The Hmong filmmaking community is growing in quantity and quality – and a new organization held its first film festival as part of the International Conference on Hmong Studies earlier this month at Concordia University.
The Hmong International Filmmakers Organization brought filmmakers and films – previews, shorts and feature films – from around the country, China and Thailand for the Hmong International Film Festival.
Lee Pao Xiong, director, Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University – St. Paul, said the film festival was a success, especially in that the turnout was strong for relatively short notice first annual partnership with HIFO. He also thought the red carpet events were fun for the filmmakers and the fans.
Dr. Jerry Yang, the psychiatrist who turned a temporary layoff from work into a multimillion dollar victory in the 2007 World Series of Poker Championships
Dr. Yang spoke of his “poker face” that includes a baseball cap and dark sunglasses. It is not often that he removes them, but he did long enough to give a moving and inspirational talk to the conference attendees and especially the Hmong filmmakers – encouraging them to first believe in their dreams in order to achieve them.
“This is truly a wonderful and historic moment for the Hmong community, not only those in America but in other parts of world as well,” said Yang.
Born in Laos, raised in Thai refugee camps before settling in California in 1983 with his family, Yang graduated class valedictorian in 1986 and went on to earn a doctorat from Loma Linda University. He experienced a layoff from his “dream job” as psychotherapist and clinic director, when he won a series of poker tournaments that eventually led to the WSPC where he won more than $8 million.
Yang said his interest in Hmong filmmakers stems from an invitation to celebrity poker events at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. He reflected on the Hmong American filmmaking community, of how far they have come, and said he thought, “What if our Hmong people can do something like this?”
He commended the conference for its support of the filmmakers, actors and actresses and made it his goal to convince Hollywood friends from the poker circuit to accept an invitation to attend a future Hmong film festival.
Yang said that the Hmong American filmmakers and actors today are talented pioneers that producing innovative work, and expects to see performers emerge in the mainstream within the next decade or two.
“I truly am happy we actually have a Hmong film festival and a steppingstone learning experience for everybody,” said Yang. “I am taking notes and hopefully we can get together in the near future and brainstorm and share ideas and make the festival even better next year.”
Hmong filmmakers in attendance included Bryan Vue, Mong Vang, Abel Vang, Moua Lee, Kang Vang and Kao Chang and others.
Formed in 2009 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, HIFO (www.hmonghifo.org) now has a Fresno address but it a national and international network organization Web site.
The founding members state that HIFO’s goal is to provide technical assistance and support to improve the quality of Hmong films, along with marketing and distribution in domestic and international markets.
The HIFO directors present said that since the 1980s the Hmong film industry has produced more films per capita that any other immigrant group in the United States outside of Bollywood. This popularity is expected to grow as the young population grows with an appetite for bicultural entertainment that is relevant to their lives.
The earliest films were narratives produced on VHS with no budgets for a Hmong speaking audience. Yet, the films inspired their youngest audience with what they called clever dialogue and good story lines. As Hmong began to return to Thailand they found an opportunity to meet the demand for films made they began to have a marketable appeal.
The overseas trend continues to this day with a stronger interest in films about Hmong in China and the Disapora around the world. It is also possible to shoot a film in five weeks overseas for about one-third the cost of a U.S. production.
Until HIFO there was no structure to the Hmong film industry and they want to address shared interests of illegal copying and selling of their films – which is widespread – especially overseas they said. That hurts when the filmmakers don’t make back a $20,000 personal investment and yet they are often reminded how popular the films are and that they are selling.
HIFO is a voice on this and other issues to policymakers and challenges the filmmakers to improve the Hmong filmmaking industry together. The filmmakers said they feel a responsibility to improve storylines and film quality and that HIFO offers funding and training.
“It is still lacking, but we are on the right path and there has been much progress in over two decades of making films,” said Bryan Vue, emcee and local Hmong film producer, writer, director and editor who founded Bird’s-Eye Vue Films in 2007.
Vue grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the late martial arts film icon Bruce Lee was his only boyhood Asian screen role model. He started making films at age 14 and it remained a close passion even after earning a master’s degree in psychology and working for 16 years as a social worker at the Wilder Foundation.
His experience working with the Hmong community of Minnesota where the median age is age 16, led Vue to think of films as a way to relate the intangibles of Hmong American life that viewers will identify with and find meaning with their own lives.
On guest said they appreciated that the films are available at the markets, as an alternative to the blockbusters with stars and stories that don’t relate to their lives.
Vue said the progression of Hmong films in recent years is shown online, via YouTube and other video sites where the relevance and quality of films now shot in High Definition and with strong performances.
“There is still plenty of room to improve,” he added.
Moua Lee spoke of his childhood in the refugee camps, where missionaries would screen cowboy movies to bring more people to the church. He said he relates to youth with an interest in film when they are often discouraged by parents of pursuing such a “risky” passion as a profession.
Lee, like many fellow Hmong filmmakers, said he it was a hobby that eventually took more time and dedication as he improved. He described it as a visual art form capable of telling stories of culture that serves as a powerful tool to move and influence people.
He said first generation Hmong films are often based on ancient stories from the oral tradition or the experience of new generations. He said they are improving with the use of new, affordable digital technologies that make it possible to produce better films than ever before.
“We are in the infancy stage,” he added. “We have a strong vision and strong ideas.”
The filmmakers spoke about filming on location in Thailand. It was not as much preferable for filming as it was a necessity to make a quality film on a $5,000 budget. They enjoy the Thailand experience said Minnesota is preferable if affordable to filming from the back of a truck in remote mountain areas.
Christopher Grap, director of Production Services for the MN Film Board (mnfilmtv.org) was present with Rebecca Collins, Communications coordinator, were present to make their organization known to the filmmakers. They said the goal is to attract more filmmakers to Minnesota.
They said the MN Film Board serves as a support bridge to the industry to identify professionals, locations and other resources.
“It’s great to see this film festival to get off the ground and we encourage Hmong filmmakers to get to other film festivals in the Twin Cities,” said Collins.
The Hmong filmmakers encouraged young people to volunteer to be part of filmmaking process. They may find it to be a lot of lifting and bad working hours in all weather conditions, but that is what its all about, they added, and that they would appreciate the work once they see the result on the big screen.