate crime legislation and political participation further emphasizes the kind of work that the Asian American community has been doing throughout history.
“The Asian American community are not victims in this story,” she stated. “I didn’t want to show a community that’s victimized, even though what’s been happening is horrific. But the Asian American community [has] been here fighting for their civil rights for a very, very long time. So essentially, in the face of these tragedies, what is the community doing in response to these tragedies? And I think the hate crime legislation is very much a part of that story.”
Rising Against Asian Hate was made over the tight timeline of six months, with a predominantly Asian American crew. Kim talked about how the act of watching and re-watching the footage of various hate crimes over and over again was devastating and took a toll on the crew.
“We had this [associate producer] who said, ‘Every single person we talk to shares the same story. It was incredible. Every single person told the story about how in their lifetime, they’ve been told, go back to your country. You don’t belong here. What language do you speak? Who are you? Why are you here?’” she recalled. “I think it’s so hard to explain to people why that cuts so deep and why that’s painful. Why does that hurt that someone’s asking you, ‘Where do you come from and why are you in this country? And you don’t belong here.’ But really, it resonated with everybody on our crew and with all the people that we interviewed. And so, this was a moment of reflection for me, just to see our community and how we came together to stand up and speak out against this violence.”
Filming during the Delta surge of COVID-19 was a logistical challenge for Yu and the rest of the crew. In addition, she and Kim found that they had to be emotionally detached from the incidents as they continued to unfold, especially when the killings of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee happened earlier this year in New York City. As a result, the film evolved as the news dictated the direction it went in.
Kim explained how it was easy to see ourselves in these incidents, and hopes that the same goes for non-Asian American audiences who watch this documentary too. “Even though maybe it’s not your aunt or your sister or your mother experiencing this, we hope you, as a human, understand how that might feel,” she remarked.
Filmmaking, as Yu explained, is all about luck. For her, a standout moment from filming Rising Against Asian Hate came in the form of being able to film B-roll in the spa where Yue was killed.
“It just so happens that a realtor guy was there and the door was open,” she explained. “So, we were actually able to go in and take some shots in the interior of one of the spas. And so that’s something that we couldn’t have planned for. We were just lucky, and the guy just happened to be really sympathetic.”
For Kim, the gerrymandering of the district represented by Au came as a shock. “It went from a majority minority district to once again a majority white district,” she said, “and so she had to pull out of her Senate race, knowing that she most likely would not win and then decide to run for the House race. I mean, that’s something that we had no idea that would happen.”
Conscious of the film’s upcoming broadcast on PBS mere weeks before the midterm elections, Kim believes it’s important to know that Asian Americans are not a monolith, and that can be said from a political perspective too. While she said how the community may have been ignored in the past by both the Democratic and Republican Parties, she thinks it’s gotten to a point now that by continuing to do so is a mistake.
Yu expanded on her colleague’s point by how Asian Americans need to recognize and use their political power. “I think that is certainly the message in a lot of the characters in our film is that it’s time for Asian Americans to flex our muscles, so to speak, and not be left behind and not be silent in this critical moment in history where our democracy is on the line,” she said. “I hope that film contributes to that conversation about voting rights and about the future of our democracy.”
As far as the ongoing hate crimes go, Yu said that this country has a lot of racial reckoning to still do, and that the likelihood of this behavior repeating again is imaginable, when candid conversations and concrete policy still aren’t happening.
Kim doesn’t imagine that violence against Asian Americans will disappear overnight, but she is hopeful that the community is becoming more outspoken. She notes the old mindset of “keeping your head down and don’t report it and don’t let other people know about what happened to you.” and added, “I think that is disappearing and people are feeling more confident and people are feeling like they need to tell their story and let people know when they’re attacked or something happens like that.”
Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March is produced by Repartee Films, LLC in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and The WNET Group for PBS.
Watch Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March on Monday, October 17 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/RisingAgainstAsianHate, the PBS Video App and on the PBS YouTube channel.