Variety in film festival marks a transition in Hmong filmmaking

Editor’s Note: This piece by Nikki Tundel is part of a series called Minnesota Mix. Minnesota Mix is a project of Minnesota Public Radio News that examines the way youth and ethnic diversity are influencing Minnesota arts. Enjoy…

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A scene from Amanda Hang’s short film “One Ball Day.” Hang’s work is part of the third annual Hmong film festival, or Qhia Dab Neeg, which runs from May 17 to 19, 2012, in St. Paul, Minn.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Hang

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The third annual Hmong film festival screens this weekend at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. The event showcases films and videos produced by Hmong artists — from students to seasoned professionals.

The festival’s 22-year-old coordinator said the event shows the evolution underway in Hmong filmmaking.

Like generations of Hmong living in Southeast Asia, Kao Choua Vue’s relatives passed their family history down orally. But as a Hmong-American girl growing up in St. Paul, Minn., Vue didn’t quite trust that tradition.

“My parents, they never went to school and they don’t have an understanding of how we can pass on our history,” she said. “Our history wasn’t written in the history books. For me, as a daughter to my father, I sought to go into filmmaking so I can actually tell his story for him.”

And that’s just what she did, capturing her father’s tales with a video camera, and turning them into a documentary.

Vue is now a digital filmmaker and the coordinator of the Qhia Dab Neeg Film Festival in St. Paul. Qhia Dab Neeg means “storytelling” in Hmong.

“It goes back into the oral tradition of how Hmong people used to tell stories in Laos and China,” Vue said. “With my parents’ generation and before, there was really no written language, so the film festival really embraces telling stories in a new way for the Hmong in America.”

Many of the festival’s films were produced by Minnesotans. Others come from California and Taiwan. They’re all in English or have English subtitles. This year’s crop includes a variety of films, from documentaries to animated shorts to horror flicks.

That variety, says Vue, symbolizes a huge transition in Hmong filmmaking, which used to focus primarily on the history of the Hmong people and their plight as Southeast Asian refugees.

“The older generation of Hmong filmmakers tends to focus more on videos from Thailand and Laos,” Vue said. “I think a lot of the older generation (of films) cater to them as an audience because they miss that connection with the homeland.”

Vue says the younger Hmong filmmakers, most of them first-generation Americans, are turning their cameras to life in the United States. Emerging artist Amanda Hang falls into that category. Her non-narrated, dramatic film is being shown at this year’s festival.

“It’s a short film that follows an ordinary man in his day-to-day struggles,” she said “It’s more of a mainstream piece. It doesn’t blatantly touch upon traditional Hmong themes and I hope the other people can relate to it.

“And it’s a little quirky, it’s not too heavy handed but it’s a nice short film and I’m really proud of it, especially because it’s my first film I can call my own.”

The way Hang sees it, she’s a filmmaker who happens to also be Hmong.

“For me it’s about normalizing the perspective of a Hmong-American here in the U.S,” she said.

It doesn’t matter what perspective Hmong filmmakers take, the 27-year-old Hang just wants to see them getting their work in front of audiences — both Hmong and non-Hmong.

That’s the message festival director Kao Choua Vue wants to send to Hmong filmmakers.

“We want your stories heard,” Vue said. “We want you to be recognized as a filmmaker so you can continue making films and telling your stories.

And, in today’s multimedia world, Vue said, there is no reason for Hmong stories to go undocumented any longer.

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