Christine Choy

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Artist, Filmmaker, Teacher

When you meet Christine Choy, you understand her

success as a filmmaker as well as her resilience. She

had the ability to leave her country and move to another,

where she first studied one profession—architecture—and

then another—filmmaking—and succeeded in it. Choy is filled

with optimism and ideas. When you talk with her, you feel that

anything is possible.

Christine Choy is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and Chair

of the Graduate Film and Television Department at New York

University. A vanguard filmmaker, who has completed more

than 50 films since 1972, she is best known for the Academy

Award-nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin? Ha Ha Shanghai,

Homes Apart: The Two Koreas, The Shot Heard ‘Round

the World. She received a special tribute at the Hong Kong

International Film Festival and screenings at Sundance,

Cannes, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam,

Athens International Film Festival, and the San Francisco

International Film Festival.

Born in Shanghai, Choy left China for South Korea at the

age of nine to join her father who had earlier returned to his

home there. “It was 1962 and no one was allowed to leave

China. My mother wrote a letter to Chairman Mao entreating

that it was important for our family to be reunited. Somehow,

we got a visa.” When her mother got permission to leave, she

gave their house to the government in exchange for the money

she needed to travel.

Choy arrived in the United States as a high school student,

then trained as an architect at Princeton University, and

received a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia

University. At Columbia, “students were making films and I

thought it was fascinating, but they didn’t want to include me.

The majority [of them] were white, male, upper middle class.

They were making films about poor people and prisons. I

thought it quite peculiar,” she recalls.

Choy’s filmmaking debut was in the mid-1970s at the Museum

of Modern Art in New York. The film was From Spikes

to Spindles, a documentary about the migration of Chinese

immigrants from the West Coast to New York’s Chinatown.

She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Peabody;

and fellowships, including a Rockefeller, a Guggenheim,

and a Mellon. She is also a founder of Third World Newsreel,

a network of radical filmmakers committed to activism and

to developing artists and audiences of color.

Christine has an equally impressive history as an educator,

teaching not only at New York University at both the

undergraduate and graduate levels and chairing the Graduate

Division, but also at Yale University, Cornell University, and

the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Christine Choy

Imagination and Creativity

Be loyal to your friends and family, be loyal to your art.

There are a lot of kids in the U.S. today who are truly living

in two cultures. Maybe they were born in another

country and immigrated here, and now have to negotiate

two completely different cultures. Maybe these same children

have come here with parents who are still rooted in the old

country’s ways and don’t learn English as quickly. Or maybe

they’re Americans but don’t have the advantage of a level

Source: Printed with permission from Christine Choy, Chair, Graduate

Film & TV New York University.

playing field, since they are members of a racial minority or

an economic class that has to struggle to overcome bigotry or

deprivation.

With me, it was all of the above. I grew up in four different

countries, with four different political systems, by the time I

was 14. I was born in Shanghai, in Communist China, which

the U.S. considered a real evil empire back in the 1950s and

1960s. Then we moved to Hong Kong, still under British rule,

one of the last colonies of the Empire to gain its autonomy.

Then we lived in Seoul, Korea (my father had been in the anti-

Japanese resistance movement during World War II), a place

that was then under neocolonial military rule. Finally, in the

mid-1960s, still a teenager; I learned what it was like to live in

an advanced capitalist society here in the United States.

I wish I had the energy to argue with my American teachers

back in the 1960s when they started warning us about

the evils of Communism, boasting of the prosperity of Hong

Kong, justifying the division of Korea, and worshipping the

great democracy that is America. Their arguments didn’t

make any sense to me at all, because I grew up in China. I

knew that people didn’t have horns on their heads and I knew

that our diapers weren’t red. Yes, of course, I was indoctrinated

in Marxist ideology, just as American kids learn at an

early age the value of “shop till you drop.”

I grew up in a Shanghai that was vastly different from

the thriving city of skyscrapers that it is today. No cars, no

traffic, no Toys ’R Us. Our most cherished playthings came

from our deepest imagination, with the help of candy wrappers,

twigs from trees, and sand. Very elemental things. No

frills, no luxuries. But this is how my encounter with the

world began. Even today, so many decades later, my films have

a direct association with that experience. I was privileged to

have a childhood in which imagination and creativity was not

stifled by consumerism or materialism.

When I arrived in Hong Kong—quite a cosmopolitan city

compared to Shanghai then—my mother’s friend, Auntie

Doreen, gave me my first Barbie doll. I was fascinated. It

looked like a miniature perfect version of Auntie Doreen herself,

with a perfect bust and perfect legs. I was puzzled. If this

was a British colony, why didn’t I get a Queen Elizabeth doll?

There I was, thinking outside the box already.

Soon we arrived in Korea, divided in two, occupied by

Americans, and ruled under the iron fist of a dictator named

Park. It was a noisy place. Outside my window I heard the

clash of student demonstrations. Through the walls I listened

to the sounds of husbands beating their wives. I had to escape,

so on weekends I escaped to the movies and lost myself

in Hollywood films. For a few hours, I could forget the discrepancies

of society. Thinking outside the box again.

Candy wrappers, Barbie dolls, Hollywood films—these

were the ingredients of my early imaginative life. But just like

China did under Mao, I took my own Great Leap Forward. I

decided that imagination was not enough, that I had to translate

this into a meaningful and productive life. I decided to

come to the United States to fulfill my American dream. I arrived

here with $60 in my pocket and dreams of being a space

scientist, if not a nuclear physicist. This was, after all, during

the 1960s, when America was pursuing so many dreams—

landing on the moon, achieving liberty and justice for all at

home while, ironically, trying to impose its military might on

Vietnam. It was a frantic and contradictory period, one that

could be especially daunting for a scrawny Asian girl now

casting her lot in the great land of Barbie dolls, with perfect

white bodies.

Even though I’d lived in China, Hong Kong, and Korea, it

really sank in for me that I was a foreigner now and that to be

accepted as intelligent, artistic, and as a human being, I’d

have to formulate a whole new agenda. I had to take a long

hard look at who I was perceived to be, who I really was, and

who I really wanted to be.

This struggle took place not only intellectually, but psychologically.

Ultimately, it forged a great transformation within

me. I had to recognize my deficiencies and be totally critical

—neither overestimating my weaknesses nor devaluing my

strength. Film was my passion. I finally realized that. It helped

make me who I am today, an Asian woman, sitting in the chair

of the Graduate Film department at the Tisch School of the

Arts at New York University.

Yeah, I’ve come a long way, baby. If I could address my

colleagues and students and my future with just a simple

phrase, I’d say, “be loyal to your friends and family, be loyal

to your art.”